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Robert Swan in his office at Western Oregon University with some of his personal artwork. His first exhibition of art since coming to Monmouth in 2010 was in October.
December 11, 2012
MONMOUTH -- It's a cliche you come across often: Professionals, executives or general working-stiffs leaving behind their day jobs to pursue a passion for cooking, music, art ... you get the picture.
It's only recently that Robert Swan of Monmouth has realized he's a pretty good representation of the antithesis of that.
For more than a decade, Swan worked as a professional artist, traveling across the United States and Asia painting murals on high-rises and in ritzy hotels while doing his own gallery shows in Portland's trendy Pearl District.
At the ripe age of 35, Swan decided he had enough and found another calling -- dissecting the criminal justice system.
Swan is an assistant professor of criminology at Western Oregon University and teaches heady to grim subject matter, such as policing policy or crime prevention.
Current research agendas include examining public perceptions and the response of law enforcement to media portrayals in high-profile incidents.
Swan's work as a muralist took him around the world, but much of the time he was high above Los Angeles and New York City on a platform like this.
"My family was trying to get used to the art thing," Swan, 47, said. "And by the time they did, I had moved into academics.
"I still spend time on my own art," he continued. "But what I'm doing now is really in service to a lot of other people, whether it's teaching or collaborating with a criminal justice agency on gang stuff or prisons."
Swan grew up near Oregon City. A childhood spent without television -- "my mother modeled excellent habits," he said -- sparked an interest in music, gardening and art.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school, returned three years later and pursued an art degree at Clackamas Community College. He left after two years when he snagged a job painting murals in resorts in Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Back in the United States, hand-painting outdoor advertising murals in Los Angeles and New York helped pay the bills as he concentrated on his personal work.
"My gallery style was a response to the constraints of painting photorealism on a large scale," said Swan, who counts Van Gogh, Dada and meso-American art as influences.
Despite regularly showing work in and being a member of venues like the Blackfish Gallery and Gallery 114 in Portland, Swan said he was growing weary of "an inward looking and narcissistic culture" that surrounds art.
Robert Swan painted massive advertisements on the exteriors of buildings, including this mural for Jodie Foster's "The Brave One" along Park Avenue in New York City
Meanwhile, he started following politics and criminal policy, particularly the passage of Oregon's Measure 11 in 1994. The epiphany was complete after watching a television profile of a man who made a fortune producing plastic prison furniture.
"Things that were happening in criminal justice, I wanted to learn more about it," he said. "I felt like I hadn't been paying attention to anybody but myself for a long time."
Swan enrolled at Portland State University in 2000. He earned a master's degree in criminology and criminal justice in 2006 and his doctorate two years later.
He taught briefly at the University of South Dakota before being hired by Western's criminal justice department in 2010.
Though he's been touched by crime at a personal level -- he has a brother who's battled a severe drug addiction -- it's broad policy that is his interest, such as how police can best address issues of sexual and gender diversity while dealing with the public on the job.
"It's training you're going to have to have if you're going into corrections or law enforcement," Swan said. "This year I've introduced a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender component into classes on policing because it's an emerging paradigm ... even Portland Police Department has made videos about (thesubject)."
Swan is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive text book on Oregon's criminal justice system for Carolina Academic Press. It's due out next year.
While he's abandoned "art culture," Swan still draws and paints. In October, he had the first public showing of his art work in Monmouth since moving to town.
"Teaching and research is very satisfying to me, to serve hundreds of students," Swan said. "But I can't do without art ... we all need this emotional element we can express ourselves through.
"As a child, I always told my mother that when I grew up I wanted to get paid for reading or making art," he added. "In fact, that has become my career outcome."