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James Swainson (1967-2023) was an American artist active in San Francisco and New York City before retreating into obscurity in the Pacific Northwest towards the end of his life. Though a graduate of Parsons School of Design (BFA Painting, 2001), he would always consider his work to be “outsider art” due to the nature of his social anxieties. As with many of his art heroes, James was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been plagued with suicidal ideation from an early age. Although he had regularly spent time in mental institutions and drug rehab, he feared prolonged medication would kill his creativity.


Still in high school and with skateboard in tow, he traveled from his home in Anchorage, Alaska all the way down to Austin, Texas following punk rock bands like Scratch Acid and The Butthole Surfers. He eventually landed in San Francisco’s Mission, where he spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There, he was inspired by the neighborhood artists like Barry McGee and Chris Johansen, whose work crossed heavily into skateboarding culture and implied that anyone could do it. He began prolifically drawing and experimented with oil pastels detailing working class street scenes.



In his late 20s, he was coaxed into applying to Parsons which brought new depth to his work, but also extraordinary confusion about keeping it close to home.  James produced dark and gritty work. Even his most colorful and seemingly happy images are pockmarked with deep undertones of duress. Common themes (many NSFW) were westerns, circus clowns, vaginas, German soldiers, scenes from the city streets, and hundreds of self-portraits in various forms – man, woman, beast, angel, devil. His paintings were full of layers and texture, and had an unfinished quality about them. Many of his most powerful works are smaller drawings and collages that have never been shown until now.


James’s mental health and inability to talk about his art prevented him from sharing it with a wider audience and gaining greater recognition during his lifetime. Since his passing, we have the opportunity to grant one of his final wishes: to share his body of work with the world in a way that he could not do while he was alive.

The pieces on this website are a small sampling of the Swainson art estate. We are working to catalog all works and will be crowdfunding to produce a more complete collection.

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