Artist pays tribute to ‘crocodile hunter’ at Strathmore

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006


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Photo courtesy of the artist
Remembering Steve: Kensington artist Jason Swain, a native of Australia, works on his portrait of naturalist Steve Irwin. The 5 by 4 foot painting will hang in the Mansion at Strathmore until Dec. 22, when it will be shipped to Australia and presented to Irwin’s widow Terri.

Jason Swain had been surfing when he heard the shocking news.

‘‘Hurricane Ernesto was coming through,” recalls the Kensington landscaper. ‘‘We decided to pack up and head for the Outer Banks, surf the hurricane waves in Kill Devil Hills.”

But Swain, a native of Australia’s Sunshine Coast, got the message soon enough: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin had died, stung by a stingray while filming near the Great Barrier Reef.

‘‘It was a shock all right,” says Swain. ‘‘He was a superhero; he’s a legend back there.

‘‘Like Superman, he was indestructible.”

Swain says he never actually met Irwin, although his brother-in-law works at the Australia Zoo, which Irwin’s father founded. He remembers that before Irwin dedicated his life to the zoo and its conservation projects, ‘‘it was just a little shack on the highway.”

The Aussie, like Irving’s fans around the world, struggled with his grief and disbelief at the Croc Hunter’s passing.

‘‘I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” remembers Swain. ‘‘So I put these murals on the side of the van.”

Because when he’s not running a successful landscaping company — or running down to the beach with his board – Swain is a portrait artist. He took up painting 10 years ago, inspired by Australian artist Robert Hagan, and switched pretty quickly from landscapes to portraits.

‘‘I’m the poster child for ADD,” he laughs. ‘‘I find it hard to concentrate on something for a long time.

‘‘Portraits are pretty tough work,” he adds. ‘‘People say you have to have talent to do it: I don’t see it as talent, I see it as persistence and repetition.”

Best known for his likenesses of of President Bill Clinton and his dog Buddy and the late Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, Swain was gratified when the moving murals on his van received attention.

Now, though, he has created a more permanent memorial: a huge painting of the Crocodile Hunter that’s on view in the Mansion at Strathmore and will be shipped to Australia and presented to Irwin’s widow. Its final destination: Australia Zoo in Beerwah, Queensland, just down the road from the town of Kawana Waters, where the artist grew up.

‘‘It’s sort of a personal one,” says Swain, who usually paints in a backyard shed he calls the billabong. ‘‘It was a tough painting, but I knew it was going to be something special.”

So special he moved the project into his home when the billabong proved too small for the oversized canvas. The painting depicts Irwin ‘‘holding this big lizard — you could tell he was enjoying every minute of it.”

Painting the wrinkly lizard was tough, Swain says, but capturing Irwin was easier.

‘‘It was like he was there in the room with me.”

Jason Swain’s portrait of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin will be on display until Dec. 22 the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda through Dec. 22 Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Call 301-581-5200 or visit www.strathmore.org.