Nobody is talking to Francis Switzer, and that's okay. Never mind that art patrons fill the Dana Gallery for its 15th anniversary celebration, or that dozens of Switzer's large-scale oil paintings are featured in the gallery's current exhibit highlighting promising young artists. The 25-year-old Switzer stands in a corner, dressed in shorts and a short-sleeve button-down shirt, holding a cup of Liquid Planet coffee that he never bothers to drink. Alone, and mostly anonymous, he looks as comfortable as could be under the circumstances.
Comfort doesn't come naturally to Switzer in public settings. He's admittedly awkward in conversation, but always respectful, deliberate and grateful for any interest in his work. He takes his time answering questions from potential buyers and other artists, studying the floor for the right words, looking up at the end of each thought, and then looking down again to assess what he just said. He often finishes with a nod, and silence. Maybe a second nod.
"I'm getting better at this part of it—being in the gallery, talking," he says without making eye contact. "At first, I didn't like it at all. But I realize it's something I have to do."
Switzer is one of the rare artists who can literally let his work speak for itself. Ever since he dedicated himself to painting full-time at 18, he's racked up an impressive list of mentors, buyers and admirers. His father, Scott Switzer, is an accomplished painter carried in galleries throughout the Northwest. Francis spent four years as an apprentice for renowned landscape painter Robert Moore, living in the artist's former studio in Idaho. For the last year he's been working out of a studio in the Dana Gallery's basement, and has become one of the downtown gallery's most in-demand artists. During the anniversary celebration, an iridescent Bitterroot Valley landscape was marked as sold for $3,800.
"Things don't have to sell to make great art, but the range of people who respond to his work is just remarkable," says Dudley Dana, the gallery owner who first heard of Switzer from Moore. "What I think about is how many well-known artists are fans. There's Robert Moore, of course. George Gogas calls him his favorite artist in the gallery. Bob Phinney has bought his work."
Switzer's appeal has a lot to do with his use of color. While he says he's still learning—"my edges, composition, shapes; there's a lot I need to improve"—his work has always maintained a realistic and alluring light, the type that draws a viewer deep into a painting. His 30-by-40 oil painting titled "Autumn Day" bleeds the burnt red and rich yellow of the season, looking similar to one of Moore's signature aspen scenes. His versatility comes through with another 30-by-40 painting titled "Houses on the Flathead," where the homes seem to shimmer in the blues and yellows of a summer heat wave.
"He has an innate ability to mix color," says Dana. "It's a gift."
Whatever shortcomings Switzer deals with in social settings, he makes up for with strong pedigree and a workingman's approach to art. Switzer remembers his father taking him and his brothers along for paint outs when they were young. Dad would hand the boys some brushes, a dab of paint, and blank paper to occupy themselves while he worked.
The family grew up in Billings, but moved to Alaska in 2000 "to get away from everything," says Francis. He continued to gravitate to the arts and won a Congressional Award in 2002 that resulted in one of his paintings being put on display at the U.S. Capitol. By the time he was 18, he decided to try and make a living as an artist.
"I wasn't having a good time," he says. "I was getting into trouble. I don't want to get into that, but I had a choice: I could continue to work construction, or I could dedicate myself to this. It was an easy decision."
Scott, his father, had formally studied art in Los Angeles before dedicating his life to the craft at 21. One of his best friends during school happened to be none other than Robert Moore. When Francis made the decision to pursue art, Moore emerged as the perfect mentor. Francis spent his days working for Moore and painting. In return, Moore would critique his work and make suggestions.
"I don't know much, but what I learned, I learned from Robert and my dad," says Francis.
To his credit, he's taken those lessons and combined them with his own blue-collar style. Before galleries represented him, he sold his paintings through eBay and supported himself with the money he made as a stonemason. He says he paints for 10 hours a day, sometimes more. He doesn't paint from photographs, instead preferring to study light and the landscape in person. Dana says the young artist practiced for weeks before the gallery's annual plein air Paint Out so he could "do as well as the old guys." Dana makes a point of explaining that many artists put in the time to develop their craft, but Switzer is different.
"He takes what he does very seriously and part of that is spending a lot of time in the studio," says Dana. "He's also very hard on himself, which is both a blessing and a curse. I mean, you wouldn't believe the paintings he's tried to throw away."
Switzer doesn't know any other way. Just as he searches for the right words in each sentence, he painstakingly hammers away at the details in his paintings. He's not satisfied, he says, until he feels the same connection with a painting as he does with the land.
"I treat it like my old construction job. I get up every morning and do my work."
He pauses. Nods. Then, while looking down, adds: "This is my job. I may be young, but I've put my time in. I work hard."
Francis Switzer's paintings are featured in the Dana Gallery's exhibit, The Young and the Restless, which continues through Thursday, Oct. 20.