Arts Beat

Not Your Garden Variety Painter

Jason Swain and his portrait of Steve Irwin, now hanging at Strathmore.
Jason Swain and his portrait of Steve Irwin, now hanging at Strathmore. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Jason Swain has worked many odd jobs at the Strathmore arts complex in North Bethesda. He's mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges and cut down trees. But hanging his own art in the mansion? This will be a first.

Landscaper by day and painter by night, Swain is hunched over his 5-by-4-foot oil portrait of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. The 39-year-old artist looks a little like the man in the painting -- they're both blond Australians, wearing khaki shirts and smiles. Irwin is holding a lizard.

The painting will hang in the sunroom in the Mansion at Strathmore through Dec. 22. Next month, Swain plans to ship it to the Australia Zoo as a gift to Terri Irwin, Steve's widow.

"He was just a regular guy," Swain says of his countryman. "He was the quintessential Australian."

After Irwin died over Labor Day weekend, Swain decided to pay tribute to "Australia's superhero," as he calls him. First he painted two murals of the TV personality on the sides of his work van. After that drew attention (both in the media and on the street), he decided to paint a more traditional portrait.

Swain, an avid surfer, grew up in a small coastal town in Queensland about 20 minutes from the zoo where Irwin worked. He now lives in Kensington. Though Swain never met Irwin, the news of his death at age 44 by stingray shocked him and he watched news reports for a whole day.

"His family just kept calling each other back and forth saying, 'I can't believe this happened,' " his wife, Annette, says. "He just seemed really sad. You knew something was wrong. He wasn't his normal jolly self."

The portrait took him 10 weeks to complete. "I would go and cut 20 lawns a day, then I'd come home, eat my dinner and race to my studio and paint until 11 or 11:30 at night," he says.

Swain labored over the wrinkles and colors on the lizard's skin. He obsessed over Irwin's eyes, considering them the most important part of a portrait.

The end result is classic Irwin. After Swain had finished hanging the painting in the mansion sunroom, a group of elderly ladies came in to check it out.

"Wonderful!" they said, nearly in unison. "It's just marvelous!"

Swain started painting in 1996 in San Diego after he moved to the United States to be with Annette. Impressionist painter Robert Hagan (a fellow Aussie) lived in Swain's neighborhood and became his mentor. For his first lesson, Hagan gave him a picture of a sea gull and told Swain to paint it 100 times.

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