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VIEWERS GET THE PICTURE AT S.D. ART EXPERIENCE

The young woman in braids stood quietly before the sparkling, color-swirled painting. Her hands were extended, palms upturned, reflecting an orange light beaming all around her from above. Before moving through the darkened gallery to the next painting and its corresponding circle of yellow light, the woman made some quick hand motions, then paused between light pools for a slow, bowing bend from the waist.

She seemed instinctively to understand artist Beth Ames Swartz’ hope for viewer participation in “A Moving Point of Balance,” a multimedia “art experience” on view at the Multicultural Arts Center through June 1.

Swartz, 50, has a long-established reputation as a lyrical abstractionist and creator of a popular series of “fire works.” These glittering, jewel-like creations burned and painted onto layered paper bear a fascinating resemblance to colorful rocks found on a desert stroll.

But the Arizona artist is now deeply committed to a new kind of art. Like the ancient cave painters and shamanic artists, Swartz is striving to create “an environment for healing” in “A Moving Point of Balance,” or what she terms “transformative art.”

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She sees the new work as her contribution to the healing of the planet, believing that “as we work on ourselves, and hopefully get rid of our own self-hatred and learn to accept and love ourselves, then that love reaches out to other people, too.”

To aid in this self-healing, “A Moving Point of Balance” features seven luminous, mixed-media paintings by Swartz, reflecting the seven “chakras,” or points on the human body long believed to be places of entry for spiritual, life-giving energies.

Each painting also corresponds to one of the seven colors of the spectrum, from red through violet, and Swartz has arranged the show so that theatrical lighting bathes the viewer at each stop in the appropriate color. An original musical score by Frank Smith, “The Hierophant,” fills the light-bathed gallery with sounds designed to stimulate peaceful feelings.

Before his death last year, Navajo medicine man David Paladin created for the exhibition an Indian medicine wheel, or sacred circle (carved, symbolic stones carefully laid out in sand). A “crystal rainbow balancing room” developed by Jay Steinberg completes the viewer’s tour with a gentle, kaleidoscopic projection of colors through a quartz crystal lens.

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Obviously, there is a much grander intention behind Swartz’ work than a simple look at a few paintings.

“My vision is that for a moment (the viewer) would (understand) that they are sacred, that all life is sacred and they are part of it,” Swartz explained. She hopes they will use the opportunity to tune in to the higher, deeper parts of themselves that day to day events tend to obscure.

Swartz has always expressed a close connection between her spiritual questing and her art. Mary Carroll Nelson’s book about Swartz’ life and work, “Connecting,” explores the artist’s constant effort to communicate these spiritual discoveries indirectly--emotionally--through color and form.

Four years ago, dramatic changes in Swartz’ life sent her off in a new direction.

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To create the fire works, Swartz combined earth, water, flames, layers of papers, metallic leaf and paint, most often working at sites resonant with her spiritual search, which ranged from Zen Buddhism to Jewish mysticism.

Seven years of working with these materials eventually claimed her health. Swartz first developed a tumor, then suffered a complete physical collapse while in Israel developing her second major exhibition of fire works, “Israel Revisited.”

“I was all out of balance from the burning, the breathing in (of fumes),” she said. “I decided that if this tumor was benign I would devote the rest of my life to healing and the balancing of the earth and myself and others through my art.”

To heal her own body, Swartz began probing more deeply into ancient teachings about the chakra system and the need to clear away mental obstructions that might block the flow of energy into the body. She studied color healing, ancient cave paintings and shamanic art.

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Finally, ready to create her new works but not sure how, she visited seven American Indian and European “sacred” sites, participating in various rituals for the healing of the earth, talking to Indian elders and absorbing experiences that changed her outlook, her health--and her work.

“This was an odyssey of jumping off the bridge and learning to fly on the way down,” she said. “I had to not only create a new (visual) language, I had to create materials to express this language, so I used a lot of luminous, reflective materials, such as broken glass, gold leaf, silver leaf, mica, microglitter.”

After years of working on paper, she returned to brushes and stretched linen, moving away from her previous abstractions to include some literal images. She put a collage of fabrics and foils into the paintings to build up the surfaces. The indigo painting, representing the “third eye” chakra, includes a scarf that Swartz wore during her visit to the cave paintings.

For the final, “crown chakra” painting, the most radiant, vibrant work in the exhibition, Swartz glued on a hand-cut crystal that cost her about $250.

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“I’ve had people stand in front of that painting and weep--all kinds of people, not just art people. And that’s very gratifying,” she said. “It’s just incredible how people walk out smiling and holding hands. . . . It isn’t a superficial thing, it’s a deep sharing, a deep moment.” One man in a business suit, a complete stranger, came up and hugged her, she said, thanking her for the experience.

“I want people to walk into the paintings, only they don’t walk into them on a path, they walk into them viscerally, you know, with their open heart or with emotions. I’m hoping that the viewer will have a little glimpse of what it is to sit with the shaman in a hut with the drumming and to have a healing experience.”


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