Illustrator Halsey Swain speaks in a matter-of-fact, almost backwoods drawl. Though she has called Portland home for five years, she was born in Marblehead, Mass., not far from the other Salem.
“I was born in Salem Hospital,” she says. “Believe it or not, I was born in room 666.”
Looking at her art, that’s easy to believe. Under the punk-derived handle Halseycaust, Swain has rendered highly detailed black-and-white line work for dozens of punk, crust and extreme-metal bands. Denver’s Havok hired her to render several grimacing skulls, and local band Lord Dying recently purchased a gruesome full-color monster with a handful of eyeballs to use as a T-shirt mascot and cover for its Powerblaster 7-inch. Her kindergarten art teacher proclaimed Swain was “born with a pencil in her hand.” But it was an old flame, Joel Grind of Portland thrash act Toxic Holocaust, who really helped push her work into the spotlight. “When I first met him, I said I was an artist,” Swain says. “He said, ‘Here’s another girl who says she’s an artist.’ His mind changed after he actually saw me draw shit.”
Swain works out of her attic bedroom space in North Portland. The walls of her home are covered in framed pieces she’s done—a morbid gallery of lions, owls and skulls. Last year, Swain refocused her work on more personal subjects. “I like wildlife. I like animals,” she says. “It’s not a zombie holding a Flying V [guitar] in a graveyard with the moon in the background. People have asked me for the same thing 200 times over.” Real animals lurk around the house, too—her dog, Paul, robed in a red winter Santa coat; two cats; and another special friend. “I got one rattlesnake downstairs,” she says. “I had one that I caught that was very mean. I was changing its tank at one point, I bent over to get something and it struck through the screen and sprayed venom all over my face and into my eyes. I went and washed it out really quick, and I was so pissed I threw the thing in the freezer. It’s still in there.”
As Swain’s subject matter has matured, so have her opportunities. Her first gallery show in New York led to the sale of a “monstrous piece with all this crazy detail” for $1,800. She says the show’s organizer is confident in her future. “He said my stuff is probably gonna take off, especially because I’m a broad,” Swain says. “I guess in the art scene, the whole ‘chick thing’ is really in right now. [But] the last thing I want to do is talk to art people. They drive me nuts.”
Though she proclaims herself anti-social and a thorough Luddite (“I just don’t like computers,” she says), Swain is both charming and uncensored. When she doesn’t like something, it’s “crap.” When she gets enthused, everything is “wicked good.” She is that rare artist apprenticed from birth by a supportive mother with a serious art career of her own.
“She loves [my art],”
Swain says. “She used to ride motorcycles and had a Mohawk. I hate to
admit it, but I’m just like her.”
This is the second in a multipart series on Portland’s musical infrastructure—the people, places and institutions that allow the scene to thrive.
MORE: See Halsey Swain’s artwork at halseyswain.com.