19 February 2017

Laurie Swim interview: Artist to Watch

SAQA Juried Artist Laurie Swim, the doyenne of Canadian art quilting, has been interviewed numerous times over a career of more than 40 years. Rather than submit her to yet another artist interview as part of our SAQA Atlantic series, we are republishing an interview from issue #6 of the SAQA publication Art Quilt Collector. The interview with Laurie took place in October 2016.

In this feature article, Laurie reflects on how the first art quilt she showed in public launched her career as a serious textile artist, how her large scale historic and social action projects engage and contribute to community, and how her artwork has found its way into noteworthy public and private collections.

Artists to Watch

Laurie Swim
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada

Laurie Swim’s community-based projects not only tell a story, they bring together volunteers whose combined efforts find healing in creativity. The stories are a testament, a public memorial.

Her latest collaborative work, Hope and Survival: The Halifax Explosion Memorial Project, builds on the experience Laurie has had with earlier projects. The quilt marks the path of tragedy and rebuilding in Halifax 100 years after the town experienced the largest manmade explosion prior to Hiroshima.

Collaboration matters

My original intention was to create a connection to a community by creating collaborative public art, but my interest grew over time as I researched subjects that revealed our ephemeral nature. Historical records and oral accounts begin the process of my understanding a situation outside my own experience; then they find their way into my work.

People join me on this journey and contribute their ideas, which enhance the work and enrich the final outcome. By sharing this creative experience with volunteers, and eventually the viewing public, I can produce visual art that becomes a powerful vehicle to convey a story and generate awareness for social change.

Breaking Ground, The Hogg’s Hollow Disaster, 1960 by Laurie Swim, 2000. w20' x h7' 

Through these art projects, one can understand the lasting consequences of a tragic incident. Breaking Ground, The Hogg’s Hollow Disaster, 1960 commemorates five men in Toronto, Ontario, who died digging a tunnel under dire circumstances. The accident led to improved safety regulations on construction sites throughout Canada. Family members and rescuers who had never met came forth after 40 years to be part of this work’s process. The same thing happened with Lost at Sea, 1961, created for the millennium in 2000. That piece commemorates 17 men who drowned in a horrific Atlantic storm, leaving behind 16 wives and 65 children in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, my hometown. I was 12 at the time, and many of the children who lost their fathers were my friends and neighbors. The men were the area’s most experienced fishermen; their loss triggered an economic decline.

Lost at Sea, 1961 by Laurie Swim, 2000. w10' x h10'

Catalyst for latest project

In the summer of 2000, I traveled by train from Nova Scotia to Toronto, where I was residing. For reading material on the two-day trip, I picked up Janet Kitz’s Shattered City, which began my immersion into the explosion that took place in Halifax on Dec. 6, 1917, when a Norwegian relief ship, the SS Imo, collided with a French munitions ship, the SS Mont Blanc, in Halifax Harbour. Almost 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 were injured, including 200 who were blinded. In the middle of winter, 25,000 souls were left destitute, half the population of Halifax at the time. Conveying this event through art was an irresistible challenge.

In the 14 years during which I researched and thought about the Halifax explosion, I took on two more projects, The Canadian Young Workers’ Memorial, commemorating 100 young workers killed on the job, and the Lunenburg Heritage Story.

Canadian Young Workers Memorial Quilt by Laurie Swim, 2003 w15' x h9'

When it came time to design Hope and Survival: The Halifax Explosion Memorial Project, I knew from the beginning that Braille would be a component. This decision began a collaborative effort with volunteers from around the province. The Scroll of Remembrance, the list of those who perished, was translated into Braille dots and printed on transfer paper. The names were heat transferred to 172 sheets of fabric, each 11 in. x 8.5 inches, stained to reference the shrouds that covered the victims. The sheets were distributed to volunteers to bead the Braille dots, with approximately 400 people participating. Often those who undertook the beading told me it was a meditative process that allowed them to honor and remember the victims.

Hope and Survival, under construction
Accompanying this scroll is the center piece, approximately 8 x 10 feet, that I’m creating in my studio in Lunenburg. This piece is primarily in indigo blue with sepia tones and accents of red. The indigo refers to the scars people were left with when a carbon-saturated black oily rain coated them after the blast. I used snow-dyed fabric to symbolize the horrendous snowstorm that followed the day after the explosion, deterring rescue efforts. I depicted scenes using my research, which included oral stories from descendants. I also wrote a story from a child’s perspective based on accounts of the explosion that will be published as a trade book. Some of the images I created for the center piece will also appear in this book.

Eye Snatcher by L. Swim, 2014
w16" x h24"

I would like Hope and Survival to tour Canada and the New England states before being permanently installed in the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia sends a huge Christmas tree to Boston every year, and Boston was the first non-Canadian responder to the disaster, readying a train full of medical supplies, doctors, and nurses within a day. It would be wonderful to share this memorial as a reminder of the human kindness that was shown to Nova Scotia by Boston 100 years ago.

A lifetime as an artist

As I grow older, I find I work more slowly but more accurately. I give myself permission to develop the work organically, letting it evolve at its own pace. In working with textiles, I am always discovering innovative new ways to realize a subject.

I also have found that good things come to those who wait — if you work persistently while waiting. Longevity in the field contributes to my success with being noticed by collectors. Getting your work in front of the public and consistently building a reputation for yourself as a professional is important.

As a full-time artist for more than 40 years, I have found that financial rewards can be feast or famine. I’ve come to realize that no one has complete stability in wealth or health. What I have is work I like to do. There is no retirement age for me. As long as I have my health and aspirations, I will have something rewarding to do.

Fortunately, early in my career, my quilt Eve’s Apple was awarded Best in Show in the 1976 Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council Show. The juror was the renowned Canadian artist, Alex Colville, whom I had long admired as a painter of high realism. Recognition by such an artist gave me the confidence to proceed with the quilt as a fine art form. Eve’s Apple, acquired by the NSDCC Permanent Collection, was my first work shown in public.

Moving to Toronto in 1978, I hoped to pursue a career creating large-scale quilted works for corporate spaces. My first opportunity was a 64 x 4-foot commissioned piece, Equinox, for a new bank. Equinox and two other works became part of the Scotiabank Corporate Art Collection. This success gave my work great exposure, and throughout the 1980s I supported myself with commissions while continuing my own personal work. 

In 1980 I met my future husband Larry Goldstein, who worked in book publishing. During our courtship, he suggested creating a book of my work. The Joy of Quilting was published by Viking Canada in 1984. It was the first book showcasing the work of an individual quilt artist published in Canada. The book established my career as a professional artist. Since then, I have written Quilting, published in 1991, and Rags to Riches, released in 2007.

In 2002, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York invited me to contribute a piece to its Six Continents of Quilts exhibition. Emma’s Delight is part of MAD’s collection and is included in a catalog produced for the exhibit.

The artist today

Since moving back to Nova Scotia in 2004, I have concentrated on the rugged landscape with references to the culture and its heritage as inspiration. There have been more private collectors interested in recent years. Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles represented my work from 2007 to 2015. Attending the solo show of my work at Del Mano, Lloyd E. Cotsen, former CEO of Neutrogena, commissioned It’s No Fish Ye’re Buying for his collection, Textile Traces.

It’s No Fish Ye’re Buying by L. Swim, 2007
w14" x h14"
The Nova Scotia Art Bank acquired a work in 2007. We also made a decision to donate two works to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia a few years back. They were appraised as part of the process. We have been able to use those appraisals as a basis to price my work. I have received numerous awards and grants throughout my career that add credibility to the work I do. In 2013, I received Nova Scotia’s highest art award, the Portia White Prize for culture and artistic excellence. 

My husband and I set up our gallery featuring my originals and photographic prints of my images in 2005. Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site and brings in many visitors from around the world during the summer and fall months.

The future

My challenge is to keep working, probably on a smaller scale as I get older. I want to do more drawing and painting, as well. I started out as a painter in art school, so to come full circle in my art career would be satisfying. Just the same, I don’t foresee ever giving up working in textiles. All that texture is just too delicious.


Read more about Laurie Swim or drop by the Art Quilt Gallery of the Atlantic next time you're visiting Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  


  1. Lovely to read about your career path and your aspirations for the future. I too would like to paint again. The largess of your pieces always amazes me. I have your book Rags to Riches and took half of a workshop at your studio a few years ago. I was awed to see some of your pieces in 'real life '.

  2. Laurie Swim
    You take my breath away.