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An 'In' at EAST

Finding artists who found their place in East Austin

Fri., Nov. 16, 2012

Joe Swec outside his East Austin studio
Joe Swec outside his East Austin studio
Photo by Matthew Irwin

The old Goodwill distribution center on Springdale Road in East Austin stands gutted and open to a windy Sunday morning. Construction dust layers the grounds, the flat light and damp air giving the scene a sense of imminence. "This whole building is going to be the new headquarters for Big Medium, which puts on EAST," sign maker Joe Swec says. "But it's also going to be a massive art complex."

Swec's studio shows up as location No. 89 in the catalog for the 2012 East Austin Studio Tour, which continues through Nov. 18. On the page is an image of a black-and-white triangular sign with the words "Caution: Bad Art Beyond This Point" dangling below. One stick figure appears to be screaming in terror; another is keeled over, throwing up.

"I love that my page is in the front of the catalog," Swec says, "like everything after it is bad art."

The sense of humor and craft that Swec displays in the piece caused me to stop on his page, but I arrange to meet him because his bio describes the way original works, in his case hand-painted signs, help define an environment. It just so happens that Swec's sister Jana and brother-in-law Shea Little are helping to define the East Austin artistic community as two of the founding members of EAST ("Dawn in the EAST.")

A second instance of Southwestern synchronicity happens to me later in the catalog when I come upon a photo of a Saguaro cactus, fashioned in cardboard relief (No. 170). I texted Landry McMeans: "Just saw your art in the EAST catalog. Forgot you lived here." One half of the Austin alt.country band the Lonesome Heroes, McMeans has appeared in various other towns I've lived in over the last half decade. During the three- or four-week breaks from touring, she works on her art. While the band's schedule is exhausting, McMeans says it pays the bills, and it's landed her a number of commissions through the West and Southwest.

McMeans and I bike over to Barry George's sculpture studio (No. 180) to view his found-object constructions. Then we head to the Super!Alright! studio (No. 163), where she admires the flat ("almost paint-by-numbers") colors of some prints, before we go back to her studio, playing Frogger over Cesar Chavez Street.

To be clear, Swec does not think the artworks on the pages after his are bad. In fact, he works with many of them. We visit Blue Genie Art Industries (No. 91), the fabrication plant on Springdale, and the expansive studio grounds of mixed media artist Sunyong Chung (No. 93a) and Philippe Klinefelter (No. 94).

At Blue Genie, Clay Shortall's Shadow Puppet, recently returned from an exhibition in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, uses a camera and a computer program to mimic the movements of onlookers and passersby in rows of plastic circles, cut there in the factory.

Chung and Klinefelter reveal the parts and process of a gigantic collaborative work commissioned by the Asian American Cultural Center on Jollyville Road. Jung-ok Chung, Sunyong's mother, displays her fiber works and embroidery in a long, peaceful space in the back of the lot (93b).

Having moved to Austin four years ago with only the desire to be creative, Swec, a former structural engineer, credits his family with providing him inroads to the kind of work he does now. But he says that Austin is the kind of town where a person can pretty much do anything he wants and find people who will support it. "I don't think it's hard to find [an in] if you're looking," Swec says.

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