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Coralie Swaney’s ‘Laughing Matters’ at the Gumboot Café is a tonic for the winter blues

'I don’t think that including humour necessarily robs art of its substance': Coralie Swaney's new collection, filled with irrepressible buoyancy, is on display at the Roberts Creek café until Feb. 28
Coralie Swaney at work among her paintings and miniatures in her Smiling Seagull Studio.

If laughter is good medicine, then Coralie Swaney’s new collection of artwork featured at the Gumboot Café in Roberts Creek is tonic for the winter doldrums. 

The New Zealand-born painter and sculptor titled the show “Laughing Matters” and is firm that the pun was pointedly intended. Humour is serious business for Swaney, even if it gets short shrift in professional art circles. 

“I’ve come to accept the fact that my style of art tends to be lighthearted,” she said. “I sort of struggled with it for a while and then realized that, hey, wait a minute, this is what’s authentic to me. And I don’t think that including humour necessarily robs art of its substance.” 

Swaney’s paintings invite close inspection, rewarding viewers who recognize the characters that inhabit her nuanced settings. In The Waiting Room, Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven and Mexican portraitist Frida Kahloe queue outside a medical clinic specializing in complaints of the ear, nose and throat. One of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpieces gets a simian makeover: Swaney’s Selfie With a Pearl Earring shows the subject literally aping for a phone camera. 

In other paintings, and throughout her series of sculpted characters, original personas are entirely invented by Swaney. Each one’s existence is preceded by a detailed biography concocted by the artist. 

“Every character has to have its own story and the story is integral to the artwork,” Swaney said. “The narrative runs pretty deep through it. What I want to do is invite the viewer to engage in the narrative, and maybe add their own story to it. I love that when that happens.” 

Swaney paints primarily in acrylics, and shapes polymer clay and painted wood into freestanding figurines that can be as tall as 60 cm. She has simplified her original modelling process, which originally took up to six weeks to build a character with fabric costuming around a wire armature.  

She delights most in painting the sculpted faces, whose typically jowly aspects are stretched into winsome grins. Impish senior citizens dominate her miniature lineup. A cardigan-wearing granny, guffawing atop a sidewalk vent, struggles to subdue her skirts like Marilyn Monroe. An elder faun, his hoary head garlanded in green leaves, puckers up to puff into his pan pipes. Characters exude merriment in spite of their flabby skin and drooping body parts, or perhaps because of them. 

One of the latest works in the Gumboot Café exhibition is a fictional family tree. Its portraits are sculpted in three dimensions and arrayed on the wall to depict genealogical linkages. The imagined paterfamilias is a charismatic businessman and philanderer born in 1850 whose fame and foibles are traced through successive generations. 

Family itself plays a significant role in Swaney’s artistic development. Although she did not pursue formal art education before moving to the Coast in 1988, her facility with creativity “has just always been there,” she said. “I come from a long line of artists, a kind of family dynasty.”  

When her son — now a professional artist living in Barcelona — enrolled in art school, she watched him at work, peppering him with questions. “He passed along his knowledge and eventually I developed my own style,” she said. 

Swaney’s body of work has grown to include more sober-minded animal studies. In her Watchers series, stern-eyed birds pose alongside their carved appearances in West Coast totem poles. The Gumboot display includes her renditions of charismatic rescue dogs.  

“I kind of have my cake and eat it too,” Swaney said. “I love taking those risks, pushing the envelope in terms of what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense — and yet still does, somehow.” 

Laughing Matters remains on display at the Gumboot Café in Roberts Creek until Feb. 28.