Ray Swanson

A member of the Cowboy Artists of America and the American Watercolor Society, Ray Swanson was known for his Southwest Native American subject–the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Apache Indians. He was especially known for depicting children and smaller animals belonging to these tribes and for the beauty of their traditional outfits.

Swanson was raised in rural South Dakota and settled in Carefree, Arizona. He first visited a Navajo Reservation in Arizona in the early 1960s, and from that time, incorporated Indian figures and genre into his subject matter.

He attended a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota and was early recognized for his art talent. His father was killed when Ray was young, and the family moved to California where he enrolled at the Northrop Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. He worked full time as a draftsman and studied aero-nautical engineering. For six years, he was a civil engineer in Redlands, California, and during that time married Beverly, his high school sweetheart.

He also began to paint, encouraged by his wife and friends, and he displayed his work at the curio shop he and Beverly opened in Oak Glen near Los Angeles. Gallery owners in New Mexico and California began carrying his work, and he became a full-time painter.

In 1973, he and Beverly sold the shop and moved to Arizona where he continued to paint the Native Americans. He also painted some landscapes and seascapes in both watercolor and oil and traveled widely in search of subject matter beyond Arizona.

In 1979, he was named Arizona Artist of the Year and in 1986 was voted into membership of the Cowboy Artists of America, which he served as president at the time of his death in 2004. He was also a signature member of the American Watercolor Society.

Following are excerpts from the obituary of the artist by Dolores Tropiano, The Arizona Republic, December 24, 2004.

“Ray Swanson, president of the Cowboy Artists of America and one of the most poignant painters of Arizona Indians, was remembered this week by artists, fans and the people whose images covered his canvasses.

The Carefree resident died Dec. 17 of pneumonia after contracting multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma cells. He was 67.

‘Ray touched many lives, including people who couldn’t afford his original paintings, but who would stand in line for an hour to get his autograph at the cowboy (artists) show,’ said Steve Todd, a Tempe art collector.

In October, Swanson’s painting Women of the “Dineh formed a huge banner that hung outside the Phoenix Art Museum, promoting the Cowboy Artists of America’s 39th-annual exhibition.

But Swanson never saw the banner or the show. By then, he already was very sick.

“It was one of the last paintings he ever created, and it hung outside the museum. He never got to see it, but it was a fitting tribute,” said Todd, chairman of this year’s CAA exhibition.

“He painted and produced a magnificent show, and every piece sold. It was a fantastic show,” Todd said.

Swanson was recognized and renowned for depictions of various cultures. But it was the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo in particular that he captured in a special way.

Members of a Navajo family that Swanson painted attended Wednesday’s memorial service at Desert Springs Bible Church in northeast Phoenix. They followed the casket into the church, covering it with a traditional chief’s blanket.

“He respected his subjects, the Navajo people, and they trusted him,” Todd said. “He painted them honestly and proudly.”

Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, said of Swanson, “He was still in his prime. He was a really wonderful gentle man. It (his death) is just a huge loss to so many people that depended on him. He was a delight.”

Swanson was born in Alcester, S.D., and grew up on a farm. Swanson started painting as a young man after he was given his grandfather’s oils and other art supplies.

(Courtesy of AskArt)

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