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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 6, 2018 5 months ago

Winter Garden artist triumphs over homelessness, racial discrimination

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Jason Swaby has suffered through homelessness, racial discrimination and even injury. But he never gave up on his art.
by: Eric Gutierrez Staff Writer

Between homelessness, racial discrimination and an injury that permanently damaged his right hand, saying Jason Swaby has suffered for his art would be an understatement.

Through the hardships Swaby has faced, he’s always kept a positive attitude and his faith in God.

Swaby, 35, grew up in The Bronx in New York City and moved to Winter Garden about six years ago. He specializes in painting, drawing and freehand creating iconic characters of out perler beads. One of the biggest inspirations behind his artwork is his love for Japanese anime and manga, which are Japanese comic books.

“My goal is to have my own manga,” Swaby said, adding that he already has two mangas in the works. “I love anime. I love to draw. If I had a choice, I’d do it 24/7.”

Early hardships

Swaby has been drawing since he was a child. By age 10, he picked up a paintbrush and became a student of Bob Ross thanks to the magic of television. He discovered anime when he was 12 and has loved it ever since.

He has lived his whole life breaking down the walls of what he calls “the black box.” He describes that box as the racial stereotypes commonly associated with young black men. Throughout his life, that box has isolated him from the credit that he’s deserved for his art — with one experience occurring at an early age.

“My mother tried to get me into art schools, but the art teachers told her ... no,” Swaby said. “They thought that I didn’t paint (my work). They thought my mother painted them.”

Although he wasn’t accepted into an art school, Swaby kept creating art.

“I ain’t black enough for the black artist, and I ain’t white enough for the white artist, but I’m cool enough for my anime crowd,” he said. “They don’t care about color. They just want to see cool art, and that’s all that matters for me.”

Despite the discrimination, Swaby smiles and laughs as he looks back at it because he sees it all as part of God’s plan for him.

“It’s so funny,” Swaby said. “It happens a lot, you know, but I think that’s the beauty of it. That’s why God designed me as an artist, because it shows people you never know who’s an artist.”

Swaby hit a major setback in his early 20s when he injured his right hand. The damage was permanent.

“I can’t close my right hand,” Swaby said. “I got my hand smashed in a door.”

But not even that injury stopped him from making art. If anything, it made him a stronger artist as he trained himself to use his left hand while simultaneously rehabilitating his right.

“I had to sneak my hand out of the cast and rehabilitate my hand to draw,” Swaby said. “I started drawing with my left (hand) ... because I couldn’t make a fist (with my right) for a little while.”

He now uses both of his hands to create his art.

Brush with homelessness

In addition to art and anime, Swaby is a passionate inline skater. At age 27, he was a sponsored skater who also managed a skate shop in The Bronx. The shop did not get a lot of business, but his passion for skating kept him there.

“The skate shop was failing,” Swaby said. “It wasn’t making money. ... But I kept working there to the point where they weren’t even paying me, and I lost my apartment. I was homeless for two years.”

He hid the fact that he was homeless. He was too embarrassed to tell anyone — including his boss and mother. He used to sleep under a stairway of a building he grew up in, or he would stay with friends.

Jason Swaby painted this piece while living in The Bronx. During his brush with homelessness, he stored this piece at a friend’s home. The friend tried to steal it, but Swaby stole it back.

At one point, Swaby kept his art at a friend’s home, but that friend tried to steal his art. To get his art back, Swaby had to be sneaky.

“I had to fake like I was hanging out with him,”Swaby said.“I went in there and I faked like I was throwing out his garbage for him. ... I grabbed all my artwork and I grabbed his garbage ... and I just ran.”

Eventually, his mother found out about his living conditions and stepped in to help. That’s when Swaby moved to Florida for a fresh start.

New beginnings

Swaby came to Winter Garden after he got accepted into Full Sail University. However, he did not attend because he could not afford the $80,000 tuition. Instead, he got a job at the 7-Eleven at the corner of West Colonial and Winter Garden-Vineland Road. While working at the 7-Eleven, he started creating his perler bead pieces.

He took about 150 perler bead pieces to his first Megacon Convention in Orlando in 2015, and they sold out. That convention made him fall in love with the area, and he decided to stay in town.

Since then, he has worked as a scenic and commercial painter at Walt Disney World for more than two years. Today, he can be found at Lucky Straws Boba Tea of Winter Garden working on his art. On Saturdays, he teaches a paint class at Paint Sip and Swirl in Orlando Fashion Square Mall.

“I’m sitting here as living proof of (you should) never quit,” Swaby said.

Eric Gutierrez is a staff writer with the West Orange Times & Observer and Windermere Observer. He graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2015 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science. Got a story idea? Contact Eric at...

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