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Murals for the Masses

Standing on a ladder with a can of spray paint in hand, SUNY Potsdam Professor Amy Swartele uses the side of a building as her canvas. She wears a mask, not because of COVID-19, but rather to protect herself from the paint fumes wafting off the wall as she creates a colorful menagerie of unusual, blob-shaped creatures with human eyes—reminiscent of a scene from "Monsters Inc."

The stunning graffiti project is now complete, and on display in downtown Potsdam on the side of the Potsdam Tile Company building. “All of the creatures are sort of hybrids of humans and animals. I find that often if you combine the strange with the cute or the charming, people are willing to approach it,” she said.

“An underlying theme in all of my work is that differences shouldn’t be considered frightening. I’m trying to essentially revalue the ‘other’—those things that we consider different, strange and therefore, societally speaking, often valueless or less important.”

Swartele, who has been a professor in the Department of Art for the past 20 years, has historically focused on oil and mixed media painting, but now she’s branching out. In an effort to develop the curriculum for a new mural class—that she plans to offer in the fall of 2021—she has focused on her own professional development and expanding the scope of her work.

She recently received a Lougheed Applied Learning Grant for $2,000 to support her work. The grant allowed her to purchase spray paint, latex paint, brushes, ladders, and scaffolding. “Materials cost money, especially when you’re trying new procedures and methodologies. This is part of what I got the grant to do, essentially develop the research and develop my own expertise so that I can teach that class more effectively,” she said.

Swartele also lined up a grant through the Research and Creative Endeavors Program at SUNY Potsdam. The grant will provide her with additional funding during her sabbatical this coming academic year as she continues to develop the curriculum for the new class. In addition to painting large scale murals, students in her course will also be introduced to practical business skills, and learn how to apply for public art jobs. She also hopes the class will usher in a new age of artistic expression and creativity in downtown Potsdam, and that the class will establish a reoccurring collection of murals both on and off campus.

Plans are in the works for students in Swartele’s first mural class to collaborate with the St. Lawrence County Arts Council to paint the walls of a new North Country Arts Center—a proposed $1.6 million project that would move forward with backing from the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The class will be part of a greater mission “to make Potsdam a center for street art outside of New York City,” she stated.

The completed mural. photos submitted by Swartele.

Swartele is no stranger to cultural centers. Her time in Montreal, and seeing world-class graffiti throughout the city, inspired her to pursue this new project. But, her connection to other cultures dates back to her youth. A Belgian citizen, she lived in five countries before her 18th birthday. Her experiences traveling around the globe have helped to inspire her art projects and the exploration of themes focused on making strange or unfamiliar subjects more accessible.

Swartele moved to the U.S. in 1989 to attend Wesleyan University, and then went on to get her of Master of Fine Art degree in painting at SUNY Buffalo. After grad school she moved to France and spent a few months producing a series of paintings for Bongrain (now Savencia Fromage & Dairy). “Because they were a big international company, they really wanted paintings that dealt more with international issues and the scope of the world. That fed into some of my interests in terms of valuing things that are different from you—an on-going thread through lots of different bodies of my work,” Swartele said. After being commissioned for the corporate work in France, she returned to the U.S. and went on to teach in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Ohio, before landing a tenure track position at SUNY Potsdam in 2000.

For the past two decades she has inspired her students to excel in the studio. Now she will do the same for her students as they embark on a new adventure of creativity in the streets.

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Article and photos by Jason Hunter