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Erotic Expressions

When Gayle Swanbeck was in high school, her art teacher asked her what she wanted to do with her life.

It was the late '60s in a small mining town in Michigan, but neither the time nor the place stopped Swanbeck from having clarity. "I instantly replied, 'I want to be an artist; I want to teach art, and I want my own gallery.' (My teacher) smiled and replied as positively as she could (and said) that our dreams can become reality if we work at them."

Fast-forward to Tucson in 2006, and Swanbeck is living her dream. As a full-time artist, Swanbeck is an example of a successful artist who has learned how to combine her art with good business sense. In that vein, she says she sells most of the art she makes. And Swanbeck says she owes a lot of her success to WomanKraft Art Center.

WomanKraft is a nonprofit arts organization that was established in 1974. Housed in "The Castle," a 1918 Queen Anne Victorian on South Stone Avenue, the nonprofit was formed to "to claim, validate and empower women artists and other underrepresented groups."

Today, the nonprofit offers free classes and workshops for low-income people 50 and older. For others, classes are modestly priced to accommodate all income brackets. Offerings through the WomanKraft School of the Arts include fine art, education and craft workshops, and year-round classes in the fine arts.

Swanbeck has been involved with WomanKraft since 1979. "I met mentors who were established artists. They taught me how to be a business person," she recalls. Swanbeck, now the director of exhibits, has been a volunteer since 1981.

"Volunteering at WomanKraft allows me to give back what was given to me. ... We teach people how to be business people as well as fine artists. ... I am paying Tucson back. I love the city and community and (love) giving other artists the lift I got. ... I would be working at some low-paying job and staying up at night to make my art if it wasn't for WomanKraft."

As part of her volunteer work, Swanbeck runs the WomanKraft Gallery. The latest exhibit at WomanKraft is Romance/Erotica. An opening night reception takes place from 7 to 10 p.m., Saturday, March 4, at 388 S. Stone Ave. The show continues through Saturday, March 25. Gallery hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Call 629-9976 or visit www.womankraft.org for more information.

As with many romances, there was a bumpy period in the history of the Romance/Erotica exhibit. "It started as an invitational about the duality of romance and erotica. I contacted eight artists. The featured artist had 60 pieces of art to display," says Swanbeck.

But tragedy stuck in December, when both of the featured artist's parents passed away. "I was weeks away from the opening, and 60 pieces disappeared. It started a scramble. So we settled on romantic and erotic art. ... It's mostly an erotic art show. Four artists have romantic and erotic (elements) in the same pieces."

There are approximately 70 pieces in the show, by 10 artists and five photographers, in a range of media. Visitors to the exhibit will see works in pastel, watercolor, acrylic, pen and ink, charcoal and oil.

But not all the artists used paintbrushes or even their hands to create their artwork. "Diane Loving and Judie McEwen were with a group of women artists who began talking about the experience of breast cancer," says Swanbeck. "The women decided: Why not use breasts as a paintbrush? They used watercolor and acrylic and painted by pressing their breasts down on paper. Some of the works are impressionistic garden scenes. They are in a class by themselves."

One of Swanbeck's pieces is a subtle erotic watercolor. The scene is a landscape of the east desert, overlooking a long vista with hills and a creek. In the left corner, a pair of sunglasses sits on a rock. Inside the reflection of the glasses, two female bodies are making love.

Photographer M.B. Escher starts his series of three photographs with a romantic scene and moves into the erotic. Swanbeck says the first photograph in the series shows a bed with a pretty, lacey overthrow and lovely wrought iron headboard. There's also a male cowboy hat on display. In the second photo, the same bed and cowboy hat are visible, but this time, a woman's shoes and cowboy boots are lying on the floor. In the third photo, a man and woman are embracing on the bed, with their shapes in shadowy form. "It goes from romantic, to romantic but titillating, to lovemaking," says Swanbeck.

But even though Swanbeck's and Escher's pieces may titillate the senses, Swanbeck says the pieces in the Romance/Erotica exhibit are not pornographic. "There is a big difference between pornography and eroticism. Erotic pieces have a certain quality to them. They are expertly rendered. It's not just snapping a shot to titillate someone."

Swanbeck also appreciates the loveliness of erotic art and is happy to show it at WomanKraft. "We have pieces that are nude studies in pastel. They are very beautiful. A lot of galleries don't like to show the human figure romantically or erotically. Erotic art is very beautiful. It has a place."

More by Irene Messina

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