The short burst of a power drill echoes down the long halls of the Fine Arts Center. I turn the corner and Laurel Swab appears. Haphazard coils of an orange extension cord rest at her feet. She peers intently through plastic protective glasses at a set of wings and affixes them to the angel in her mixed-media work "Sometimes you Need the Help of Angels." She welcomes me into the gallery.
Swab is one of three featured artists in the upcoming show Something New: Contemporary Regional Artists at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The gallery is in pre-show disarray -- a hammer, tape measure and other tools litter the floor. Over the last 10 years, this is where anyone could find Swab. But the artist left the FAC in November, relinquishing her position as an exhibit designer.
"Now I'm just doing my art," she says. "Most of the work in this show was generated out of this major life change. This work is about the sacrifices you make in your life to change and try to improve yourself."
The artist's years of hanging other people's art were not without reward. "I enjoyed my job and learned a great deal from it," says Swab. "But I was no longer willing to sacrifice my own art for the security and stability of a job."
In her mixed-media work "Seven Elements of the Afterlife," Swab methodically presents different symbols from various mythologies of death. One after the other, each on their own pedestal, Swab offers a gate, a body, a boat, canopic jars (where the entrails of the mummified were kept), a scale, a temple and wings. The artist is drawn to the fact that the patterns of myth and symbol that surround the afterlife are rife with metaphors for change and transformation.
"I like it when various cultures intermix and parallel one another," says Swab in explaining the origin of the scale in the work. The piece is the willful intermingling of the Catholic St. Michael, whose attributes are the scale and sword, and the Greek god of the dead, Osiris, who weighs the heart of the deceased. "There are so many different mythologies and yet there are these points where we find common ground."
"The original full-length title was 'She Gave up her Arms for Wings and None of Them Fit'," laughs Swab of her mixed-media work "She Gave up her Arms for Wings." A carved wood figure, female, stands tall on her pedestal. The artist tempers her drive to the straightforward representation of the human form with a symbolic gesture -- the figure's arms, seemingly lopped off, rest at her feet. On each side of the pedestal, in four square recesses, reside wings of lead, tin, feather and hog casing. "It is symbolic of the search for freedom and the fear that I wasn't making the right move in giving up my security and my stability in an attempt to pursue my dreams."
In Swab's mixed-media work "Catacombs," five corpses descend, upside down, their bodies wrapped in black cloth and bound in string, into a darkened abyss. The string reaches up to five spires of the architectural and skeletal edifice from which they hang. While the church symbolism is clear, conflicting and competing interpretations abound. The work exudes death and mystery, while achieving something that can only be called simple beauty.
When confronted with the curious effect of the work -- the juxtaposition of beauty and murderous gloom -- Swab is thoughtful. "It is a combination of the beauty and the beast which I think is a pretty important thread in my work," she says of her allusion to the Christian cult of the dead that found expression in the catacombs. "I think it is important to have complementary opposites. It is what life is all about."
Swab's mixed-media work, "Nine Figure Studies," presents nine fragmented portions of the human form. Torsos, limbs, and other configurations of the human body, all rendered in white plaster, rest in small black boxes that fade into some unknown abyss. These nine body parts, poised before the void, are arrayed three by three. The arrangement of the smaller boxes forms a larger square. In Swab's particular symbolic vocabulary, this rectilinear presentation of the organic human form represents one aspect of the play of opposites that animates our world.
"The human form is such a beautiful thing," she says, "infinite in composition. I really didn't know any other way to accomplish my goals. No other object or symbol made sense to me for these ideas.
"How can I portray human fear without a human?"