Back to Writing / 10-31-2006

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I can't decide if Canadian artist Robyn Swank is a tangled contradiction or the most complete, well-rounded person I've ever spoken to. Her intelligent, friendly joie de vivre never betrays the disturbing, dark complex art she creates. Whether shooting zombie whore photographs in the streets of LA or creating her small Cabinets of Curiosities with antiques, bones and dolls, the enigma that is Robyn touches an uneasy nerve in her viewers. I spoke with her about the perfect balance of her darkness and her light.

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Sez G: You've said you use your art to "explore our inner struggle to understand the causes and conditions of human existence." Is there any light or goodness in this struggle?

Robyn Swank: Throughout all of human history, we have created art. Even in the worst times and situations, or the best, art existed in some form to express the feelings and surroundings of the artist. The fact that this expression exists is essential, therefore "good."

Sez G: What's the process of creation for one of your photographs? Do you come up with the concept first based on inspiration? Or does it develop during the shoot?

Robyn Swank: It really depends. In the past I would just use what I had around me. I have done most of my stuff on no budget. Lately however, I have access to more things, so I can conceive an idea and build it completely the way I want it, although, I always seem to get the best shots when I am not planning. Afterwards I put the photos through Photoshop. Sometimes they change completely in this stage, and it's my favorite part.

Sez G: Many of your models seem to almost be in character, expressing both internal and external strain and complexity. How much direction do you give your models?

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Robyn Swank: I choose certain models because of what I know they can do. Many of them are friends of mine, so I take parts of their personality and apply it to the little story I tell with my camera. I have noticed that when you have someone who really plays the part and is interested in the context of it, you get amazing results.

Sez G: What's the shooting environment like for you? How many people are present, is there music, how familiar are you with the models, etc?

Robyn Swank: Usually it's just me and the model for small scale shoots. It's just like hanging out, except we happen to be shooting; it's very casual. With larger shoots, it really varies as to who is there, but I try to keep it as small as possible. I don't like my models feeling like they're completely on the spot as we are all creating something together. Music is a definite mood enhancer. Sometimes I let the model pick something she knows, so she is more comfortable if she is a beginner; other times I will throw something on to give the atmosphere of what we are trying to capture.

Sez G: Tell me about one of your favorite shoots.

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Robyn Swank: One time my friends and I dressed up like zombie whores, drank whiskey and just ran around the city. These creepy dudes in a Camaro thought we were real hookers and tried to pick us up after asking if we were okay. Thanks for your concern guys. I need to do that again, with better makeup, haha! We were just having fun, but people seemed to like the shots afterwards.

Sez G: You also create some very cool "cabinets of curiosities," which feel to me like a dark, creative mind compartmentalized into a desk drawer... part circus peep show, part grandparents' bedside table, part alley, part burned down toy store... When did you begin making these and how do the pieces develop?

Robyn Swank: I am very obsessed with collecting and the history of Cabinets, which were the beginnings of what we know today as museums. They were collections of wonders and curiosities to inform and inspire people, or to show off. To me, they developed because I collect endless antiques, bones, dolls and other oddities, and I had trouble organizing them every time I moved. I found this old box and just organized them. I realized that it was an outlet for my own stress as well, to contain little worlds in a box. Each one has a story, with a beginning middle and end.

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Sez G: What are your dreams like?

Robyn Swank: Most people would describe them as nightmares, but I think they're just horror movies I haven't made yet.

Sez G: You live in Victoria, British Columbia. What kind of stuff do you do and are you involved in any "scene?"

Robyn Swank: I do a lot of wedding and band photography here since there isn't too much of a market for my work, although I have created some of my best personal works in this city. I do travel quite a bit to LA and other places, so that keeps me sane. I'm not involved in any scenes, but I would be if there was a "scene" where you could dress up as Matlock and pretend you're Matlock all day long. I tend to stick to myself and my close friends in my spare time.

Sez G: What's next for you?

Robyn Swank: I want to get more into the film industry. Horror movies today are worse than they have ever been in the history of cinema. I think I should help fix that. I will always do photography though, and continue to develop my Cabinets of Curiosities. I am working on a batch of them that are huge and decadent.

Sez G: Are you happy?

Robyn Swank: I am one of the happiest people I know actually. I love life.

To learn more about Robyn Swank, visit

Robyn Swank - by Sez G.