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Born on a farm in Alcester, South Dakota, Ray Swanson studied for eight years in a one-room schoolhouse. When his father was killed in an accident, the family sold their property and moved to California. While he was studying aeronautical engineering at Northrop Institute, his grandfather, an amateur painter, died and left Ray his paint box. After he graduated in 1960, he worked full-time as a draftsman and studied aeronautical engineering. For six years he was a civil engineer in Redlands, California, but painted farm subjects in the evenings and on weekends. During this time in his life he also married his high school sweetheart, Beverly.

Ray first visited an Arizona Navajo Reservation in the early 1960s and, from that time on, incorporated Native American figures and genre into his paintings. Encouraged by his wife and friends, he displayed his work at the curio shop he and Beverly opened in Oak Glen, California, near Los Angeles. Soon after, gallery owners in New Mexico and California began carrying his work and this wholly self-taught realist painter became a full-time artist.

In 1973, he and Beverly sold the shop and moved to Arizona where he continued to paint Native American subjects. He was recognized and renowned for depictions of various cultures, but it was the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo in particular that he seemed to capture in a special way. Ray also painted some landscapes and seascapes, in both watercolor and oil, and traveled widely in search of subject matter beyond Arizona.

Ray was named Arizona Artist of the Year in 1979 and in 1986 was voted into the Cowboy Artists of America, where he was serving as president at the time of his death in 2004. Also a member of the American Watercolor Society, Ray Swanson was well known for his Southwest Native American subjects--the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Apache Indians. He was especially fond of depicting children and smaller animals belonging to these tribes and was known for accurately depicting the beauty of their traditional costumes.

From 1972 on, he and Beverly Swanson lived in Arizona, first in Prescott and then Carefree. Sadly, Ray passed away on December 17th, 2004, at the age of 67of pneumonia after contracting multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma cells.