Gwen Schwartz: An artist’s creative fire, remembered

NORTHEAST HARBOR – Gwen Elizabeth Schwartz was a young artist who is remembered by friends and family for her bold vision, independent thinking, spontaneity, and fierce spirit.

Gwen was 21 when she died suddenly, on April 5, 2011 in New York City, not long after receiving a possible diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Seen here is the lit version of Gwen Schwartz’s 6-foot-square caricature of the Polish conceptual artist Piotr Uklanski.

She attended Mount Desert Elementary School and Mount Desert Island High School, where she graduated with  honors in 2007. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at New York University’ Steinhardt School in Manhattan, where she also received NYU Founders Day Award for Academic Excellence and was named a University Honors Scholar.

Her parents are Annie and Frank Schwartz, who raised their two children, Gwen and Ian, on MDI. Ian now lives in Korea with his wife Kim Eun Ok, who is also known as Angelica, and their 13-month-old son Harry.

The Schwartzes held a retrospective of Gwen’s artworks on July 7, in Northeast Harbor.  The show served as a memorial service that drew friends and family from near and far.

“I think she would have preferred this,” said Frank. “It’s a celebration of what she did and what her passion was.”

The Schwartzes also set up The Gwen E. Schwartz Memorial Fund, to benefit the Mount Desert Elementary School’s art program. Last September they were able to make a $7,000  contribution to the arts program, and they plan to make a second donation this year.

The unlit version of Schwartz’s depiction of Piotr Uklanski reveals disturbing imagery.

Gwen and her friends kept in touch through a Facebook thread after graduating from MDI High School, even though they were scattered to colleges across the country, Gwen in New York, others in Colorado, Ohio, D.C., Boston, Portland.

The large group of friends, and some of their parents, gathered at a reception after the retrospective. They shared memories.

Gwen was fierce and vocal and funny and determined and courageous, said a parent. She was outrageous even as a little kid. She always seemed confident and sure of herself. She was entertaining and had a high-energy level.

She turned one parent on to Rachel Maddow. When helping her mother, Annie, with her summer gardening business, Gwen was  meticulous in her work. Her artistry came out even in the way she pruned or weeded. When she came home for college vacations, she’d be just as happy to sit with the parents, as with her friends, and show them the websites of the artists who were her mentors. She wanted to talk about what was exciting.

Gwen was bold and outspoken all her life, said friends who knew her since before grade school.

As a youngster, said a friend, Gwen tried to convince everyone that she was a robot, and no one believed her but she insisted that everyone believed her.

Schwartz silkscreened her logo in gold ink on iridescent fabric for an installation she created in 2008.

She’d rewrite history a lot. She’d say her classmates all believed something that they didn’t, or that something had happened that hadn’t. In the elementary school cafeteria, she’d always assume the head of the table and not let anyone else sit there. She’d say it was haunted, so if anyone else sat there, they were going to get plagued by a ghost or their feet would get stuck to the spokes of the stool.

She carried a lunchbox that was decorated with the cheerful pop art of Lisa Frank. She always got applesauce, and she’d scratch messages on the foil lid, and then said the ghost at the front of the table had written the messages. She’d show the lid around and said, “Look what the ghost said today!”

“She was also the coolest girl I’ve ever known, even if it was self-imposed,” said one friend. “She made people believe she was the coolest girl.”

Gwen proudly wrapped herself in a self-proclaimed Napoleon complex, maybe because she was slight in stature.

“She was always the smallest and the most assertive,” said a friend.

Two summers ago, Gwen and friends went sailing. It was an opportunity for outrageous statements.

“She said, ‘Oh my god, everyone on the sound is staring at us because we’re four hot girls,” a friend said.

There was no middle ground.

Schwartz created this installation, entitled “Childhood,” for her alma mater, New York University, in 2009.

She was strong and independent.

She was a really amazing lady and an inspired human being, whether she liked to admit it or not.

She liked to admit it.

She assumed that everyone was inspired by her.  And everyone was.

She didn’t have a concept of what was impossible.

“I remember driving with her one day, and she said, ‘I’m going to be a rock star,’” recalled one friend. “And I said, ‘Okay. Are you going to take up an  instrument?’ And she said, ‘It’s not hard.’”

“She came up to me once and said, ‘I’m going to be a singer.’ And I said, ‘Okay, Gwen, you should be a singer.’ I said, ‘Have you ever done that before?’ And she said, ‘Listen to me. I’m a really good singer.’ And she turned up the music in her car and started singing.”

She loved driving.

In high school, she really liked esoteric music, such as the Icelandic pop star Bjork. Her friends sometimes said they didn’t like or understand the music she liked. But Gwen told them to listen again and they would get it.

She talked about things that inspired her, and she would also talk about her aunt, who is a well-known artist. But she didn’t talk with friends about her artwork, except to ask if someone liked it.

Seen here is an image from the 2010 video projection and Mylar installation “Ghosts.”

In her sophomore year in college, Gwen shaved half of her head.

“It was awesome and I said, ‘Man, I wish I could do that,’” said a friend.

Her spontaneity was inspiring.

She was strong and resolute. She knew what she believed in. She lived purposefully.

She decided that a friend needed to wear more red lipstick, so she applied some. She chose a particular cellphone because it had a mirror on the back.

She was inspired by lights. A friend went with her to see the musical Hairspray. Gwen was impressed by the pulsating wall of light.

“I remember her saying, ‘This is so cool.’ And I think that inspired me, because I’d never looked at lights in that way before, that it was awesome and interesting.”

There was never a dull moment.

“We all wish we could make life as exciting.”

Schwartz covered a sheet of plywood in gold leaf and threw a sheepskin over it for this installation.

The retrospective displayed works that Gwen produced throughout her childhood and her college years. The technical skill and striking imagery in her work make it clear that she was born with talent that stood out from her earliest years. By the time she hit high school, and on into college, she was exploring visions and processes that were big, multi-faceted and distinctive.

“I saw her as a developing artist from day one,” said her father, Frank. “From the moment she could hold a writing instrument in her hand, she was making art, she was making marks that we noted were, ‘That’s pretty good for a one-year-old. Look at that.’ I always knew that’s what she would do.”

Annie recalled that, when her daughter was little, she did tons of detailed drawings of dragons. In high school, Gwen’s inclination toward the conceptual was on display for her senior project.

“Most of the people at the event will remember her senior project, which she did with [fellow student] Nat Paine,” said Annie. “They did a project together called ‘Warehouse Ambition,’ which they installed in a warehouse in Southwest Harbor. It was big sheets of black-painted plywood, lights, fog machines, dripping water. It was incredible.”

Carol Shutt was Gwen’s art teacher through elementary and middle school.

“When she was a young student, she was way beyond her developmental stage,” Shutt said. “She would do this intricate drawing, maybe a rough sketch for carving a print, and it was sixth grade, and I’d say, ‘That’s an incredible drawing but I don’t know if you’re going to be able to carve that much detail.’ And she’d say, ‘I’m going to try.’ She came back a few hours later, and every line was there.”
In grade school, Gwen was known as the class artist.

“Some kids, who have that talent, rest on their laurels and say it’s fun to be the class artist,” said Shutt. “But she had that core vision. In high school, she started doing more referential things, more metaphoric things.”

Dozens of post-its scribed with tiny images, like this one, and presented on clipboards formed a successful show in high school.

Gwen grew up around art. Her parents were painting students in college. Their home was filled with quirky objects, artworks and photographs. Frank’s parents had a lot of artwork in their house. But her biggest influence was probably her aunt, the noted sculptor Beverly Semmes, who creates room-size  installations. One of Semmes’ pieces was a dress, some 20 feet long, suspended from the ceiling; the skirt, made of rich materials such as organza and velvet, might cover the entire floor of a room.

“I think Bev gave Gwen some big ideas, a real jumping-off point,” Annie said.

Gwen was also inspired by other artists famous for their large-scale works, such as the French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, known as the founder of “confessional art;” the American artist Robert Smithson, famous for his land art; and the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, know for large-scale installations that incorporated light and water.

Gwen loved to travel. She went to Italy, Finland, Sweden, and Korea. She went to Berlin twice, through school. She loved Berlin and had some of her pieces exhibited there. In Scandinavia, she found more influences for her artwork.

Gwen wanted to go to Iceland one day. She had met Bjork, and had interned for the Icelandic sculptor Hrafnhildur Arnardottir aka “Shoplifter,” who incorporates fiber in her large-scale works.

Gwen Schwartz is seen here in Helsinki, Finland, 2009.

At NYU, Gwen focused on large installations.

“She consulted heavily with Annie and a little bit with me about her work,” said Frank. “When she talked with Annie, it was frequently focused on the technical end of things and, with me, it was more bouncing ideas around. Two summers ago, she was here and we would frequently ride bikes together. She was bouncing ideas off me. It was just a really fun ride. We would be a bit reckless. We would do a lot of racing, frequently on the carriage roads in the park. It’s always better riding with somebody else, and somebody who challenges you a little bit is more fun. Just having these great conversations, it was absolutely wonderful.”

Gwen’s ideas germinated in her own experiences, in her traveling and reading, and in the connections she invented around the experiences, said Frank.

“She was inspired by what she saw,” he said.

Thematically, Gwen was interested in languages, biblical themes, ancient symbolism, paganism, Viking myths, light, and the effect that light has on the mind.

Technically, she was open to everything.

“If she didn’t know how to create something because it required learning how to use a machine or tool that she didn’t know how to use, she just learned how to do it,” Frank said. “It was, ‘Well, that’s what I have to do to make this, and that’s what I’m going to do.’”

Drawings from middle school feature hands as otherworldly creatures.

Frank recalled that, when they were riding around Witch Hole Pond, Gwen talked about doing a piece with mirrors, light and the reflection of water. She was inspired by light, nature and visual interaction.

“She really opened my eyes to visual art,” he said. “I always felt like I was learning something, like she was showing me something I hadn’t seen before.”

For the retrospective, Frank and Annie tried to reproduce the intention of Gwen’s kinetic light installation, called “Ghosts.”

“We almost had it,” he said. “This is not easy to do, getting it to reflect how you want it. It’s surprisingly difficult, obviously, because we couldn’t do it.”

The piece starts with a video image, seen on the screen of a laptop computer, that is a double exposure of moving shadows on a New York City sidewalk. It looks as though Gwen shot the video as she was walking along; the shadows are from things such as wrought-iron fences and bicycles.

The computer’s moving image is projected onto a large sheet of Mylar suspended vertically from the ceiling. The Mylar reflects the movement onto the ceiling itself.

“It’s like you’re part of Gwen right here,” said Shutt, viewing the installation. “This lets you see what she loved, that play of light.”

“She saw the world very, very differently, through different eyes than most people,” said Frank.

The process – seeing the image on the computer transformed through reflection to the ceiling –  is an important part of the piece, said Shutt.

“It’s almost like she’s capturing the concrete and then letting the spirit, that’s reflected, through the atmosphere,” Shutt said. “We go through the world, and it’s lines and shapes. And then she said, ‘But what happens when you try to get to an essence that gives you more of the spirit?’”

“This is one of the ways that she saw the world,” said Frank. “We were blown away when we saw this, on multiple levels. It was a couple of weeks after this happened. It was very, very powerful.”

The images are probably tied to Gwen’s psychological state.

“She had not been diagnosed,” said Frank. “We believe she was suffering from bipolar disorder or possibly schizophrenia. She was having some very intense hallucinations, but she wasn’t doing drugs. She was seeing some very scary stuff, and she went from being herself to off a cliff.”

Gwen had conversations almost every day with Annie for at least a month about how to put together “Ghosts,” about what was working and not working. A year ago, Gwen would have consulted with Annie to some degree, but not as much.

“She was struggling to do stuff that had come easily to her,” Frank said. “I think the images absolutely reflect what she was seeing. ‘Ghosts,’ especially, I think, but some of the other stuff, too. I think she felt that she could handle this because she was always an overachiever, and this was just another thing she would overcome. And it just didn’t work out that way.”

In January 2011, Frank, Annie and Gwen went to Korea for Ian’s wedding. A friend of Frank’s cautioned him that the trip would be difficult because of Gwen’s psychological state. He was wrong.

“It was a great trip,” Franks said. “We had a great time. We had a really fun trip. Coming back was over two days long because of blizzards here. But we had a great time on the trip back. Annie, Gwen, and I, we made the best of it. It was really, really fun. She was always a fun traveling companion. But I think she was hiding a lot from us. One conversation, she kind of hinted, and I let her kind of get away saying what she said without pressing her on it. What she was going through was much more intense than what she was telling us.”

“Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia?” said her brother, Ian. “In the beginning, they’re asking the same questions. He’s died. And they’re talking about, who was Lawrence of Arabia? And they say, ‘Oh, I hardly knew him.’ They all say, ‘I don’t know that guy. I didn’t know who he was.’ Gwen, you can see she was an amazing artist. But also, I’m her brother, but she concealed so much from me about who she was.”

Ian and Gwen had a difficult sibling relationship.

“We were fighting all our lives,” he said. “After I went to college, I didn’t see her very often. She could be, sometimes, so warm. She could be really, really warm, especially to her friends. But she could be kind of mean. I was mean to her, too.”

“She was multi-faceted,” said Frank. “She was our daughter. You expect there to be moments of friction, and that has no effect on anything. But Ian, of course, being a sibling, saw the relationship very differently. They were competitive with each other. All parents want to believe that one day that will pass.”

“One of my aunts,” said Ian, “was talking with me about my sister’s artwork. That’s an open question: Can you see the artist through the artwork? My aunt believes that you can see that my sister was in a lot of pain and anguish when you look at her artwork.”

Gwen developed an insignia for herself, which consists of a big G flanked by the heads of two lions.

“I thought it was really cool and really interesting, but my aunt thinks these lions roaring out of the G show that she’s trying to escape from herself,” he said.

“She was primarily vibrant and warm and fascinating,” said Frank. “She lit up the room. Just a great person to be around and do stuff with. She was my daughter. I miss her every moment.”

Annie and Frank have found comfort in each other and in the strength of their marriage, in Ian and his family, in the immeasurable help provided by Hospice of Hancock County, and in the support of the community and their families.

“You’re never through it,” Frank said. “But you relearn how to function, and you have things you have to do and you keep doing that. You can’t pull away from your life. You have to keep living your life. But now you live it with this. That’s how you learn to live, to get through the day.”

Many of Gwen’s works can be viewed at

Also view the following videos:

The  2008 “Sacred Time” installation, with soundtrack by Fox Schwach, at

The “Childhood” installation, at

The 2008 “Piotr Uklanski Caricature” installation at

Gwen’s senior exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory, NYU (scroll to the bottom of the page), at

Contributions to benefit MDES arts programs may be mailed to: The Gwen E. Schwartz Memorial Fund, c/o The First, P.O. Box 858, Northeast Harbor, ME 04662.


Laurie Schreiber

About Laurie Schreiber

Laurie Schreiber has been writing for award-winning newspapers and magazines on the coast of Maine for more than 20 years.