May 27, 2010
Johnny Swing lives on a farm in Vermont with his wife, two kids, and several animals, including goats and cows. Despite his love of animals and the rural lifestyle, he’s never aspired to be a farmer. “Farming is just moving stuff around, and I like seeing something being made,” he says.
So that’s what he does-he’s a trained sculptor and licensed welder and combines those skills in his art. He’s been a professional artist for more than 25 years but a working artist long before. At age 5, he set up a “toll booth” at his parents’ dinner parties; guests had to purchase a drawing (a Johnny Swing original) before passing through the hallway.
Not only was he incredibly resourceful at such a young age, he never saw limits on artistic expression. As a child, he loved taking things apart and anything that he was capable of dismantling could certainly be put back together in a more interesting way.
A few decades later Swing does the same thing. He’s still resourceful, using ordinary items as materials for his work. And he puts these ordinary things together in more interesting ways. It’s repurposing at its best. He says he likes to “take a worthless thing and make it beautiful.” In discarded baby food jars, he sees chairs or chandeliers. A wheelbarrow is easily fashioned into a table. Nickels compose a couch. Dollar bills become the fabric for a teddy bear or a pillow.
Few artists head to the bank for supplies. But Swing does. The bulk of his work, and what he’s perhaps best known for, is his coin constructions. He has used pennies, nickels, quarters and half dollars to create a variety of shimmering shapes.
When he began using coins, Swing says it wasn’t simply about money as a material-”it was about taking what was a useless piece of money and kind of making it special again.” With this idea in mind he constructed his first piece out of pennies. What many consider America’s most disposable piece of coinage suited his purpose perfectly. Swing was happy with his first piece, which he modeled after a Bertoli chair, but using the pennies became a problem. After 1981 pennies were made with zinc, which caused them to disintegrate when welded together. Finding thousands of pennies dating before Reagan took office made an already labor-intensive process even more of a chore.
So he moved on to nickels. He’s now created 20 nickel couches, each assembled using about 7,000 of the Jefferson coins-that’s $350. His half-dollar chair utilizes about 1,500 coins, or $750. The price of these pieces, though, is much more than face value. You would have to save a lot of five-cent pieces to afford the couch made of them. An original Johnny Swing Nickel Couch can be had for upwards of $50,000. But the price pays for a painstaking process; for one couch it takes more than 300 hours to complete the 35,000 welds that hold all the coins together.
Welding coins together simply to sit on them may seem like a strange concept, and some critics are quick to classify Swing’s work as “bad boy art” under the assumption that he’s defacing money by using it in this manner. At first, even Swing wasn’t sure if his art was illegal, though his original answer was that “the government doesn’t care if you use their objects in art; they’re sort of flattered.” He soon thought he had better check it out to be certain, so he called the Secret Service, which at the time was a part of the U.S. Treasury. “They said, ‘It’s your money, do with it what you want,’” says Swing. “The agent told me the rumor that destroying money is illegal is just an old wives’ tale to keep kids from putting coins on the railroad tracks.” Swing could breathe a sigh of relief and move ahead with his work.
As he continued creating with this “rich” medium, he realized how perfect an art material money was, and considered himself lucky to have discovered it. “It’s an object that has so many shapes to it,” Swing says. What other material can simultaneously evoke love and hate? People love money, but many hate that they need it. Swing is pleased that his art mostly elicits the love response. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by money as they lounge? What better way to feel luxurious. “It’s so much fun to see the joy on their face when they sit down,” says Swing.
There’s also a cultural statement in the coins. They are a token we all use and pass along every day. But by repurposing them for art’s sake, Swing is passing them along in a new way. “How many places does a nickel end up in before I get a hold of it?” Swing wonders. With thousands of nickels making up one couch, a whole lot of history is contained in one piece.
“I kind of love everything I make,” Swing says when asked to pick a favorite piece. Still, he takes pride in the “dynamic, well-balanced shape” of his Nickel Couch. Its lines create movement that seems uncharacteristic for something made up of such a hard material. It’s not surprising, then, that Swing says he’s inspired mostly by landscapes, things in the ocean, and the female form. One can see all of these components in the couch alone – it’s captivatingly curvaceous in just the right way. It could represent rolling hills, crashing waves, or a lounging woman. Swing says he likes “forms that are giving, not asking.”
Incidentally, that’s just what Swing seeks to achieve as an artist. He wants to give viewers something, whether it is an experience, a thought, or a feeling. By creating furniture, he invites you into his environment. Invites you to stay awhile. Invites you to be “hugged by the work.” Invites you to relax on a “modern throne.”
Though much of his work is furniture, Swing’s pieces cannot be considered solely as home décor. They are works of art – each piece a unique sculpture. His creations are now exhibited in museums and design houses around the world. At the end of September, some of his work will be part of an inaugural display called Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary at the Museum of Arts and Design’s new Columbus Circle location in New York City.
But Johnny Swing’s artwork doesn’t just sit in museums so viewers can gaze at it and decipher the artist’s meaning. Instead, roles are reversed. People can actually sit in his art and contemplate their own meaning while being cradled in coins.
Written by: Kiera Scholten
ARTWORKS Magazine – Fall 2008