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Sibley's West Profiles: Shirley Swan, Cottonwood Carver

Posted by John S. Wolfe on 15th Jan 2017

Every artist can tell a story about how they got started.

Shirley Swan’s starts with the Bible.

“I just decided one day I wanted to read it,” she recalled in December 2016. “And there the Lord was teaching us to do silver work and gold work.

She was a young wife living in Cave Creek in the late 1950s.

“I thought, ‘We don’t have the money to go to school,’ so I asked Him to teach me and he taught me,” she said.

Now 87, Shirley has been involved in crafts since 1957, when she and her husband, Ralph, moved to Arizona from Garden City, Mich. Her parents had the first convenience store in Cave Creek, called the Wishing U Well. (In fact, Ralph and her father installed the wishing well at 6201 E. Cave Creek Road, which still exists today.)

At her mother’s urging, Shirley took up jewelry making and became a silversmith. She learned to cut stones and carve wood.

Even though she wasn’t fond of the factory work in Wayne, Mich., she said she and Ralph would have gone back in those days “but we were too broke.”

Instead, they persevered in Cave Creek. Shirley produced jewelry and carvings for her family’s store and others.

In 1987 the couple wanted to find a spot with a slower pace. They ended up in Young, which is southeast of Payson.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know why,” she said. “My husband flew in the Civil Air Patrol and liked the looks of it.”

They drew up plans and built a home on 2.5 acres. They really liked Young. “It’s what Cave Creek used to be,” she said.

Since then, Shirley culled pieces of cottonwood from around her home and carved. Each piece became a pueblo, an Indian, an old man, a coyote, or a combination of several.

They could be found in Arizona gift shops and, starting in 2012, in Sibley’s West in Downtown Chandler.

The Swans were married for 50 years. Ralph died in 2004.

Despite some recent health challenges, Shirley has continued to create unique cottonwood carvings.

“God just showed me how to do it,” she said.