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Local artist looks beyond nature’s outer beauty

Alisha Self, Of the Record staff

Susan Swartz paints landscapes dappled with vibrant colors, aspens of the changing seasons, and waters ranging from a tranquil, lily-studded pond to the mirrored splendor of the ocean.

Like many environmental artists, she focuses on nature in its pristine state and the beauty it confers. What makes her story different is that the very subject she paints has almost killed her. Twice.

Ten years ago, Swartz who lives and works part-time in Park City was diagnosed with mercury poisoning. Doctors told her that the most probable culprit was eating fish from America’s contaminated waters. "I was a big sushi eater and I ate a lot of fish because I thought I was being healthy," she says.

Six years later, she was struck by another environmentally bred illness: Lyme disease. This time, she was told she likely contracted the ailment from a mosquito bite. Its symptoms were coupled with the lingering effects from mercury poising.

"It was a double whammy," she says. She recalls a time when she was too sick to paint and would lie on the floor in her studio, praying for the strength to get up and keep working. "I came this close to dying," she says. "It was my painting that got me through. That was the thing that kept me going."

This week, Swartz debuted a solo exhibition at the Springville Museum of Art, which will be on display through Feb. 2. Today, Jan. 9, an artist’s reception will be held at the museum from 2 to 4 p.m.

The exhibit, entitled "Natural Revelations," is a continuation of the work Swartz exhibited at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 2008. It includes a variety of new pieces as well as a few of the pieces she created as an official artist for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Since combating her illnesses, Swartz says she has found new purpose in her life. "I am really painting from a deeper place in my soul trying to make people aware of what can happen if we don’t take care of the environment," she says.

In recent years, Swartz has worked with Robert Kennedy, Jr., another victim of mercury poisoning, and fellow environmentalist Jane Goodall.

Swartz also assisted in the production of two films: she executive produced "Under Our Skin," a documentary about Lyme disease, and she produced "Mercury Rising," a short documentary about the dangers of mercury contamination that has been included as a bonus feature with the award-winning film "The Cove." Both films have made the shortlist for the Academy Awards, from which the Oscar nominees will be chosen.

Besides igniting a passion for awareness, Swartz’s ordeals have inspired a change in her artwork. "While my illnesses have wreaked tremendous havoc on body and spirit it has also inspired and shaken me out of my comfort level as an artist," she says. "I feel that the art I am now creating is perhaps more impassioned more profound more achingly full of desire than anything I have created in the past."

Her latest paintings feature bolder brush strokes and brighter colors than her past work. She says she was drawn to cheerful shades of paint while she was sick, but didn’t realize what she was doing until later. "I think I’m going through my abstract impressionism phase," she says.

Swartz still experiences symptoms from both illnesses and says it affects how she lives on a daily basis. However, she also recognizes the good that has come from her experiences. "I had to fight my illness and I came back a stronger person," she says.

Becoming a survivor has inspired her to reach out to others and to promote education and research on environmental diseases. "If people become aware, you see that it has meaning," she says.

The day her exhibit ends at the Springville Museum of Art coincides with the day that the Oscar nominations will be announced. Swartz has high hopes for the documentaries and plans to continue to work to teach others, both with her stories and with her paintbrush.

For more information about Swartz and her artwork, visit http://www.susanswartz.com . Her paintings are available locally at Phoenix Gallery, 508 Main Street in Park City. For details about the films, visit http://www.underourskindvd.com or http://www.gotmercury.org .


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