The Self-Taught Path to Perfection

Jan Swanson says she strives for perfection.
Portrait by Lauren Rutten

Jan Swanson of Weaverville has painted for more than 20 years and has received numerous awards for her work. She’s also taken lots of drawing and painting classes, at institutions including University of South Carolina and Columbia College, Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts in Gatlinburg, and, in North Carolina, Penland School of Craft near Burnsville. 

And yet, on her website, Swanson calls herself self-taught. Her creativity just doesn’t like to follow the rules.

Buddle Boy

“After all this time, my methods remain completely unorthodox,” she insists. “I don’t know how to do it any other way. I just try to express myself as best I can.”

That’s not to say her approach is casual. “For me, painting is a lot of work — putting myself into a painting and then putting it out there into the world … I put my whole self into everything and strive for perfection,” she says. “People may see a painting and say it’s done, but to me it’s not done until I really like it, which can take weeks and weeks since I want everything to be just so.”

Uphill Battle

She explains her process: “I often start by making marks kind of erratically, and build up a bunch of paint and layers of collage — usually on birch-wood panels. I like boards so that I can sand the daylights out of my paintings. I might do the whole painting, and then sand it all off. But I don’t mind; I like building up layers, sanding, and building up more layers. In some cases maybe I’m excavating paint or trying to uncover something about myself that I’m unsure of or want to know. 

“Many times what I start with doesn’t look remotely like what I end up with. But the layers that develop appeal to me. … I honestly couldn’t tell you where it comes from or why I do it.”

Stymied Woman

But Swanson actually derives a great deal of inspiration from life, including things she remembers seeing and experiencing in childhood. Her father ran a furniture store, and when Swanson first began painting, she recalled fabrics with patterns and colors that had fascinated her growing up.

Not My Bag

“Sometimes furniture or chandeliers show up in my paintings, and one thing I collage into them is my relatives’ schoolwork from the 1920s that I found in my great-grandparents’ house” — where Swanson, an Asheville native, now lives.


She works primarily with acrylic and collage, explaining, “I used to do oil paint, but it made my nose itch.” Her mixed-media panels convey a disarming sense of humor, which she says she also got from her dad. 

“I can’t do anything without humor.”

Jan Swanson, Weaverville, studio at Capitola Mill, 177 Baileys Branch Road, Marshall,,, and on Instagram @janswansonart. Swanson’s work is represented locally by Wood Berry Gallery (60 South Main St., Saluda, She is also represented by Camellia Art in Bluffton and Hilton Head, SC.

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