Charles Swenson traded a career in animation for Santa Monica’s fine arts scene
By Michael Aushenker
A funny thing happened to Charles Swenson on the way up the ladder in animation: he became a fine artist.
“I sort of worked myself out of the business,” said Swenson, who will attend a reception for new paintings at Santa Monica’s haleARTS SPACE from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9. “I became executive producer. It takes a long time for things to happen between meetings, with each meeting not sure what’s gonna happen next. Rather than sit and wait, I started to paint. At some point, when the call came, I didn’t answer.”
Swenson, who in the 1990s worked at Hollywood’s Klasky-Csupo animation studio on such Saturday morning TV fare as “Santa Bugito” and the Emmy-winning “Rugrats,” began his career in Downey, drawing cowboys and Indians in the shadow of the restaurant that quickly morphed into the world’s largest fast food franchise.
“I went to the grand opening,” Swenson recalled of those 19-cent burgers at the “Speedee McDonald’s” in 1953.
After graduating from the Art Center and the Disney-sponsored Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute for the Arts in Valencia), Swenson spent a year working as an apprentice for iconic architects and furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, a pair of married Palisadians working in Venice.
“They were wonderful; it was the best first job that you could imagine,” Swenson remembered. At the Eames compound, such personages as “Bride of Frankenstein” star Elsa Lanchester and composer Leonard Bernstein visited and “(geodesic dome inventor) Bucky Fuller would come by for lunch.
“They had a warehouse in Venice that they had taken over and it had no interior walls,” Swenson continued. “It was an open space (that) had a really art studio feel to it.”
Swenson soon landed at the Hollywood animation house run by Jimmy Murakami and Fred Wolf, where he worked for 15 years.
Most notably, Swenson worked on the 1971 animated TV special “The Point!,” singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson’s pet project.
“Harry was wonderful,” he said. “He had a really crack mind. He was incredibly sharp and witty and very childlike.”
Nilsson had stumbled onto Swenson’s short subject “The Magic Pear Tree,” which ran before a screening of “Midnight Cowboy,” the controversial 1969 movie starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, for which Nilsson famously recorded “Everybody’s Talkin.’” Nilsson loved Swenson’s style, which brought the “Without You” musician to Swenson’s place of work to create “The Point!,” featuring such Nilsson chestnuts as “Me and My Arrow.”
“It was a very different time,” Swenson said of Nilsson’s ability to get the quirky “Point!” made. “Harry was extremely magnetic. You could do everything. These days animation is much more of a business.”
Unfortunately, as a movie of the week, “The Point!” bombed in the ratings because ABC, deciding “The Point!” was family-friendly, switched the “Movie of the Week” time to 7:30 p.m. but neglected to inform TV Guide.
Swenson also co-directed, with Wolf, 1978’s “Puff the Magic Dragon,” an animated movie based on the song by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.
“Peter is a very different guy, very bright,” Swenson recalled. “I didn’t work with any musicians who I didn’t think were absolutely bright,” including Frank Zappa, for whom Swenson worked on an animated sequence for “200 Motels.”
After exiting TV animation in the 2000s, Swenson began juxtaposing old shoes in the foreground at live modeling sessions and painting series such as “Nudes and Shoes.”
“The female figures became background features and the shoes asked a question of some sort,” Swenson explained. “People have had different responses to what the shoes represent – fashion; the price of beauty; the rising role of women in the work place. All these questions are asked.”
Swenson followed this series up with “Stick Figures,” making similar organic juxtapositions between women and tree branches.
Swenson still has a few fond memories from his TV animation days, including fellow former Klasky-Csupo animator Igor Kovalyov. Through Kovalyov, a gaggle of Moscow animators who had fled the former Soviet Union arrived at Klasky-Csupo, where Hungarian co-founder Peter Csupo embraced their Eastern European sensibility at his quirky studio. Swenson, who befriended the Russian contingent, has kept in touch with Kovalyov, since he returned to his native country to work on a 3D animated children’s series. Next month, Swenson will reunite with Kovalyov when he embarks on a 10-day trip through various Russian towns during the 20th KROK International Animated Film Festival.
Swenson will exhibit alongside sculptor Jerry Shevick and photographer Phyllis Stuart at haleARTS SPACE, 2443 Main St., Santa Monica. The exhibition runs through Aug. 21. Information, (310) 314-8038; halearts.com; CharlesGSwenson.com.