If you’ve walked the hallways just beyond the café at Weirton Medical Center, been to Crazy Mocha Coffee Company in Pittsburgh, or visited the ARTWORKS around town in Wheeling’s historic Centre Market, you’ve likely seen the vibrant Impressionist works of New Cumberland-based painter Mike Swartzmiller. His bold colors and gestural brushwork are part of his signature style, and each of his works are filled with a kind of visual joy. SoulFireW had an opportunity to talk with Swartzmiller about his development as an artist, his feelings about art’s value to both individuals and communities, and the projects he currently has in development.
SoulFireWV: I know that your studio is based in New Cumberland. Were you also born there? If not, where did you grow up? And was art an early interest for you?
Mike Swartzmiller: I lived and grew up in Weirton until my family moved to New Cumberland during my seventh-grade year. As most school-aged children, I loved to draw; unfortunately, I didn’t have the aptitude for it. After taking some art courses in college, the interest grew, and as an elementary teacher, I volunteered to teach art in the departmentalized format at Cove Elementary School.
SF: What initially drew you to painting, and when did you begin creating pieces?
MS: As stated, as a teacher I got involved in teaching elementary art. Around 2004, a relative passed away, and I inherited a large accumulation of paints and brushes. I started painting and trying to master a style of art that I always liked: Impressionism.
SF: On your website, you note that you’re an Impressionist artist. Who are some of your favorite painters?
MS: Since the beginning of visual arts in ancient caves, humans tried to create drawings and paintings in basically one traditional style: Realism. That single focus style changed in France in the 1850s when a group of painters started painting outside [plein air] instead of in a studio, started using larger brushes that created visible brushstrokes and used bolder colors, without regard to realism. This new style, referred to as Impressionism, was born and not well received by most traditionalists, but Monet and the boys changed the art world forever. My favorite painters are the ones that expanded on the Impressionist movement, and they are considered Post-Impressionists: Cezanne, Van Gogh, and my all-time favorite Henri Matisse. My fantasy lunch group would be Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso.
SF: I know that your rooster paintings and works on DiCarlo’s pizza boxes are incredibly popular and have sold almost as soon as you put them on the walls at Weirton Medical Center. But what’s your favorite subject to paint?
MS: Roosters, wine bottles and florals are fun to paint; but I really like the challenge of creating art that has some form of symbolism or shows an emotion or tells a story. The human form including abstract figures are my favorite subjects to create.
SF: You have a very special kind of signature, one that can be used for authentication purposes in the future. Can you explain what your “DNA signature” involves?
MS: While teaching an elementary art class at Cove School in the mid-70s, I observed a student pulling his hair and gluing it on a self-portrait activity painting on river rocks. He gave me the rock, which is proudly displayed in my art room. It must have been a subliminal all those years, that I incorporate my hair under the signature in all my paintings. The hair doesn’t detract from the painting, but I figure years from now, it will be used to identify my priceless works of art :-].
SF: I know that you’ve taught classes in the past. Will you be teaching again, and if so, where can readers find updates on when and where these classes will take place?
MS: I’ve been teaching group art classes for free as a way for non-profits to raise much needed funds. I also teach art classes, as well as several artists from the Top of WV CVB Arts Council to raise monies to support and promote local art initiatives. One such project was the recent Student Art Contest involving over 50 student artists from Oak Glen, JDR [John D. Rockefeller Career Center], Weir High, Madonna and Brooke High. The students were recognized, and the participating high school teachers were given monies for art supplies.
Future classes are being planned; please visit www.TopofWV.com for updated information.
SF: There’s a murals project in the works on Main Street in Weirton. Would you be able to share a little bit about that project and what Weirton residents can look forward to seeing in the future?
MS: After driving home one night from an arts council meeting, in which we discussed being involved in the Gate 5 Project, I happened to get the red light at the corner of Main Street and Virginia Avenue. I looked over at the old Gate 5 and noticed that the concrete wall attached to the gate entrance formed a perfect 6’ x 10’ rectangle with beveled framing. I contacted Dennis Jones the next day and told him my vision of painting 15 murals on the 150’ wall. Dennis photographed the wall, created a mock rendition with murals showing the history of the steel industry in Weirton. The Top of WV CVB Arts Council supported the idea. Hopefully, we’ll be able to secure funding to make the mural wall become a reality.
SF: You are a member of the Top of WV Arts Council, and you’ve found several places in the Weirton community where council members are able to show their works. Where can people currently see your work?
MS: The Top of WV Arts Council with the help of area businesses and organization has created numerous opportunities for the public to view the works of local artists. Besides opening the Summit Art Gallery at the Top of WV CVB office on Main Street, mini art galleries are established at the following locations: Weirton Medical Center, Fox’s Pizza on Penco, Spicy Gringos, Mary H. Weir Library, Swaney Library in New Cumberland, Lynn Murray Library in Chester, and Burgettstown Community Library. The easiest way to see my art is to visit my website and Facebook page; Google Swartzmiller.com. Of course, I welcome emails if you are looking for a particular painting or need a gift for someone, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or text me at 304-670-5563; I’ll text you pics.
SF: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers?
MS: I’d like to use this last question to pitch the value and importance of “The Arts” in our lives and our communities.
- Art can be beneficial to individuals; it can help children be better students and improve quality of life for seniors. It relieves stress, encourages creative thinking, boosts self-esteem, and provides a sense of accomplishment.
- Communities that support the arts have more civic and social engagement; art stimulates business and economic growth, and it drives tourism.
- “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”—Pablo Picasso