Phoenix’s First Artist

What follows in italics is a biography about David Swing I submitted to circa 2012. Swing is considered to be Phoenix’s first resident professional artist.

David Swing in his Phoenix studio (left) Circa 1932

David Swing was one of Phoenix’s most prolific and best known artists in the 1920’s and 30’s.  Over sixty years after his death, Swing’s artistic legacy remains strong although many details of his personal life are sketchy.

A multi-talented man, Swing made his living at various times as a painter, interior designer, engraver, landscape artist and muralist.  He was also an accomplished violinist and trumpeter who played in orchestras in Cincinnati, Pasadena and Phoenix. His palette was typically softer than those of his colleagues who painted traditional Southwest landscapes; his style was characterized by the “use of delicate brown and blue tones”. It was once written his representations were “meant to soothe, not challenge, the senses”.

Horseshoe Falls

Swing was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1864, the fourth of seven children. His father, Alfred, was a professor of Greek and art at Batavia College.  David grew up in Newport, Kentucky and apprenticed with the William M. Donaldson Lithograph Company for several years in Cincinnati. By 1892 he had moved to California where he owned and operated David Swing and Company, a landscape and interior design firm located in downtown Los Angeles. He later served as president of the Los Angeles Engraving Company and had a studio in Pasadena.

In 1917 Swing relocated to Phoenix and began creating many of his works on a large scale.  Census records show he lived for over twenty years at 35 Palm Lane in Phoenix (just north of the present day location of the Phoenix Art Museum) with his wife Margaret and their three children. During the 1930’s Swing was an art instructor at Phoenix Junior College.

Swing was one of Arizona’s most active WPA era artists. His first major work involved the painting of landscape murals in the Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Papago Park. Swing’s landscapes were painted over murals created by another Phoenix artist, John Leeper, because Leeper’s murals contained nude figures. “Public outcry at the impropriety of Leeper’s work”, caused by the concern the nudes would be offensive to the TB patients, led to Swing’s commission in 1935.

In addition to Papago Park, Swing painted murals for Phoenix Junior College, the State Capitol, the Shrine and Masonic temples, and the Orpheum Theatre.  According to Peter Bermingham, in The New Deal in the Southwest, no other Arizona WPA era artist could match Swing for “sheer acreage of painted canvas”.  In 1936 he collaborated with Florence Blakeslee in another WPA project, designing twenty-three sculptured reliefs for the grand stand at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

Squaw Peak

NOTE: Swing’s WPA work resulted in controversy within the program. His six murals for Phoenix Junior College were deemed by WPA officials to be “not of the standard the Federal Art Project should maintain in works to be permanently allocated to public buildings.” One administrator referred to him as, “…a friendly, kindly old gentleman, who does not understand the underlying purpose…nor his responsibility…” Or as another described it, “Mr. Swing is not a mural painter…” but one who merely creates “atmospheric easel effects.”

The WPA recommended his work not be accepted.

But Swing had plenty of local backers including his wife, who wrote letters to both President Roosevelt and Senator Carl Hayden complaining about the treatment her husband had received.

In late 1937, over the objections of many faculty members, the dean allowed the paintings to be hung on the campus. All six of the murals remain on display today in the college’s library.

(Source: New Deal Art in Arizona by Betsy Fahlman. The University of Arizona Press 2009)

Hassayampa River

Swing’s most ambitious project came when he was commissioned by the state legislature to paint fourteen murals for Arizona’s exhibit at the Golden Gate International exposition in San Francisco in 1939.  He was paid a total of $3,750 for the commission, which was granted as “recognition of his standing as one of the state’s greatest artists.”  Swing was assisted “in preparation of the murals” by Scottsdale artist Marjorie Thomas.

Framed in saguaro ribs, the five foot by ten foot canvases represented subjects from throughout the state including the Grand Canyon, Tumacacori Mission, the Territorial Prison in Yuma, the San Francisco Peaks, the Painted Desert, and the Cochise Head in Chiricahua National Monument.  An Arizona Highways article in June, 1939 predicted the exhibit would “do much to increase transcontinental travel through Arizona…” The murals are currently in the permanent collection of the Arizona State Capitol Museum.

A philosopher as well as a musician and artist, Swing once wrote “Happiness is the most accommodating of all things.  It will come to a cottage as soon as to a palace. You need never wait for any outward pomp to come.  As the sunshine of the Almighty will shine through a simple vine as richly as upon the gilded dome of a temple, so happiness falls with equal sweetness falls upon all whose minds are at peace and in whose hearts flow the good thoughts and good sentiments of life.”

Swing was suffering from tuberculosis near the end of his life, and in the early 1940’s he moved into one of the bungalows in Phoenix at 40th & Camelback on the Cudia Movie City, at the invite S.B.P. Cudia.  In exchange, Swing painted several murals for Cudia City. 

David Swing died on June 12, 1945 in Phoenix.

The Natural Bridge. Courtesy of the Arizona State Capital Musuem
Superstition Mountains

Additional factoids and author’s experiences with Swing’s work :

As mentioned previously, in 1937 Swing received a commission from the Arizona State Legislature to paint 14 murals of Arizona subject matter for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Each one measured 5′ x 10′. The titles for all 14 are shown below. As of 12 years ago they were still in the permanent collection of the Arizona State Capitol Museum.

“The Painted Desert”

“Cochise Head

“San Francisco Peaks

“The Natural Bridge”

“Coronado Trail

“Roosevelt Dam”

“Lake Mead”

“The Petrified Forest”

“Saguaro Cactus Forest”

“Superstition Mountain”

“Tumaccori Mission”

“Montezuma Castle

“Territorial Prison”

“The Graham Mountains”

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to meet the artist’s granddaughter, Virginia Martz Abbott. While discussing the Grand Canyon murals Swing painted for the Orpheum Theatre she made a stunning admission. She claimed her grandfather had never actually visited the canyon.

I was astounded. It is considered sacrilege in many artistic circles to paint a subject one has not experienced personally. When I asked why she simply responded, “He never learned how to drive. He frequently painted from photographs.”

I could only wonder how many of the subjects for the 14 murals listed above he had actually seen for himself.

I was contacted about ten years ago to do an appraisal for the murals at the Masonic Temple in Phoenix. The purpose was to estimate value for resale. After I arrived at the temple and inspected the paintings I turned the job down. Six of the seven depicted scenes from Masonic allegorical plays. Because of the unusual subject matter and their size (all of them were approximately 6′ x 8′) I had no prior sales history of similar paintings to serve as a basis for an evaluation. In other words, “No comps.”

The seventh mural was a beautiful sunset scene from the Mogollon Rim. I tried unsuccessfully to get them to part with it. They wanted an all or nothing type deal.

Reliefs from the Arizona State Fairgrounds

The Bradshaw Mountains

The hot, dry Arizona climate is not conducive to the long term health of oil paintings. This is no doubt one of the biggest contributing factors to the poor condition of many Swing’s paintings I have encountered over the years. I would say on average one out of every three I have seen is not worth the cost of restoration, given current values.

This is unfortunate. He was was a romantic, but he was also very talented. His paintings are very well executed. I have no doubt as the Phoenix metropolitan area continues to develop at a rapid pace his work will be appreciated by future generations.


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