Beth Ames Swartz stands alongside one of her large-scale paintings, layered thick with blue, green, pink, and yellow paint. It's anchored near its center by a heart. “I finished this the night my mother died,” the Paradise Valley artist tells gallery-goers. “It’s called The Angel of Deliverance.”
It’s late October 2016, and Swartz is talking with people who’ve come for the opening reception or her retrospective exhibition titled “Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World.” Curated by Robrt Pela of R. Pela Contemporary Art (who is also a longtime New Times contributor), the show features work in various media from the artist’s prolific career spanning more than five decades.
The exhibition continues through January 27 at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
For every piece in the show, there’s a story. And Swartz loves to share them – sometimes through personal anecdotes, and often through detailed text panels that set her works in context. There’s the trip she made down the Colorado River, and the time spent in Israel. Each informed her artwork, but none can truly define her – because Swartz’s art practice is ever-evolving.
Typically, Swartz creates works in series – making 30 or 40 pieces that share common themes, influences, or materials before moving on to a different approach. “I get an idea or concept, then work with it until I fully know how to do it.”
Often her pieces are inspired by systems of knowledge, such as the Jewish mystical tradition called Cabala, or by other cultures. But sometimes they stem from the complexities of family life. Works featured in "Tikkun Olam" have a common through line: the recurring cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Exploring “Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World” alongside Swartz, it’s clear that something far deeper than an artist-led tour is taking place. As Swartz walks people through rooms that reflect various stages in her career, she’s revealing something of her own interior life and the vast landscape that surrounds her.
Born into a family she calls “very intellectual and right-brained,” Swartz was something of an anomaly. “I’m the one with feelings,” Swartz says. “I painted to deal with unfinished business.”
As a child, Swartz poked out the eyes of a doll, prompting her mother to buy her a paint set. She’s been making art ever since – teaching herself to work in several different media, and earning a master's of arts. She's worked with some unconventional material over the years, including fire.
Swartz’s work has been featured in more than 80 exhibitions, at venues including the Phoenix Art Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York. Her work fills three art books, and she’s the subject of a 30-minute documentary called Beth Ames Swartz: Reminders of Invisible Light, which takes its name from a beloved T.S. Eliot poem.
Nearly 81 years old, Swartz is still painting and doing mixed-media works in the art studio located near the entrance to her home, where a piece referencing the Holocaust and her Jewish heritage hangs from the ceiling near the chair where she reads and sips green tea.
For Swartz, healing the world requires not only creativity, but also connection.
She enjoys supporting other artists, and finding new ways to make an impact the local arts scene. Doing the “Tikkun Olam” show is her way of helping the Arizona Jewish Historical Society to ramp up its gallery offerings and participate in First and Third Friday art walks.
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About 15 years ago, Swartz and fellow artist Jon Haddock started something called the Breakfast Club, comprising regular gatherings where artists share ideas and support. Seventy artists and arts professionals are signed up to attend a Community Conversation she's presenting January 27 at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, where they'll discuss shared challenges, goals, and strategies.
She's hoping to summarize and share key points discussed there, prompting future conversations and practical solutions for the local arts community.
"Tikkun Olam" continues through January 27 at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, where the gallery is open on First and Third Fridays, as well as noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.