About this time Swinnerton felt confident enough to show his oil paintings to William Randolph Hearst, describing them as a good example of what he could do since he quit drinking. After inspecting the paintings Hearst suggested that maybe “Swinny” should go back to drinking.
Hearst was not the only one to offer discouragement. A few years earlier Swinnerton’s grandfather had chastised him for painting the desert, referring to his grandson’s choice of subject matter as a “hell hole”, and suggesting that he should instead be “painting the beautiful Sierras”. Undeterred, Swinnerton persisted. Where others saw barren waste Swinnerton saw beauty –one that could not be described, just experienced. It was a heartfelt, spiritual sensation he would spend a lifetime attempting to capture on canvas. In later years he would attribute his fine art success in part to pure stubbornness and determination to convince his family and friends the land he loved was more than just a “drab heckhole”.
By 1910 Swinnerton claimed Colton as his home. Although legally still married to his second wife, he lived with his girlfriend, Espie Castle and her mother at a house on 8th Street. Espie may well have been his third wife rather than his girlfriend, as Swinnerton always asserted. According to the 1910 U.S. Census James and Espie Swinnerton, five years his junior, were husband and wife. Regardless of the legal status the arrangement was similar to his previous marriages in that it was very brief. Espie soon became deeply religious and Swinnerton refused to convert. In 1914 he relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona alone.
Flagstaff provided a good jumping off point to not only the Grand Canyon, but also to Hopi and Navajo country. The region would eventually become one of his two favorite settings(the other the Salton Sea), and it the author’s opinion that it was during these years on the Colorado Plateau that his best work was created. More than colleagues, Swinnerton was known for painting the same subject numerous times from a variety of angles and in different conditions of light, shadow and atmosphere. Swinnerton spent so much time in Monument Valley that a well known landmark, Swinnerton Arch, is named in his honor. Agathla Needle, one of area’s most distinctive pinnacles, was likely his most frequently painted subject, the number of canvases and sketches featuring the sublime monument exceeded perhaps only by his representations of the Grand Canyon.
His extended trips throughout the Colorado River Plateau helped him forge long lasting relationships with many members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes. There were a few Navajo who maintained that he was more partial to the Hopi -a source of minor contention among those who held the belief. But there is no doubt he was a source of entertainment to many from both groups. Various clans within the tribes gave him names ranging from “The Fun Maker” to “Chief Big Mouth”, and in turn “named their babies and burros Jimmy Swinnerton”. Daryl Getzlaff, who visited Orabai with Swinnerton in the 1950’s remembers the artist, dressed in his trademark wide brimmed hat and with the ever present pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth, being treated by the Hopi like a returning dignitary.
In 1917 Swinnerton met and married his third (or perhaps fourth) wife, Louise Scher, a statuesque blonde from Gallup, New Mexico who had a seven year old daughter from a previous marriage. He soon legally adopted his step-daughter, Mary-Elizabeth, who changed her last name from Scher to Swinnerton. In 1920 Swinnerton and his new wife returned to Palo Alto, California in order to be closer to medical specialists for his step-daughter’s heart condition. Swinnerton would remain a California resident for the rest of his life, but for over thirty years he returned regularly to Flagstaff every summer, often embarking on extended trips throughout northern Arizona and southern Utah and Colorado.
It was also in 1920 that Good Housekeeping began publishing another major cartoon success, Kiddies of the Canyon Country. Swinnerton had developed the concept after receiving overwhelmingly favorable feedback to the Indian children and animals he had sketched on the invitations to Mary-Elizabeth’s birthday party the year before. The strip (revived after a seven year hiatus and changed to The Canyon Kiddies in 1933) was hugely successful and ran for almost twenty-five years. Frequently subtitled “A Page of Smiles for Youngsters”, the Kiddies were a hit with both children and adults. Every issue consisted of three to four individual panels on a single page, each printed in color and captioned with a two to four line poem written by Swinnerton himself. The Canyon Kiddies depicted the escapades and daily lives of Hopi and Navajo children, often accompanied by their pets or the local wildlife. Although comical in both intent and result, Swinnerton treated his subject matter affectionately and the results revealed his reverence for both the people and the land. Set in the remote, dramatic scenery of northern Arizona’s canyon country, the spectacular backdrops contribute almost as much to the timeless appeal of the series as the loveable kiddies themselves.
During the next year, 1921, galleries in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all held one-man shows featuring Swinnerton's work. The exhibits met with both critical and commercial success. In 1924, Sunset Magazine used his paintings for covers in May and November. This exposure helped to vault Swinnerton’s fine art to national prominence. During this period it was still northern Arizona which most captivated the artist. Although a full time resident of California, the summers were still spent on sketching trips to the Colorado Plateau, primarily Monument Valley.
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