Put A Bird In It—Featured Maker, Jessica Swift

Vibrant color and playful patterns light up the world of Jessica Swift. She is a master of mixing colors that ignite a sense of joy and she brings the affirmation to live boldly and uniquely to all of her work. As you can imagine, she is infusing this same energy and passion to her birdhouse, one of the amazing pieces that will be part of our Put a Bird In It auction in October!

First of all, welcome to Portland and to the WeMake family! You recently moved here from Atlanta. What do you like about Portland and the west coast so far?

Thank you! Gosh, I love Portland so far. I moved here last summer from Atlanta, though I grew up in Boulder, CO, which is a lot like Portland in many ways, so moving to Portland felt a bit like returning home! I loved Atlanta, but it was definitely a different type of place to live. There are so many things to love about Portland and the west coast… the trees, the cozy weather, the easy access to nature, being able to walk and bike everywhere, gluten-free and vegetarian options practically everywhere… I’m definitely at home here!

Tell us a little bit about your background as an artist and what you’re doing professionally. Is it true you’ve never had a “real job”?

You are correct, I’ve never had a “real job”. I had a number of piddly part-time jobs in my early 20s—waitress, Gymboree teacher, art installation assistant at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, nanny—but never a real career type job.

I started my business when I was 23, after a successful weekend-long juried art festival, where I was surrounded by artists who traveled the country selling their wares, and I realized that that was a possibility for me, too. It was an eye-opening, life-changing weekend for me. Before that I’d never considered that I could actually be a working artist for a living.

At that time I was solely painting (I studied painting in college, not commercial art, illustration, textile design, or pattern design) and barely knew how to use a computer for anything more than checking email and resizing photos in Photoshop. I discovered design blogs in 2006, and I saw people who were called ‘surface designers’, and I remember thinking “Why didn’t anyone tell me this was a career option??” I immediately began teaching myself how to use Adobe Illustrator and to create repeat patterns, and the day I finally figured it out was another turning point—that was the day I became obsessed with commercial art and figuring out how to get my work all over products!

My entire career so far has been about following my intuition, listening to my gut, and jumping in, even when it felt reaaaaally scary.

Can you tell us how your birdhouse is coming along? What are you finding to be your source of inspiration? Is there a theme?

My birdhouse is coming along pretty well! Much like my paintings, it went through an ugly phase, where I wasn’t sure if it was going to come together and I was afraid I was going to have to start over, but now I’m liking it!

I never start with much of a plan when I create my art, so I figured I’d use the same approach with the birdhouse. I planned how to construct it, but not what it would look like beyond that. I just started painting. One of my signature icons in many of my paintings is a bird wearing a crown. So, I put a little crown on the doorway to the birdhouse, in hopes that some cute little birds will poke their heads through and “wear” my painted crown! If I can get a picture of that somehow, I’ll be so happy.

My source of inspiration is honestly just being in the present moment with my paint and paintbrush. I’m so inspired by color and by the simple act of creating something out of nothing—I try to empty myself and let whatever needs to come through, come through. The theme is turning out to be treetops, I think….

How has it been working with a 3D object? Is it intimidating, or do you see the house as just another type of canvas?

I’ve really approached the birdhouse as just another canvas, and it’s been really fun to work on it! I’ve had to be patient as layers dry—I’ve accidentally grabbed the wrong edge so many times already. There are probably 50 thumb prints that are painted over on the birdhouse. :) But yes, it’s been really fun to work on it so far!

What are some of your favorite materials and mediums with which to create art?

I love acrylic paint on canvas, and on the totally opposite spectrum, I love creating digital repeat patterns. They both energize me and excite me in different ways. One is so hands on and messy, the other requires more of a laser-focus, staring at the screen for hours kind of mentality. I love having both mediums in my repertoire to balance each other out.

Put a Bird In It is our way to raise funds to support art and music in Portland’s public schools. Did you have the opportunity to try art and music when you were a child? Why do you think it is important to provide that opportunity to children now and in the future?

Oh my gosh, yes, both! As far as music goes, I took piano lessons from the age of 6, I played the clarinet in 5th and 6th grade, I was in choir all through middle school and high school, I taught myself how to play the guitar in 10th grade, I was a singer/songwriter in college and in an a cappella group…. music has always been a passion of mine in addition to art, and I was fortunate to have really caring, talented, and passionate teachers all through my schooling.

Same goes for art—I had great teachers, and I’ve been making art both in school and out of school as far back as I can remember. My mom still has some of my early art pieces in her house!

I feel so fortunate to have had these opportunities as a child, and it makes me so sad to think that these are the programs that often get cut first in schools. Music and art make us smarter, more versatile, well-rounded people, and to rob children of the opportunity to develop a passion, hobby, or talent that they can carry with them and use to enrich themselves and those around them for the rest of their lives is a sad, sad thing.

Without the exposure to music and art as children, the world could miss out on great composers, world-class dancers, the next Picasso, mind-blowing bands, Broadway shows, impeccable fashion designers, and most importantly, millions of people who are living happy, passionate, fulfilling lives. Children need to be exposed to anything and everything that might excite, enrich, and enliven them!