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Omaha Magazine

Paintings So Sweet, Viewers Will Need to See the Dentist

May 27, 2022 03:31PM ● By Jonathan Orozco
katrina swanson with candy painting

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

After sitting down at a cafe, Katrina Swanson pulls out her phone to briefly check on something and shows off her phone cover, which is embellished with vintage candy. 

“It brings back this memory of when you were a child and thought everything was great,” Swanson cheerfully said about her compositions. Tootsie Rolls, Pez, Dots, Big League Chew, and Smarties are a few of the sweets depicted in her paintings.

Painting candy is fairly new for the artist. She remembers creating floral watercolors before portraying candy. “Some of it was about my grandma with flowers and what we used to do together, like gardening and talking about flowers,” she said.   

Swanson briefly studied commercial arts at Metropolitan Community College, learning standard techniques for drawing and printmaking, but settled on painting. Though, her passion for art started in her childhood, something she said she was always confident in. 

The overarching theme in all her work is American nostalgia and beauty done in exacting detail, whether it be something edible or a sign. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Laurel Thiel, gallery director of Anderson O’Brien Fine Art who represents the artist, said, “Katrina's paintings are so precise that we can feel and hear the crinkle of the wrappers, and we want to dig into those piles and pull out our favorites.”

The painting process is time consuming, but also a labor of love for Swanson. Like many hyperrealistic artists, she works directly from a photo. Her process involves piling vintage candy in a mound, and taking up to 300 photos to get the perfect layout to paint. The composition has to be to her liking before she begins painting. 

Wrappers with bright colors and fonts make her candy paintings alluring. During her process, she takes great care to only paint these tempting surfaces while
avoiding barcodes. 

This kind of work takes hours. While she works, Swanson listens to podcasts and music to fill in the time.

Other paintings touch on iconic signage that only exists in Omaha, including restaurant signs such as Bronco’s Hamburgers’ Cowboy and La Casa’s squat man playing a guitar on Leavenworth Street. 

“Katrina's paintings of vintage neon signs are snapshots of time and place,” Thiel said. “Even though many of the restaurants are gone, the memories of meals eaten there remain. For many of us, the paintings remind us of our childhood and special occasions with family.”

Swanson’s technical abilities shine through when she paints people walking and eating in restaurants in the Old Market. Restaurants like Le Bouillon and La Buvette are among locations she has painted with people engrossed in their own worlds.

Like her paintings of candy, they strike a sense of nostalgia for the artist, who said, “When you were young, you’d just wander around because you didn’t have any money.” 

Other paintings capture touristy locations such as the Old Market Passageway, a place full of restaurants, shops, and galleries. Visitors are welcome to look and walk around as much as they are encouraged to shop. 

Her paintings don’t look exactly like a photograph, but have a vintage aura to them. They look like photos taken in the 1960s and give off a yearning for the past. 

Art aficionados would connect this style to the artist Richard Estes, a hyperrealist particularly known for his paintings of New York City made in the 1960s and 1970s that, to modern viewers, look vintage. 

Swanson is unashamed to say Estes is a major inspiration in her own work, and viewers can see that connection. She acknowledges the differences between the country’s biggest city and Omaha. “Omaha is a different feel, but if I had a subway to paint, I probably would,” she said.

Overall, her paintings speak to idyllic childhood, even though perception of things being perfect in the past could be a little shortsighted. They also show what distinguishes Omaha’s cultural values and icons from other cities by showing its most popular restaurants. 

That all being said, who doesn’t want to bite down on their favorite childhood candy or enjoy going to their favorite burger place? 

Learn more about Katrina Swanson by visiting her website: katrinamethotswanson.com, and following her on social media (Instagram: @katrinaswanson). 



This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.