Most artists seem to be wired in one of two ways. Either they are quiet and brooding, using their form of art as a direct expression of how they feel inside, or they are bubbly and outgoing, with their art mimicking that persona and allowing them to find inspiration in the world around them. Hattiesburg artist Sway has managed to do both, taking the inner expression from the former and mixing it with the outgoing persona and worldly inspiration of the latter.
After sitting down with the painter at a coffeeshop, I was able to get an easy feel on who she is as both an artist and a person. The first snippet of personality she showed was warm, radiating with a bright smile and gentle eyes that made you feel as if you had known her for years. She struck up a conversation, and I was able to see the many facets that go into her elaborate pieces of work.
Her interest in art began at a young age, starting with pencil drawings and other doodles.
“I’ve been doing art my entire life,” Sway said. “When I got in high school, my art instructor was like, ‘You should try painting.’ I didn’t necessarily like it because I had been drawing my whole life, and it’s so different.”
She compared the complex differences between pencil lines and brush strokes and elaborated on her difficulty transitioning between the two. She despised the new type of art and found it more trouble than it was worth. After doing her first solo painted piece, an “ugly little flower” according to her, Sway got a piece of advice from her instructor that managed to stick with her after all these years. The instructor said, “A paintbrush is not a pencil, don’t treat it that way.”
That lesson was something that inspired Sway to continue on with her art and moved her to try more elaborate pieces, such as a portrait of Barack Obama during his campaign for the Presidency in 2008, which turned out to look similar to the then Senator. She found it so inspiring that she could not drop her brush, and considers this moment a turning point in her artistic career.
Her zone is somewhere she describes as “a place no one else can touch.”
She doesn’t feel or see anything else and constantly surprises herself with what comes out of her during that time.
She uses subjective colors in her pieces, non-realistic colors. Her process begins with just the five primary colors (red, blue, yellow, black and white) that she then mixes and matches as she goes to form her art pieces. This type of technique allows her pieces to remain unique, surprising even herself by the outcome.
“I mix as I go,” Sway said. “That way I can’t expect how it’s going to turn out. It makes every piece new, interesting and original.”
After she left high school and did a small stint in college as a dentistry student — let’s be real, she did more doodling than anything — she maintained her artistry throughout and experimented with only black and white pieces. She felt that this technique was able to teach her more about color and broadened her artistic horizons.
“Black and white is only values,” Sway said. “If you don’t understand values, you can’t understand colors.”
After figuring out she had no interest in a career in dentistry, in the form of a mini-breakdown, Sway pursued her biggest passion by majoring in art at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Art school allowed Sway to mature as an artist, expanding her skill set and technical abilities. She worked on landscapes throughout this time, but, after graduating, she picked back up on figures, what she finds to be her best work. Now she paints decorated portraits of people in their most beautiful form — simple pieces that elaborate on the strengths of the characters.
One word to describe Sway’s art is cultured. The eccentric pieces parallel her life as a hardworking, well-educated woman of color. Her artwork usually depicts other people of color, mostly women, in a pro-black nature. They show these characters, the people in her pieces, as strong and independent, ready to conquer the world. The Afrocentric paintings could easily be described as race-positive artworks that portray the best parts of a culture so regularly stereotyped in a negative fashion.
“I am very pro-black,” Sway said. “Not because I am anti-white, but because I am very pro-black, and I feel like there are a lot of things that need to be spoken about.”
She went on to discuss how she got started in making ‘black art.’ She refrains from using social media for any type of hot-topic opinion, limiting her feelings toward the gruesome things happening in her life and in her country by putting those feelings in her artwork.
“I started making black art originally because that was something that would sell to the people that I knew,” Sway said. “Then as I started to grow older and understand the things of the world, I started to want to speak through my pieces. I don’t have to say the things that I feel when I can visually say them.”
She finds passion in her work because she does not paint for a paycheck. Instead she paints for the love of painting and the love of expression. Her inspirations come from many different places — from nature pages on Instagram to seeing another artist’s work in person.
She’s currently beginning the planning for her next piece and gave DIME the inside preview.
“You know when the TV goes blank and the big color strips show? I’m thinking I’m going to do an entire collection of really big bold backgrounds, colored, and have different images of African-American women emerging from those backgrounds, and I’m going to call the collection Colored,” Sway said. “It’s making you think by catching your attention in multiple ways and still making a statement.”
As a self-described free spirit, Sway has plans for moving on to bigger places and finding more inspiration in her surroundings. She does not feel at ease with staying in one place too long, but rather feels more comfortable when she moves to a new place, conquers it and moves on. Her main goal upon moving to Hattiesburg was to make a name for herself as an artist, and she has done just that.
“I think it’s time to spread my wings and go somewhere and build my name again.”