by Brooke Chilvers
John Swan’s art often pays tribute to the world’s most beautiful fishing landscapes, from the Andes to remotest Russia, from the Bahamas to as far north as Gaspé. Hey, it’s part of the job! Yet he still finds inspiration in the harbors, bays, and rushing waterways of Maine. It’s in the artist’s blood.
Not surprisingly, Swan (b. 1948) makes his home and studio in the rightly historic Stroudwater district of Portland, a neighborhood with deep roots in working timber in Maine’s woods. Specifically, supplying shipbuilding lumber to England’s Royal Navy, especially mighty white pine for masts, in the decades before the American Revolution. In those days, the King’s government appointed “mast agents” to mark the best and tallest trees with an upside-down “V” (the “broad arrowhead), reserving them for a Crown whose home forests had already been depleted by the 17th century.
Boats, too, are in Swan’s blood. They are the main character in many of his fishing compositions—canoes pointed upriver to the unknown around a bend or resting on shore, or hard-worked fishing boats crowding the wharf in a New England harbor.
In the generations before “helicopter parents,” Swan describes how boats were part of growing up in Maine: waterskiing, visiting pals across the lake, fishing for perch and catching an occasional pickerel while really hoping for wild bass. “We stalked bass with spears under the docks. Along the islands and rock piles, we used spinning rods, like my trusty old Zebco, and Flatfish, Rapalas, and homemade lures.”
As a son of Maine’s waters, Swan’s favorite boat, of course, is the iconic and sturdy Rangeley Boat, first built in 1869 by local craftsmen to meet the demands of fishing landlocked salmon and trout in Maine’s big, wind-blown lakes. When he was a kid, “Rangeleys were everywhere—on every lake in Maine and New England. They’re the classic American sporting boat.” The avid angler confesses to owning three Rangeleys, and to fishing only from a Rangeley.
Their great advantage is that, with close to 70 thin oak ribs, “when they ‘soak up’ in the spring, they cannot be tipped over!” which is vital for a vessel carrying the rowing guide and one or two standing fly casters fishing in five-foot waves. Their original construction was cedar lapstrake with the ribs on the inside. “But after World War II, they were gradually replaced by aluminum and fiberglass.” Today, Newfound Woodworks describes their version as “cedar strip-built with epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth providing strength and protection.”
Originally, these hardy boats were “double enders”—that is, pointed at both ends; they were later redesigned to accommodate outboard motors. The last master builder died in 1980, John explained, “But there are still a few people building them. And there are still sporting camps that use them, not just for the romance, but because they are great boats.”
Swan’s family attachment to western Maine’s lakes and rivers stretches back to his mother’s parents, both accomplished sportsmen “to the core,” who, among other things, “ran a high-class sporting store selling fine bamboo fly rods, Bill Edson flies, reels, lines, and guns.” They even had their own fishing and hunting camps—among the earliest constructed on the splendid Rangeley Lakes that are gorgeously surrounded by mountains. “I was taught to shoot and fly cast by a master—my grandfather, Guilford, who had a camp on Kennebago Lake before I can remember.” As kids—and still today with his own kids, and their kids—they swam and fished out of Rangeley boats. “We tied flies, shot grouse, and learned to read the water. I was a very lucky boy.”
Equally lucky for a kid clearly demonstrating early artistic talent, there was also his other grandmother, Myrtle, an accomplished businesswoman and painter. She showed him an article featuring a local artist and told him, “You know, you could do that, too.” Unfortunately, she died before she could enjoy John’s wonderful international success, which includes being named Artist of the Year three times by the Atlantic Salmon Federation; Ducks Unlimited International Artist of the Year (1987); and the 2017 Bonefish & Tarpon Trust Artist of the Year.
Swan has also had one-man shows, including at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and the Stephen O’Brien Jr. Fine Arts in Boston.
His book credits include: The 1996 reprint by Stackpole Books of Joseph Bates’s Fishing Atlantic Salmon—The Flies and the Patterns, completed by Bates’s daughter, Pamela Bates Richards, after his death; Thomas McGuane’s limited-edition anthology Live Water (1996), for which Swan also produced the 12-inch x 18-inch poster; the American Museum of Fly Fishing’s limited edition, A Treasury of Reels (1990), whose frontispiece is a print of Swan’s oil painting, New Moon. And his own book, A Painter’s Life, Images from an American Artist, with a foreword by the prestigious conceptual artist, Charles Gaines. He is also the author and illustrator of the 2014 children’s book, Pancakes & Fireflies, about a boy, his father, and grandfather in Maine’s outdoors.
The Rangeley Lakes chain consists of six large lakes, including the unpronounceable Mooselookmeguntic and Cupsuptic, the state’s fourth largest lake, along with countless smaller lakes and streams.
A renowned sporting paradise in the 1870s, the lakes are credited as “the birthplace of modern-day streamer fishing,” as well as of the flies famously tied by Carrie Gertrude Stevens (1882-1970) starting in the 1920s, which she sold out of her home: Blue Charm, Gray Ghost, Golden Witch, and the Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, named after Maine’s first licensed fly-fishing guide. And also, of course, of the iconic Rangeley Boat.
After college, while supporting his young family working in construction, the aspiring artist drove the countryside searching out appealing New England farms and barns to portray, à la Wyeth. He turned to art full time the day he could pay the bills with it.
“Being a sportsman has certainly influenced my painting, but only because I like doing outdoor ‘sporty’ things. It takes me to some of the most beautiful places on the planet, places you would probably never experience if you did not hunt or fish. The lonely Russian salmon rivers, or the brilliant bonefish flats of the Bahamas, and the spectacular Andes, all come to mind.”
Still, John Swan is far from being limited to “sporting art,” as demonstrated by a 2018 exhibition of his nude studies set in Maine’s great outdoors. As Swan says, “My painting has been mostly influenced by what I love and know best, as it should be.” This still means Maine’s lakes and waters beyond, but “painting my children, and now my grandchildren, is what truly inspires me.”
Brooke Chilvers dedicates this piece to her and John Swan’s greatly missed mutual friend, Alfred F. King III “Freddy” (1941–2019) of New York’s Sportsman’s Edge and King Gallery.