JOHNSTOWN - "I was lucky enough at a real early age to be exposed to oil painting," says Jonathan Swartwout, crediting his grandfather with putting a brush in his hand and letting him make his first squiggles on a canvas.
Today, Swartwout is making a name for himself not only as a painter but as a maker of high-end rustic furniture in the Adirondack style.
After graduating from Johnstown High School in 1996, he studied at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica before going to work in the leather-finishing industry.
Jonathan Swartwout is shown during an interview Wednesday inside his studio off Route 29 in Johnstown. Swartwout is an oil painter who also makes rustic furniture in the Adirondack style, often with yellow birch as a main component. Some of his paintings and furniture are on display this fall at the Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Public Library. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
A small table with a black walnut slab top — distinguished by a unique figure from the crotch of the tree — is displayed near the pond outside Swartwout’s studio.
(The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Swartwout first got interested in rustic furniture in his early 20s, around the same time he got hooked on fly-fishing. Combined with his oil-painting experience, these interests evolved into what has become a full-time occupation.
His first forays into woodworking included the handmade frames he creates to accent his trout paintings, several of which can be seen in an exhibit of his work at the Stone Wall Community Gallery at the Arkell Museum and Canajoharie Public Library. The exhibit, featuring several of his paintings and rustic furniture pieces, is on display now through Nov. 22.
This time of year, Swartwout says, he spends time gathering birch branches and other wood for use in his projects. Some of the wood comes from his 15-acre property off Route 29, a few miles south of Rockwood, where he lives with his wife, Quinn, and their two young sons.
He built a kiln in his studio that heats pieces of wood to 130 degrees, a process that kills any insects and removes moisture so the bark won't peel off.
He spends just as much time conducting the business end of his work - paperwork, talking with clients, setting up shows and sales - as he spends in the studio. His focus changes from hour to hour and day to day, with sketching designs, painting, working with wood and dealing with customers all competing for his time.
"The artist side of the brain and the business side of the brain are opposites," Swartwout said, but he manages to keep the two balanced. Though he puts as much as 70 hours a week into his work, he says most of the time it doesn't feel like work at all.
"You really need to take it seriously if you want to be successful at it," he said.
Often, the distinguishing element of a piece of Swartwout's furniture is not in its overall shape but ingrained in the character of the wood. A burl or birdseye in a tabletop or cabinet door can be subtle or stunning, depending on the way the light hits it.
"I have more of a classic look to my pieces," he said. Unlike some other Adirondack artisans, he said, he usually doesn't seek out strangely shaped pieces of wood and try to build the furniture around those strange shapes.
"I try to take my designs on paper and make the rustic, organic pieces I'm working with fit that design. It keeps the lines clean, the designs simple."
He says 99 percent of the wood he uses is native to the Adirondacks. Some of his materials are supplied by a friend who runs a sawmill in Ephratah.
"I can get my hands on some kinds of wood that most people couldn't buy in a store," he said.
In the last six years, Swartwout estimates he's produced more than 125 pieces of furniture and more than 100 original oil paintings. Many of them are commissioned by customers who own lakefront homes - mostly in the Adirondacks, though he also has sold pieces to customers in New Hampshire, Virginia and elsewhere. The sale prices range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on their size, complexity, materials and other factors.
Swartwout says he emphasizes quality over quantity: "I want this to be a furniture studio, not a furniture factory."
As he's developed his style in recent years, he's had encouragement from other artists and woodworkers in the area. He cites Russ Gleaves and Bill Coffey of Northville and Paul Lakata of Johnstown, among others, as colleagues whose work he admires.
"It's meant a lot to me to have guys who are established in the field show me some support," he said.
For more information about Swartwout and his work, see his website, fisheroftheberrystudio.squarespace.com.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org