Artist carves new look for old trees
Mar. 9, 2005
K Kaufmann
Staff Writer

J. Adam Fenster/The Gazette

Kensington artist Jason Swain sits atop the tree trunk he turned into a totem pole in his front yard on Ferndale Street. The Australian-born painter said he drew on Aboriginal culture for the faces.

Jason Swain said carving Aboriginal faces on a tree trunk in his Kensington front yard was a "spur of the moment decision" -- no pun intended.

The Australian-born artist and a friend spent a day last December cutting down the 70-foot silver maple because its roots were spreading under his driveway. When they got down to the trunk, he remembered thinking, "I had to pull the stump out or make a sculpture."

He took chainsaw in hand and went for the sculpture he said, because "I hate to waste good wood."

The result -- a nine-foot high tree trunk sprouting three totemic faces painted in earthy reds and yellows and black -- has made Swain's home at 3002 Ferndale St. a neighborhood landmark.

Bob Hillman, who lives down the street, likens the sculpture to other local oddities, like the "mushroom house" on Allan Road in Glen Echo. "Ferndale has the totem pole," he said.

For Swain, carving the trunk was the latest outlet for a restless creative energy that already has him mixing careers as a landscaper, oil painter and cable television host.

Swain, 37, was born on Australia's Sunshine Coast, a popular resort area. He studied horticulture and landscaping in high school, he said, and learned whittling from his grandfather.

"I was always interested in wood," he said. "If you'd see an odd bit of wood, you'd take it home and whittle it."

He came to Kensington in 1992 after five years of a long-distance romance with his wife, Annette, 40, who has lived in Kensington for 29 years. The couple met in Hawaii in 1987 and married shortly after Swain's arrival.

His first creative venture, a landscaping business called Aussie Lawn and Garden, soon became well known in the area for its distinctive trademark -- a kangaroo holding a beer can. Then in 1996, a chance meeting with another Australian artist in San Diego led to a second career in oil painting.

Swain described his first paintings as "terrible," but he said, "you see something in each painting that keeps you going to the next."

A paint-encrusted palette in Swain's backyard studio stands as a small monument to his persistence. Columns of dried oil paint -- daubs of red, blue and yellow, mixed in varying combinations -- rise up, leaning precariously toward each other on one side, while the other half of the board is empty. He has just started working on the empty side, he said.

His animal portraits -- cats, dogs and horses -- have produced a steady stream of commissions, which in turn led to portraits of children and families. He works from photographs of his subjects, creating pictures with the immediacy of a snapshot, but rich with detail.

His most famous subject to date was former President Bill Clinton. A friend of the president's commissioned Swain to paint a picture of Clinton with his dog Buddy, a chocolate-colored Labrador. Swain said the portrait was delivered to the president the same day in January 2002 that Buddy was hit by a car and killed. Clinton wrote a personal note of thanks to him.

His work has also won awards at the Montgomery County Fair, including one Best-in-Show ribbon in 2000.

For the tree trunk, Swain drew on the Aboriginal culture he grew up with in Australia.

"We did outback trips when I was young," he said. "You see a lot of art work out there; it's everywhere."

The faces were mostly inspired, he said "by face paint the Aborigines used to wear, different faces for different occasions."

He carved the two faces at the top of the trunk first, one looking down Ferndale and the other looking up. He added a third, he said, when neighbors across the street started lobbying for a face turned their way.

Swain said he thinks people feel "protected" by the faces, and he will be adding one more, looking in at his own house, in the spring. He is also planning a rock garden to surround the tree.

Other projects include finishing the portrait of Oprah Winfrey he has on his easel -- he's going to send it to the popular talk-show host and actress -- and hosting his own cable television show, "Living with Animals." Swain describes the show as a kind of small-scale "Wild Kingdom," featuring animals wild and domestic. It airs at 7 p.m. Tuesdays on cable channel 16, he said.

And with the spring landscaping season about to begin, Swain is uncertain when he will have time to finish the tree. Hillman thinks it is fine the way it is. It has made life on Ferndale a bit more fun, he said.

"It's definitely different," he said, standing across the street from Swain's house. "Everything is status quo, and then you see something else."