I recently had the pleasure of re-connecting with, and interviewing, artist and author Edward Swift. We worked together at Sesame Workshop (then Children’s Television Workshop) and again at Reuters. Edward moved to Mexico once he reached retirement age, with no intention of retiring. He continues to create art, teach students, and is currently working on his second memoir, My Life in Books.
MM: You’re an American expatriate living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Can you tell us a little about San Miguel, and why you chose to move there?
ES: San Miguel de Allende located in the Mexican state of Guanajuato is the cradle of Mexican Independence. The battle for Independence from Spain was hatched here, and in the towns of Dolores, and Querétaro. San Miguel was the first municipality that was liberated from Spanish rule. The battle began in 1810 and ended in 1821. San Miguel is a World Heritage Site and a travelers destination because of its historical significance as well as its beauty. The colonial district is well preserved architecturally speaking, without being scrubbed up. The town is an international art center. There are more than 50 galleries here. People come here from all over the world to buy art to study various art techniques or to study Spanish. There are many language schools. I came here for the first time in 1979 to isolate myself in order to complete another draft of Principia Martindale. At that time there was an overnight train from Nuevo Laredo.
I live on the outskirts of town in a house designed and built by a Mexican Architect, Jesús Zarate. The house is Mexican modern. Sort of like a small version of a Luis Baragán house. You can see it on Facebook Edward Swift.
MM: You’ve said you always knew you would retire to Mexico (although we need a new word for “retire” since that’s an idea whose meaning has changed). Is there any sense of separation from the United States? Are there things unique to being an ex-pat for you?
ES: First of all artists never retire. We just keep going. By retire I mean I left my job at Reuters in 2005 in order to live here permanently. Having been born in Texas I always had one foot in Mexico. I feel at home here. I know how to get things done here. The Mexicans appreciate my visual art in a way most people on the other side of the border do not. I had a gallery here for several years. The people from the US would say: “Oh, the work is so strange.” The Mexicans would say: “It is so original.” The Mexicans appreciate originality. In the US people do not seem to want to be confronted. They want the familiar. Believe me I do not mind the word strange. I do mind the way some visitors to my gallery inflected it. In class Marguerite Young used to say: “All things strange are very beautiful. All things beautiful are very strange.” That has sort of become my motto.
I wish people in the United States knew more about Mexico. They come here without knowing the first thing about the country. Many visitors from the USA don’t even know that Mexico is a Republic of 31 states and 1 Federal District. I live in the State of Guanajuato. The city of Guanajuato was once one of the richest silver mining towns in the world. The International Cervantino Festival takes place there every year. It is a 3 week festival for the performing arts. Guanajuato is also a World Heritage Site. It is astonishingly beautiful in a completely different way from San Miguel and it is only a little over an hour away.
MM: About your art: have you been an artist all your life? Also, how has your art changed over the years (have you changed mediums, has your subject matter changed focus)?
ES: One is either an artist or one is not. It is not something one becomes. It is something that one is from birth. We do not study to be artists. We study to become more proficient. To understand more. To develop our technique. We do not study to become an artist. I started out drawing and painting from an early age and just kept going, and studying and experimenting. I’ve worked in clay, watercolor, oil, wood, paper mache, you name it. I am best known for the paper mache figures. I am extremely prolific and I work in series. I often repeat a series but I always add something to it. Now I primarily work in paper mache over armatures of wood and wire. You can see some of the work on Facebook Edward Swift. Remember to click “Show All.”
MM: Is it less of a challenge to support yourself with your art there? What’s the reality for you in Mexico – and is it different than it would be in, say, New York?
ES: I have never supported myself with my visual art or my books. I have always had a job. I retired from Reuters at the age of 62. I came here with enough money to build a house and with a modest savings. I live frugally. I do not think of art as a business. I have never really cared if anyone reads me or not, or buys my art or not. In fact I am becoming more and more particular as to the kind of person I sell to. I suppose it is because I’ve had to rescue too many of my works from yard sales and flea markets. Also I want to make a provision for a body of best work. I’m still trying to figure out the details of accomplishing this.
MM: About your writing! Your most recent book, published last year from Ravenhill Press (available on Amazon), is “The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint.” Can you tell us a little about it?
ES: The Daughter is based on a slim idea that my cousin Dana gave me in 1979 when we were spending the summer here in San Miguel. I have worked on the book off and on for lo these many years. It is a novel about revenge. It is also about revolution, poetry, love, and tapestries that can be read. The language of the threads. The Mayas were able to weave their language onto their clothing. This woven language still exists to some extent. Exactly how much could be said in the threads is debatable. In my novel I give the old Indian weaver the power to weave anything she can say….and she has a lot to say. Although the daughter wipes out an entire family, she is not a bad person. I would have done the same under those circumstances.
MM: You’re working on a second memoir. Is it a follow up to your first, ‘My Grandfather’s Finger’, or completely different?
ES: It is called ‘My Life in Books’ and it’s about working with extraordinary people at Brentano’s, and Scribner Bookstores in NYC. In this memoir I also revisit Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. It is about people who found their way into my books, or who should be in a book, somebody’s book. Maybe their own. It’s also about the books that have been of great influence to me in my work. I will revisit Texas briefly in the book because there were things I could not say at the time I wrote My Grandfather’s Finger and now I can say them. Also, I want to write about living at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos New Mexico. The late director, Dr. Henry Sauerwein was a great friend of mine. A mentor. A brilliant man and a unique character.
The four places of great importance to me in my life’s work are: The Big Thicket, Taos, San Miguel and New York.
MM: We just had a seismic election in the United States, resulting in the reelection of President Obama. Do you observe this stuff from Mexico, and does it matter to you? What is it like in a community of expatriates to watch these things from afar (if you watch them at all)?
ES: When I left the US I pretty much left US politics behind. I don’t keep up with that sort of thing, not really. I’m a Yellow Dog Democrat, very, very yellow, and as far to the left as I can get. I vote but I do not stay glued to the radio or TV like some of my friends who live and breathe the election returns. I make art. I write. That is my focus. As far as the US….well, the US is in trouble. No matter who is the President the government wants war, war and more war. War is a revenue generator, and besides that we’re conditioned to war through war itself as well as through combative sports and guns, hunting. Every time we kill something for the sport of it we lose a piece of our humanity. Why is that so difficult to understand? The US doesn’t seem to be smart enough to realize that there are means of defense without going to war. The emphasis on money and defense has left the nation devoid of spirit. Nations rise to greatness and they fall. Why do we think it cannot happen to us?