Photos courtesy of Jim Swill.

this artist's wreaths are for anyone going through an existential crisis

Jim Swill uses colorful floral arrangements as a social commentary on mental health issues.

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May 1 2019, 1:00pm

Photos courtesy of Jim Swill.

Jim Swill, a Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and filmmaker came up with the idea for his funeral wreath project after making a wrong turn in an Oakland cemetery at the end of 2016. His 100-photo series, “Jim Swill’s Funeral Wreaths,” became a social commentary exploring online dating, mental health, mortality, and sexuality.

“I make funeral wreaths to mock the cheap nature of American death rituals,” Swill explains. “We don't have any true cultural traditions in the Western world except for a church, some flowers, and some tripod collages of family photos.” He has always felt uneasy at the thought of his life someday being summed up in “a slapped together presentation with repeated vague send-offs."

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Swill’s gateway into the creative world was through performing in noise bands when he was 16 years old. From there, he worked primarily as a graphic designer and visual artist.

Using his multimedia background, Swill views visual art as a vehicle for his poetry. All 100 arrangements are done by hand, and compiled based on phrases he often sees “racing through my screens or our current psyche.”

i-D spoke with Swill about funeral arrangements, graveyards, and existentialism.

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You describe yourself as an "artist, writer, and filmmaker.” Is there any medium you find yourself more drawn to?
Everything I do is an extension of writing and poetry. Almost all of my design, sculpture, and video work contain either text or narration. I use art as a vehicle for my writing because it's faster to digest than reading a book. It sounds broad, but I use all these things for the same goal. I want to insert my writing into other mediums for people to pick up who don't normally engage with poetry.

How did you get the idea for this project?
I got the idea when some friends and I went to a cemetery in Oakland that overlooked the Bay Area. We accidentally went down the wrong path and went into some zone visitors aren't supposed to walk through. Back there were tons of shattered headstones in mountains of rubble, empty caskets, and a massive pile of rotting funeral wreaths. I had the idea long before I started making them just in my notes, but I when I first went downtown to the LA Flower District and saw dozens of storefronts full of blank ones, that’s when I really considered it.

Tell me a bit more about the meaning behind the project?
Each piece is different. Some of them are about the deaths of loved ones, unfulfilling jobs, abuse, and sexual trauma, but some are just funny ones about online dating and frustrations with social media. I wanted to make something super colorful and different from my past work, but with the same existential undertones.

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What was the process of creating and photographing 100 of them?
I'd build a few wreaths at a time and formed an obsession with them. At first, I tried real flowers, but they'd decay too quickly so I use silk ones that look real enough. Once I had a few wreaths lined up I'd experiment with different phrases and the type layout until something struck me or I found it entertaining enough. It was really fun, tedious, and very involved, working with suppliers and visiting the area weekly for ideas and materials.

Why did you decide to shift from studio to outdoor photography?
I got sick of photographing them in my studio and wanted them to appear in more organic environments outside, so my car always had a few in the trunk at all times in case I saw a location with a complementary color scheme and good lighting. I definitely ended up destroying quite a few over the course of the series just from trying to get the perfect shot and transporting them.

What makes you want to explore themes such as mental health, mortality, and sexuality?
That's pretty much all that interests me. I want to make work that allows one to feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable things in life. And it's been my most popular work thus far. People that really loved the wreath series have been a totally different audience than normal, which is great because it's so easy to get stuck in your niche.

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