He paints his feelings, donates the proceeds

jdodge@theolympian.comAugust 16, 2012 

Olympia artist Charles Swank is a big fan of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity, and he shows his support in a couple of ways.

First, Swank has taken breaks from his west Olympia art studio – the place he spends much of his time – to work as a volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity housing construction site in 0lympia, accompanied by special needs students he works with in the transition program offered by the Olympia School District.

Second, Swank donates some of his paintings to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in downtown Olympia. Proceeds from the sale of his art are funneled directly into the nonprofit group’s effort to build affordable housing for low-income families and individuals.

ReStore manager Caleb White estimates that customers at the store that sells recycled and donated building and home improvement supplies have purchased about 20 of Swank’s paintings in the past two years, raising about $2,000 in the process. Swank thinks the number of paintings sold at the store is closer to 40.

Swank, 64, takes a noncommercial approach to his art, painting 200 to 300 pieces per year with no expectation of fortune or fame. At any given time, six are hanging on the wall next to the customer service desk at the retail store.

“I paint for my own personal development and I paint for the love of it,” the San Diego native said. “I got serious about painting at the age of 17 and I never looked back.”

A graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program at Yale University, Swank has a hard time describing his work, and so do I. Much of his work draws from a 15th century school of painting called “enso,” which is the Japanese word for circle and a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism.

The paintings are typically circular, colorful, luminous and feature a centered focal point that expresses inward, or outward depth, done with acrylic paints he purchases at the ReStore.

“I’m painting my feelings,” Swank said during an interview last week that began at the ReStore and moved across the street to the East Bay Public Plaza. “The paintings talk to me. They are kind of like jazz – improvised.”

Swank likes to paint big and is sometimes drawn to some unusual canvasses, ranging from trash can lids to automobile hubcaps. When he can combine recycling and reuse with art, he is at his happiest.

The painter-turned-philanthropist is no stranger to philanthropy. Until her death in 2003, he worked 18 years as Joan Kroc’s caretaker at her Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., home. Kroc was the third wife of Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s Corp. She inherited his sizable fortune upon his death in 1984.

Joan Kroc left a considerable mark in Southern California philanthropy circles. When she died, she bequested $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army, $225 million to National Public Radio and tens of millions of dollars more to other causes.

By comparison, Swank jokingly talks about his donated paintings raising enough money to buy a few boxes of nails for the Habitat for Humanity housing projects.

“It feels good to support low-income housing through Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “This provides me a way to participate.”

The community continues to support South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and the ReStore, which opened in the old Hardel Builders Center warehouse at 415 Olympia Ave., Olympia, in October 2009.

The volume of building supplies flowing in and out of the 18,000 square-foot store continues to grow, from 790 tons a year ago to 894 tons in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

“We like to say we do good in a good economy and great in a bad economy,” White said.

Look for two new initiatives from the ReStore folks next month. They include:

 • The opening of a retail store in Yelm to better serve rural Thurston County customers looking for lightly used and donated building supplies at deeply discounted prices.

 • A new program in which ReStore crews will pick up donated building materials at homes across the county. The service, by appointment only, will also include dismantling or deconstruction work in advance of a contractor or do-it-yourself home improvement project at minimal cost to the homeowner.

For more information on the launch of the new store and program, check spshabitat.org.restore in the weeks ahead.

jdodge@theolympian.com 360-754-5444

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