Doing It For the Animals: The Art and Activism of Loretta Swit

lad11

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on 1/23/17.)

Loretta Swit is best known for her role as the sexy and smart military nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on the enduring TV show M*A*S*H. That iconic character won the actress two Emmy Awards as well as worldwide recognition. The ageless star has also appeared in several movies and on the stage. Acting, however, is only one of Swit’s passions. She is also a painter and a passionate animal rights advocate. For Swit, that means all animals— from our beloved pets, to our farm animals, to wildlife. For reasons of compassion (with a side effect of the health benefits!), she is a devoted vegan who tells me, “Animals are my friends, not my food!” Swit spent Thanksgiving with her like-minded friends in California, and they celebrated the holiday “their way”— They feed the turkeys (who, apparently, love cranberries)!

 

As we begin 2017, the lovely Ms. Swit is busier than ever. She has collaborated with renowned graphic designer/author Mies Hora for a new coffee table-quality book of her watercolor paintings. Named SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit, the book features 65 full-color paintings and drawings, as well as 22 photographs. The centerfold of the book has a photo of the star sitting next to an alligator yawning widely in all his toothy glory, and another shows Swit face to face with a large grizzly bear who gave her a lick just after the photo was taken. SwitHeart, however, is more than just pretty pictures. The book also features Swit’s favorite animal anecdotes, and information about her extensive philanthropic work. Swit and Hora see the book as a launching pad to get people interested in animal rights activism… and, ultimately, working towards a more compassionate world. Proceeds from the book will be donated to charities and programs that are dedicated to ending animal suffering and cruelty.

 

Loretta Swit and Mies Hora spoke to me about their new book… and of course, I had to ask about M*A*S*H!

 

JR: Congratulations to both of you on SwitHeart! I’ve seen some of the paintings from the book. They have the realism of photographs, but there’s also a uniquely personal touch about them: the soulful eyes of the dog on the book’s cover, the playfulness of the kitten in another picture… Wow! Let’s start with you, Loretta: Where did you affinity for watercolor come from?

LS: Stupidity! (Laughs) It was a lack of information! I’ve been painting since I had a thought in my head. I was six years old, and I started with watercolor. When I grew into adulthood, all my artist friends would say, “That’s so difficult. Why do you do watercolor?” I answered, “I only knew what I knew!” It was the “bumblebee theory”: I didn’t know that watercolor was the most difficult of the mediums to work in. I just loved it, and I didn’t know any better! So, my ignorance led me to doing watercolors. And now, I view oil or acrylic painting with awe. I can’t do that! So, it’s my thing. For me, it’s not difficult. It’s challenging, for sure… but the portrait is what’s challenging, not how I affect it. I love the expedience of watercolor: that you have to really work fast, and you can’t allow yourself to have mistakes— because then you have to start over! For me, it’s like the challenge of theater: You can’t stop and say, “Can I do that again?” like you can with TV or film. It’s the love of my life: watercolor!

JR: Well, it definitely adds that personal touch! So, watercolor is only one of the loves of your life. The other is animals. They come together in SwitHeart!

LS: Yes. It’s nice to see them meeting each other head on: eye to eye, and paw to paw!

JR: (Laughs) Mies, I see that your background is mostly in design… and I also read that you’re now involved in the SwitHeart Animal Alliance. Is this your first foray into a coffee table-style art book?

MH: It’s not my first book. I have a father Richard, now 97 years old, who has been an artist all of his life as well. In 2011, my sister Frances and I created a book for him called Retrospection. It’s his 50 plus years in art and design. It was pretty much along the lines of what I am doing now with Loretta, which was looking through everything that was there, and finding the best example of each one, and then organizing, editing, and cataloguing it together in a way that’s fresh and exciting. We used that same with SwitHeart. When I met Loretta and I saw the extraordinary quality of her watercolors, I was amazed that she hadn’t been published before. She had been in shows, but they hadn’t been in a book. I started looking through all of her archives— like her original prints hanging in her kitchen and that kind of a thing. She had such a love of the material that I knew it would be a wonderful thing to do. That’s how it came together. As a designer, I’ve been publishing books since 1992. But this is the first high profile coffee table book. While my father was a great designer, he was not well known. Loretta, of course, is internationally famous. She’s the most famous nurse in the world! It started with Loretta was being given a humanitarian award in Florida, in January of last year…

JR: She has won MANY awards, apparently!

MH: Yes! It was a Red Cross International Humanitarian Award. My friend John invited me to go on the plane with her. Loretta had her I-Pad on the flight, and she was flipping through her pictures of the cats and dogs and other animals, and I said, “Wow, these are really good!” That’s how it came about. I asked her, “Have you ever been published? How would you like to be?” That was the start and finish. It happened in ten minutes. It was love at first sight.

LS: It’s very funny, and I do touch upon this in the book: I have studied long and hard to have a craft, and to do my work as an actor. I was always totally prepared to take whatever came. When I act, I get a script and I know what I’m doing. With my artwork, from the get go, it’s been nothing but pleasure: to see things and to paint them. I never gave it the credence that Mies and John have. They made me aware, if I may, of how good the work is. As an unschooled and untrained artist, I had to stand back and say, “Yes, that is very good!”. So, it gave me a greater appreciation for what I had been doing all my life. I was seeing my work through Mies’ eyes. I had to take a step back and look at it from a fresh point of view. That has been an adventure for me.

JR: Wow!

LS: Again, it’s the “bumblebee theory”: On paper, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly—but the bumblebee doesn’t know that. So, it goes out and flies anyway! So, that’s how my love of watercolor began, and that’s how just painting and being challenged came out— by not being afraid to try it. As I say in the book more than once, I was reckless and fearless because I didn’t know any better! Am I really going to try and paint this turkey? Well, why not? I’ve got nothing to lose. It was a pleasure. What Mies and John have done for me is to really bond the two loves of my life: my love for the arts, and my humane work— my love of animals and nature. It was an overwhelming pleasure I got from the creation of this book. It’s just been a fantastic journey for me.

MH: What attracted me to the project was not only Loretta being a great painter, but also her involvement in animal rights activism. I’ve always been a supporter of The Wilderness Society and The Humane Society— I’ve always contributed and done my little part— but Loretta has been an amazing vehicle for her awareness about animal cruelty. As she started to talk about where these paintings came from, I learned that each painting has an anecdote that goes along with it: a tiger who was saved from a drug lord, for example. I realized right away that here is not only a wonderful collection of a well-known woman’s work, but also the story of an extremely important animal rights activist. What better way to show her commitment to animals than to show how she deeply she can express the soul in these paintings? It’s amazing how the personality of the animals speaks to you through her paintings

JR: Yes, they do. The pictures really speak to us. So, Loretta, in the book description you reveal how you have so many wonderful animal anecdotes. Anyone who buys the book can read them… but do you want to share one as a “sneak preview”?

LS: In SwitHeart, I am able to laud certain organizations that I’ve worked with. I talk about them and make people aware of them. One of them is Bideawee. You’ve probably heard of them. Their name is Scottish and it means “Stay a while”. Bideawee is the oldest organization of its sort in Manhattan. I got to know them and did some fundraising with them. Their calendars and photographs of rescues were very inspiring along the way. I did some paintings of those photos. The cover of SwitHeart is a Jack Russell terrier rescue. I just love it: the straight-on look in those eyes. Through the course of events in getting to know the Bideawee people, I had a rescue. I rescued five puppies who never should have been born. Here’s a sidebar: A great deal of my work is about education. That includes teaching people about spaying and neutering to conquer the overpopulation problem we have in North America. We kill millions of animals every year because there are no homes for them. People who are not spaying and neutering are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. One unspayed animal can create 70,000 to 80,000 offspring in a few years. That’s not a typo! I say that specifically so that people can see that in print, and be very impressed by that. Bideawee works in that direction. Anyway, I called them about these five beautiful little accidents— and they helped me. We drove out to their shelter on Long Island. The puppies were cleaned, shaved, got their shots, got beds, and were socialized. They were then placed in their “forever” homes. Bideawaee vets the homes. These are puppy-proof homes. They are placed with people who are dependable, rational, and who know how to care for these animals. There are a lot of animal tragedies out there every day, but this was one of the happier stories. On that page, I write about the puppies that Bideawee helped me rescue. I talk about Bideawee, and they are also listed in the back of the book as one of those organizations which I have worked with relentlessly. We have the same goal: to end suffering, and to teach people about a more compassionate view about what’s happening to the animals on our planet. That is the happiness that I find from the book. It shows the painting, but also gives me the opportunity to teach people about what can be done, and how they can do it. For me, it’s a win-win situation. If someone wants to order a print of the photo, the proceeds will go towards that organization. It’s not only a labor of love, but it’s a win-win situation from every perspective. We also rescue puppies and train them to become search dogs. The dog is deployed in crisis areas, and then rescues us! I’ve seen footage of these rescue dogs pulling children out of an earthquake. So, it’s about coming full circle. It’s been immensely gratifying for me and everyone involved. All these people have made a difference: a big, important difference!

MH: Also, Loretta and I are reaching out to more than a dozen of these important organizations. We offer an appearance by Loretta to raise attention to these issue, and fundraisers, and we bring books. All the proceeds from the book will be given to these organizations. It’s a way of furthering her work. The book is a lovely vehicle: Not only will people enjoy SwitHeart itself, but they’ll love the idea that it’s connected to all these organizations. It’s a great story.

LS: We get something, they get something, and the animals get everything! That’s what’s important. I’m overwhelmed at how successful it seems to be so far. The response has been amazing. The alliance word in our foundation is very important: to group together as allies. We’re all doing the same thing and have the same goal. SwitHeart is going to be very important, I believe, in uniting everyone to the same cause. That thrills me!

JR: That’s great to hear! So, Mies, I have to ask: In this day and age when so many of us read our books on our Kindles and share photos on our phones, the idea of a glossy, coffee table book may seem almost quaint or “old school”. It takes a rare person nowadays to appreciate printed books. Where does visual art and photo books like SwitHeart stand in 2017?

MH: The general trend is this: There was great concern among publishers— let’s say, about five years ago, when I-Pads came around and Amazon started putting books online. I personally do read literature on my I-Phone and I-Pad. However, there is a difference with a photo or picture book. The good news is that people are still buying coffee table books for a very good reason: People still love to have something on their coffee table that looks beautiful, that they can look through casually. It’s a large format, so it has an impact that you just wouldn’t have otherwise. And, there’s more good news: We also have a digital edition of SwitHeart for less than half the price of the hardcover book. So, the answer is that in 2017, you don’t just put a book out in hardcover alone: You also put it out in digital. The “old school” people prefer paper. The younger people may not want that. They don’t want to have a bookshelf with books on it. They’d rather have it online. That’s our solution: to have both!

JR: The younger generation needs to rediscover the joys of physical books!

MH: That’s right. The other thing we are doing to help promote Loretta’s cause is this: Some people may not want to spend money on a book, so we have greeting cards made from her absolutely best photos. So, for a smaller price, you can have cards with Loretta’s anecdotes on the back. We are trying to cover all bases and satisfy all needs and budgets, and to allow people to choose whichever format they prefer. I think that the hardcover book will do quite well. It’s truly unique. For me, personally, what struck me about Loretta’s work is that it’s very personal and very sophisticated— even though she claims to be a naive painter! I haven’t seen paintings of animals that have ever had the same kind of character that she puts into them. It really comes out in the large, hardcover format of the book— so I think that people will really enjoy the printed version most of all.

JR: Books always make great gifts too— and I can’t imagine a better gift for lovers or both artwork and animals. So, Loretta… In addition to all the animal pictures in SwitHeart, there’s also an amazing lithograph of the cast of M*A*S*H.

LS: Yes! I told Mies that I thought it was an extraordinary opportunity to take the space and pay homage to my M*A*S*H family, who I love and adore. These are exceptional people, and I wanted to publicly say how blessed I am to have been, and still be, a part of that family. We have this amazing bond… a true “forever bond”. We have this tapestry of history between us. So, I wanted to write about that. It’s a beautiful litho, and Mies agreed with me that it was a great opportunity to include it. All of us bring the image of M*A*S*H just by our presence and persona, so it would have even been a little bit disappointing if I didn’t at least allude to M*A*S*H in some fashion in the book. I thought that using the litho and talking about them was the perfect opportunity to do it. And Mies agreed! So, there you have it!

JR: Mies, were you a M*A*S*H fan?

MH: (Laughs) I originally wanted to put a photo of Loretta in her fatigues— you know, the things you remember about her from that era! But she had been given this very large lithograph by CBS-Fox on the tenth anniversary of the show, and it was just beautiful. So, Loretta and I came to the conclusion that having this image in an art book was the way to go, rather than having just a photograph that you could find on Google somewhere. It’s much more poignant, showing her connection with her fellow actors.

JR: M*A*S*H is STILL on TV!

LS: The show has never been off the air! A lot of people don’t realize that. It went into syndication in year three, ran for eleven years, and it’s never been off the air in some form or another, in some language. I’ve seen it in Thailand, in Egypt…It’s a phenomenon. I have to say that I think it deserves to be. It’s a classic. The writing, the execution, the production values… It was just a blessing. The whole experience was just a noble blessing, to work on those literary scripts. To work with family, friends, and colleagues who you loved— every week! It doesn’t surprise me that it continues to seduce generation after generation after generation. When M*A*S*H first came on the air and I was getting fan mail from a 10 or 11 year old, when M*A*S*H went off the air, that kid was now graduating from college, and maybe engaged to be married. So, his kids started to watch M*A*S*H with him. And now, his kids are watching the show… and so on, and so on… M*A*S*H has passed on from one generation to the next: “This is something Mommy and Daddy watched when they were growing up. It’s a great show. Do you want to see it?” It just goes on from there. The jokes and the humor is so believable and honest. The wardrobe never suggested that we moved on. In some other shows, the costuming tells you exactly what year the story happened in (Laughs). In our show, the only thing people were confused about was what war it was. When we were in first run, people thought that perhaps the show was set in Vietnam. Our response was: “It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter. War is war, and war is hell. We hate it. That’s all the doctors and nurse knew. We hated being there, but we just wanted to help those boys and get them home in one piece…” The backdrop didn’t matter. It could have been any war. That’s why it continues to be a classic. It’s never going to be dated. It won’t be dated until we stop warring. End war… and then we will look back at it and ask, “Do you remember when there was war?” We need to start learning that we can’t keep surviving these wars! So…that’s my take on M*A*S*H and why it continues to seduce generation after generation: its honesty and purity. The writing is exceptional.

JR: Your character of Margaret has really cemented her status in pop culture— forever! What is your relationship like with your fans today?

LS: Oh my! It’s just overwhelming! The love and respect coming at you… from all over the world! It’s a very blessed way to be able to live your life. I get fan mail from everywhere: from Prague, Berlin… everywhere. It’s just a phenomenon. The outreach is so vast. I think about how I’m touching the lives of people whom I will never meet with that show. I am influencing their thinking about stuff. It really kind of blows you away a little bit. That’s what I think that television has to be responsible for what’s going on out there. We have to be. I always felt that M*A*S*H was always very responsible and very reliable. That’s why we continue to be so proud of this product. It was good “feeding”… and it brought families together. Families watched M*A*S*H together. It was a terrific thing to have been a part of. I’ve had so many women write to me from nursing schools, and I’ve been asked to speak at schools about nursing, and so many women told me that they became nurses because of what they felt my character was all about. It’s been an extraordinary thing.

JR: That’s great to hear! So, lastly, what else would you like to tell people about SwitHeart?

LS: Enjoy it! We put a lot into it. And, there are so many things that you can do if you care. Volunteer at your local ASPCA. Volunteer to walk some of the local dogs during the day… or maybe take one of them just for a short period of time! “Give a hoot!”, as I say on the owl painting! (Laughs) You can be involved on so many levels. When you start giving, you start getting so much— and you keep giving because you keep getting! If everyone starts lighting that candle, it’s going to be a lighter place for everybody. It’s infectious. And it works! It just takes one to do it. Happily, since I’ve been active, I have seen an incredible movement. There are so many of us lighting those candles, and making it brighter: Getting better, and wiser, and more compassionate!

MH: Now you can see why she wins all these awards! (Laughs)

JR: (Laughs) Indeed! Thanks for speaking with me!

 

lad12SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit by Loretta Swit and Mies Hora is now available. For more information, visit www.UltimateSymbol.com/SwitHeart.

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