The work of Swen Swihart-Decoster (b. 1996) combines the wildly imaginative and the rigorously scientific. He experiments with the language of scientific illustration but casts off restrictions of media and form. Swihart-Decoster’s paintings often throw unorthodox materials (i.e. ink, polymers, and eye shadow) into alchemical blends. In addition to feeding his curiosity about living things and natural phenomena, Swihart-Decoster’s work also serves as a site for thoughtful self-exploration.
In his childhood, Swihart-Decoster hopped from Texas City, TX to Key Largo, and then from Flagstaff to Omaha. His passion for nature was nurtured from the start - his father is a plant ecologist; his mother pivoted from marine-biology to horticultural therapy. As a child, Swihart-Decoster would stalk the house with a camera, making DIY nature documentaries about whatever bugs happened to be around. “My scientific vocabulary was alarming for some people,” he says. Early drawings shared similar motivations - he’d spend hours making observational sketches of pet hissing cockroaches Zara and Marnik.
Swihart-Decoster attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2015 to 2020. His study of the insect world only deepened during this time; he is currently completing a project under the tutelage of the Field Museum’s resident artist Peggy Macnamara, in which he strives to collect, pin, and illustrate the full range of pollinators found in Millennium Park. But these years in Chicago also found the artist journeying into deep, sometimes dark, internal realms.
Swihart-Decoster is intrigued by the subjective nature of reality, the variations in perception between different individuals. “It’s impossible to truly know another person’s experience,” Swihart-Decoster says, emphasizing the importance of this basic truth in regards to those with neurological differences. The artist describes visual and olfactory hallucinations - particularly the condition of synesthesia, in which perceptions become crossed between the senses. “I smell light!” Swihart-Decoster says, going on to quite specifically categorize different luminous aromas. He laments that language can never really do justice to the nuances of one’s sensory world - but this is where art comes in. He is ready for further exploration of both the internal and external. “My art is quantum - something can have presence and non-presence at the same time,” he says looking into the distance, a javelina bone hanging from his necklace and a dreamy smile on his face.