Thirty-year-old Julianna Swaney has an old soul. Perhaps, even, a timeless one. "I've always been interested in fairy tales and folk tales," she says. The Portland, Oregon-based artist doesn't point to a specific author or time period, though. Swaney prefers the dateless, anonymous stories that have woven their way into the cultural consciousness. The featured cover piece Babes in the Wood—which looks like the Brothers Grimm and Tim Burton teamed up to create a version of American Gothic—was inspired by an old folk song of the same title. The lyrics tell of two children who get lost in the woods, die, and are covered with leaves by two birds. "It's kind of a spooky story, and kind of sad," Swaney says. "I think that's what I like in a fairy tale."
Swaney's sketch/watercolor pieces (she draws first in pencil and then fills in with watercolor paint) are wistfully sad. The delicate drawings are set against starkly minimal landscapes, and filled in with monotone color palates of muted browns and greys. But Swaney chooses not to take the Babes in the Wood tale to its tragic end—she catches it in medias res. "I've never been interested in the ends of [fairytales]," she says. "I always like the part where the main characters are wandering around lost in the woods and strange things happen to them. That's where I find the magic in the stories."
Characters are central in Swaney's work, with the majority of her sketch-paintings depicting people and animals, often interacting with one another. "Animals are wild and unpredictable things—you don't know how they're going to act," she says. "The people are often really quiet and refined looking, and they're often being confronted by wild animals. You're not really sure how the situation is going to go, how they're going to be changed." This theme, Swaney admits, is almost an obsession in her work.
Swaney's interest in drawing animals has resulted in some interesting side work. In addition to selling her prints online and doing private commissions, Swaney designs logos and wedding invitations. "I get requests from people who want to have themselves represented as animals," she says, adding that some also want their pets with them on the card. Currently, Swaney has more illustration projects than ever, and she worries it's taking a toll on her art. But, in the spirit of her characters, who serendipitously meet, interact, and change one another, Swaney realizes the wonderful reciprocal arrangement of the work. "People ask me to do things I've never done before," she says. "It helps to push myself and draw something I think I couldn't have done. Then I can use it later."
Julianna Swaney's work is part of the group show "Fireside Fables," which is up at Roos Arts in Rosendale until February 9. Roosarts.com.