Law library specialist, designer and artist Holly Swenson leaves her mark on the walls of Worrell

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There’s no doubt that Holly Swenson is creative. As a library specialist and graphic designer for Wake Forest Law, she puts her talents to work on the school’s alumni magazine, “The Jurist,” as well as variety of print and online pieces. Her latest work won’t fit on a screen or in a magazine however. In fact, it takes up an entire wall. 

Swenson has wanted to get experience at mural painting, and when construction began in the basement of the Worrell Professional Center, she saw the opportunity to use one of the walls as her canvas. The result was a new perspective on a timeless painting: a parody on a portion of Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” but with an iPhone in his hand.

So why did you paint a mural in the law library?

Ever since I started working here at the library in 2011, I have had a fantasy of painting something colorful or provocative on the walls because the library is so neutral and almost monochrome. Most of the art here is classic portraiture and homogenous.  I never took it seriously, but whenever I saw blank walls I would think to myself “I could paint something really cool there…” With the law school construction, the first floor of the library was emptied out, and we knew those walls would eventually be destroyed. So I asked Associate Dean for Information Services and Technology Chris Knott if I could practice painting a mural there since there wasn’t any traffic and it wouldn’t be permanent. When I showed him my idea, his reaction was, “Get going on it!”

How did you get into art?

I’ve been able to draw really well since I was young. Mostly, I did portraiture with graphite in black and white. I’d never really been able to do anything else, so that’s what I did for years and years. I kind of stopped drawing altogether after high school and started belly dancing in college. Dancing consumed all of my artistic energy for about the next 10 years until I moved here and ended up getting involved with Art-o-mat®. When I picked up my pencils again, not only had I somehow retained my drawing skills, but it was almost easier than I remembered. I’ve also been experimenting with different mediums that I’d never been able to figure out before with pretty good success, which is weird because I hadn’t made any art in almost a decade. But in that time I’d also lived abroad and learned a foreign language, some computer and web programming, how to make graphic art, and had learned how to belly dance. I think taking a break and acquiring skills that utilized different parts and sides of my brain has helped my current artistic skills more than anything.

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What made you go back to art after learning so many different things?

It really wasn’t until I met Clark, the inventor of Art-o-Mat, about a year after I moved here. I found out what he did and I thought, I really need to make art again, I used to be so good at it and I’m wasting a talent. So I started getting involved with that and it kind of snowballed. Now I’m dancing a lot less and creating a lot more.

What is Art-o-mat®?

Art-o-mat is a home-grown, Winston-Salem original organization. Artist and creator of Art-o-mat, Clark Whittington, refurbishes and tricks out retired cigarette machines that then dispense cigarette pack-sized pieces of art. Artists create a 50-or-more piece series of whatever art that they do, and the studio then dispenses the art to more than 100 machines throughout the country, including in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library and the Benson Center.

What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve gotten to do? 

Really, I only started getting back into making art again within the last couple of years, and Art-o-mat has probably been my favorite. The constraints of creating art that size have helped me get more creative in how I approach an art project in general. I started making necklace pendants for it, doing individual drawings inside one-inch square pendants. They probably are my favorite thing that I’ve been doing just because I had no idea that I could draw anything that small. They started out a little rough as portraits of various animals, but with practice that one little square inch starts to look surprisingly big. I’ve even been able to get famous protest images like the burning monk in Vietnam, the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, and the tank man in Tiananmen Square all in one inch. With all of that concentration on a square inch, it’s no wonder I couldn’t resist busting out a nice big mural in my free time.

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All photos by Rachel Wallen.