Nancy Switzer

Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna, oil, 18 x 36. painting, southwest art.
Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna Tuna, oil, 18 x 36.

By Joey Porcelli

When Denver artist Nancy Switzer answers the door of her Victorian home, it’s easy to imagine her as a professional musician. The statuesque redhead once performed as a classical violinist on the concert stage. These days she expresses herself with paint instead of with the violin, but her work still resonates with rhythm, tone, and texture. “I’m a passionate person,” Switzer says, “but I’m an introvert. So if I’m passionate about something, I’m not going to show it to anybody. They’ll have to get it out of my paintings.”

Half & Half, oil, 14 x 11. painting, southwest art.
Half & Half, oil, 14 x 11.

Switzer’s subjects are simple, everyday objects—for example, a series of silver spoons standing erect like soldiers at attention. And then there are the fish. She loves the fish. “Have you ever looked at a fish? They’re incredible,” she says. Equally incredible is how Switzer turns these ordinary objects into compelling works of art.

It hasn’t always been this way. Switzer’s early work consisted of traditional still lifes along with interiors and scenes that included people. After some introspection, though, she began to question herself. “Visually, there wasn’t really a reason for me to put all those elements in to say what I wanted with paint, so I started eliminating things,”  she says. “I went from a very representational, slice-of-life style of painting to paring my work down to a more austere grouping of repetitive shapes. This lent itself to playing with the paint, which is why I’m doing it, I suppose.”

Switzer’s transformation also evolved from a conversation she had with her husband, well-known painter Quang Ho. “I was talking to Quang and I said, ‘I just don’t want to paint this stuff any more. You know what I’d really like to paint? I’d like to line up these four spoons and paint them, just something simple like that.’ He said, ‘Well, I dare you!’”

Impasto Imposters, oil, 14 x 18. painting, southwest art.
Impasto Imposters, oil, 14 x 18.

Switzer, who finds Quang’s knowledge about painting invaluable, took the dare. “He’s a great influence on me,” she says of her husband. “We do a lot of back and forth talking about painting and art in general. Also, it’s great fun to have somebody with a good eye come in—somebody who hasn’t been watching me all day—and react to what I’m working on. It’s great to be married to someone who understands the impulse to paint.”

Quang’s challenge set up a whole range of new possibilities for Switzer. She painted the spoons and started to look for subtle differences in their shapes. Then she studied the progression of objects across the canvas and how they change in different positions. “They are a simple shape,” she says of the spoons, “but the realization of the shape is very complex because they are reflective. When you start looking at something simple like that, you start seeing more and more in it.”

Switzer’s early art education began with Captain Kang-aroo. “When Captain Kang-aroo came on TV with his crafts corner, I’d run to get the scissors and away I’d go,” she says. Her mother, Rose, a gifted amateur artist, encouraged Switzer to draw and paint by placing gifts of pastels and watercolors under the Christmas tree. “My mother still has drawings I did when I was 5,” Switzer says. “She always said I would end up being an artist because I can’t help myself. Naturally I said ‘no,’ I was going to be a violinist.”

Red Row, oil, 10 x 20. painting, southwest art.
Red Row, oil, 10 x 20.

Growing up in a musical family, Switzer joined her four siblings in the family quintet. Every Saturday the Switzer kids went to Houston from their hometown of Freeport, TX, for a set of 10 music lessons. At 15, she played violin with Virginia’s Norfolk Symphony. During her last year of high school and first year of college, Switzer attended the North Carolina School of the Arts as a music student. She later switched her major to art at Virginia Commonwealth University and received her bachelor’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design.

After graduation, though, Switzer returned to music. She says, “I decided to be a musician because I didn’t think you could earn a living as an artist. I was wrong.” In her 20s Switzer played violin with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1993 the tides turned again when she quit professional music, moved to Colorado, and made a commitment to art. “I decided I should see what this painting thing is all about,” she explains.

Switzer’s inspiration comes from several sources. “I’m continually inspired by other artists, other paintings I see,” she says. “George Bellows’ early work resonates with me, just the blood and guts of it.” She also admires Joaquin Sorolla. “I love Sorolla’s sketches, especially the small ones,” she says. “I once saw a knock-out piece at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It was a very brief sketch, but it just blew everything else away.”

Eventually Switzer moved from painting eating utensils such as spoons to the main course. Food became a new passion, and in her garden she started to grow some of her subjects—everything from eggplant to watermelon. Of food she says, “It’s juicy and the paint’s juicy. It’s evocative of that whole tactile, sensual quality.” She does admit, however, that using food as a subject presents some unusual challenges. One day, interrupted in the middle of a painting by unexpected guests, she forgot about the spotlight aimed at her models—four frozen sticks of butter. “When I went back up [to my studio] the whole thing had fallen over in a big lump,” she says with a laugh. “It was oozing out all over the place, so I had to start over.”

And, enamored as she is of painting fish, Switzer admits to experiencing a few technical difficulties. “Fish are floppy and they tend to slide, so I staple their tails to the wall. The first time I had to look away when I stapled through, but now I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me a bit.” Another fish trick she learned was to freeze the slippery subjects, which gives her a few hours of lead time before “nasty things start happening.”

Despite these practical matters, Switzer prefers her simple objects, especially because they allow her to explore color. She frequently sets up what she calls “little science experiments” to make colors interact. Some of her works incorporate vibrant hues; others are almost monochromatic. “I love painting grays and browns because they’re actually colors mixed together, muted,” Switzer says. “It’s very exciting to find all the colors that are in them, yet keep the integrity of the gray or whatever color you’re painting.”

Frequently, Switzer starts the same painting over on successive days until she works it through. If a smaller piece clicks, she finishes in one day; when dissatisfied, she scrapes the paint off and starts again. She learned such perseverance from Akira Arita, her drawing teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design. Arita, who studied at the Royal Academy in Japan, once made his students draw a crumpled piece of paper for a total of 20 hours. Switzer never forgot that lesson.

In general, Switzer likes to work life-size, but she plans to paint larger pieces in the new 20-by-30-foot studio she is currently building. Working “big” brings challenges, though. She worries about the logistics of mixing enough paint to create a large swath across the canvas, and she wonders how the details of her small sketches will transfer. “It’s like a mosquito,” she says. “When a mosquito is life-size it works fine, but blown up huge in exact proportion, it won’t fly. My question is, will my juicy sketches fly when they’re big?”

Switzer’s paintings will fly. All it will require is the same intensity she applies to the rest of her life. Whether she’s playing music for her own enjoyment, designing an elaborate vegetable garden, remodeling her grand Victorian home, or painting, Switzer’s passion prevails. Above all, she says, “I will always paint. I will always be driven to paint.”

Photos courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, CA.

Featured in March 2001