The Swanston Room Soars
By Thomas Swanston
In about 5 seconds, you can turn 360 degrees and experience all the cranes gracing the panels of The Dewberry’s circular Swanston Room. Those 5 seconds I hope are magical – where the subject, quality of light and richness of materials evokes a, “Wow – I’ve never seen anything like that,” response that brings viewers closer to my art and to nature itself. This precious, gilded room of movement and light tells a story of migration, of mystical movement through time and space, from one location to another, with an ultimate return home.
My artistic collaborations with hotel founder John Dewberry began in 2012 after he viewed my exhibition at the Lowe Gallery in Atlanta. The result of our first joint effort was titled Early Morning Lift Off, a large-scale, 20-panel acrylic and gold-leaf gilded piece featuring the regional migration of Sandhill Cranes. The piece is permanently installed in the lobby of the Campanile Building at the corner of Peachtree Street and 14th Street in Midtown Atlanta.
Our Dewberry Hotel partnership began in Charleston in 2014, when John had the idea of featuring my art in the anteroom just outside the ballroom. John wanted the migration panels to have a rich, luxurious feel for the hotel. He specifically envisioned the cranes flying in one direction, creating a circular movement around the ballroom entrance.
My Migration Series paintings are inspired by the half million Sandhill Cranes that migrate through the Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska—the largest annual migration in North America. The vision John had for The Dewberry was one of movement and to educate guests about the cranes. The awareness of Sandhill Cranes during migration is a reminder of the fragile nature of existence; for Whooping Cranes, which are indigenous to the Lowcountry and have been on the Endangered Species list since 1941, awareness centers around the precariousness of their history.
The 22 panels at The Dewberry feel as though they have been preserved from an older home, then re-installed and creatively reimagined—much like The Dewberry itself, which has been repurposed from the former Mendel Rivers Federal Building. First, my team and I sanded and painted the panels with a number of base materials; next, we added two to three coats of color. Once the surface was as smooth as marble, we began to gild, first with aluminum. Then, we drew thousands of cranes, gilding them in silver, pewter and 22-carat gold. In the piece, the six Whooping Cranes are represented with dyed Japanese silver gilt, while the more numerous Sandhill Cranes are colored with the other gilded materials.
It took three-and-a-half months to complete the panels onsite, and we installed them over one weekend. Along with my crew from Axis Fine Art Installations, members of John’s family and employees from The Dewberry helped hang the panels.
Working alongside those folks and having them take a hands-on approach to the installation connected us to the hotel and the painting as we finished it—coming full circle.