Adam Swanson’s Spirit Mountain Mural Produced and directed by Nicholas Sunsdahl (2015)

Artist Adam Swanson grew up in St. Paul and earned a BFA in painting from UMD. He lived in Ithaca, New York, and Antarctica for a while, before settling back in Duluth.


Adam Swanson’s Spirit Mountain Mural, directed by Nicholas Sunsdahl, follows Swanson constructing, preparing, drawing, painting, transporting, and installing an 11-panel, nearly 2,000-square-foot mural.


The installation—selected by the Duluth Public Arts Commission for the One Percent for the Arts program—was for the Grand Chalet at the base of Spirit Mountain.

 

Photo courtesy of NicholasSunsdahl.com

Sunsdahl’s documentary follows the creation of a mural that now graces the Grand Chalet at Spirit Mountain.


The documentary begins with the construction of the masonite panels, cutting the wood for the backing, gluing it into place, and sanding the panels before covering the fronts with white paint.


This takes the first quarter of the 58-minute runtime and, while it initially strikes you as being excessive, you develop a healthy respect for all the work that goes into the process before the artist gets to the actual painting.


The main attraction here is seeing how Swanson creates the mural at the Duluth Art Institute. Sunsdahl devotes the most time to looking over Swanson’s shoulder as he paints the panel with the owl. Swanson likes to blur the lines of his images, and he uses rich colors that make the paintings somewhat surreal (skies tend to be orange).


When the panel with the foxes is put on the floor under the one with the owl, the artist extends elements from one panel to the other, creating links of color. The finishing touches come once the panels are bolted to the walls at the Grand Chalet, when Swanson needs to paint over the bolts and touch up some other spots.


Sunsdahl explicitly references Frederick Wiseman in describing his approach to documentary filmmaking. Recognizing that it is inherently subjective—e.g., the decisions of what to shoot, how to frame the shot, etc.—Wiseman argued not for objectivity, but rather for an un-staged and un-manipulated documentary that “is true to the spirit of our sense of what was going on.”


The film is shot almost exclusively with a hand-held camera, which tends to irritate me in Hollywood films, but it is obviously appropriate for following an artist at work.


A couple times Swanson turns and discovers the camera in his face, which reinforces the “over the shoulder” feeling. Often you can hear Swanson’s son, Jasper, commenting on the proceedings, but the focus is rightly on the art being made and not the filmmaking.


A common bond between artist and filmmaker exists in their affection for quirky things. Swanson likes painting unusual pairings, penguins and bicycles in particular. He also likes to juxtapose random phrases for the titles, a couple of which we glimpse on the back of completed panels.


Sunsdahl has subtitles in French—whether you want them or not. There is no narration, although Swanson briefly explains what he is doing. However, neither the artist nor the filmmaker is interested in offering a full explanation of the artistic process. What is said comes in the form of interesting facts about the process rather than deep insights into artistic intentions.


Usually all there is to hear are background sounds of fans hard at work or Jasper jabbering. The only music comes at the beginning and end as Swanson contemplates a model of the completed mural, which is as close as we come to seeing it in its entirety once it has been installed.  


Sunsdahl’s previous film, The One Who Watches, was a quirky little drama advertised as a cross between White Christmas and Twin Peaks. Despite several interesting elements, the film left you wanting more.


The same applies to this documentary, but in a different way. The good news is that you certainly can see more of Swanson’s mural. All you have to do is go for a little drive to the foot of Spirit Mountain.

Swanson’s work is exhibited at Pizza Luce, the Avenue Coffeehouse, and the Great Lakes Aquarium, as well Lizzard's, Siiviis, and Siverton art galleries. You can also check out his art archives at AdamSwanson.com, where you can purchase his art. Both of Nicholas Sunsdahl’s films can be purchased and viewed at vhx.tv.

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