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Seeing the Sacred in the Ordinary

The Art of John August Swanson

To the artist John August Swanson, art is a journey into the wonder of life. His art explores the ongoing narrative of God and God’s people through visual stories filled with hope, faith, and love. Swanson’s art guides us to see the sacredness of our ordinary lives and reflects the unique beauty of our everyday experiences. They become visual parables of the daily lives we share.

Swanson invites us “to join together . . . . to help each other see in ways we have never seen before, to help each other see again what we have forgotten, and to see something familiar in a new way, in a new light, from a different perspective” (“Artist Notes on ‘Procession,’” 2007).

Cecilia González-Andrieu writes in her book Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, “Art becomes a gospel, an announcement of the good news of our status as children of God. In that beauty . . . something is offered and understood, and that ‘something’ changes everything . . . . I believe that loving ‘wonder’ may be evoked by the arts, and that the evocation of wonder can be a transforming moment in the life of a person” (Baylor University Press, 2012, p. 37). Human possibility and God’s possibility meet and our world is transformed. Those going about their daily tasks in loving service to their community have God living within them.

John Swanson was born in 1938 in Los Angeles. He didn’t find his artistic avocation until he was 30 after taking an art class with Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. Corita Kent (1918-1986) was an innovative artist and teacher famous for her colorful silkscreens. Her art and teaching had a powerful impact on Swanson.

“Corita saved my life,” says Swanson. “She became my mentor, she opened me to art and ideas. She helped me find healing” (Jack Wintz, “Artist John August Swanson and His Images of Francis of Assisi,” St. Anthony Messenger, October 2002, p. 33). Corita introduced him to the silkscreen process and helped him discover his own artistic path. Most important, she helped Swanson integrate his Christian faith and his strong sense of social justice into his art and life.

John Swanson is a master printmaker whose medium is the serigraph, a complex form of silkscreen. His art is influenced by Persian and Medieval miniatures, Russian Orthodox iconography, Latin American and Swedish folk art, and Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists. Much of Swanson’s work explores Bible stories. His intent isn’t to illustrate these stories, but to visually narrate them. He pulls us into the story so we can see it with new eyes and rediscover its power and meaning for our own lives.

During this season of Advent, there are few better examples of John Swanson’s art to showcase than “A Visit.” Created in 1995, it is one of six vertical serigraphs that portray the Advent story. “The theme of ‘A Visit’ takes the Annunciation and relates it to everyday life,” says Swanson (“Artist Notes on ‘A Visit,’” 1995). “A Visit” focuses on the Incarnation, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus. In Swanson’s rendition, “Mary is not center stage or even rapt in prayer, as she is usually portrayed in paintings of the Annunciation. Almost lost in the lower right-hand corner of this complex, tapestry-like composition, Mary is feeding the chickens” (Jack Wintz, “Artist John August Swanson and His Images of Francis of Assisi,” St. Anthony Messenger, October 2002).

Reflections on “A Visit”

A Serigraph by John August Swanson

A new day breaks over the world.
The people awaken and set about their tasks.
Each has a talent to contribute, a chore to attend.
These are the ordinary daily actions that few would
deem world-shaking, yet left undone,
would fail to make the world go forward.
Their ordinary actions set life in motion.
The field must be plowed and the apples picked.
The old and the sick must be bathed and fed,
the scriptures read,
the bread baked,
the animals watered,
the laundry washed and hung in the sun.
The weaver creates a new cloth;
the mother feeds her children,
the carpenters make sturdy furniture,
the vintner waters the vine.
Women draw water from the springs,
the vendors sell their wares,
the shepherd lets his flock into the pastures.
Daily life is the material of spiritual life.
It’s that simple.
It’s so simple that few of us want to believe it.
A spiritual life is not about escaping the world and its
daily requirements —
it’s about infusing the world with a vision of the holy.
Then we begin to weave real community
— like a bright, whole tapestry
where your task hinges on mine,
your job mends where mine is worn thin.
This is not the milling of people where each person
uses the next for personal ambition,
but here each brings a gift to the rest of the world
so that we can live in harmony.
For my job and your job is a grand business:
It is to find God
not just dwelling in the hot sun’s eye
— but discovering the divine
in the earthly task at hand.
Then we entertain angels.
The divine and the human meet.
Heaven and earth are one.
—Gertrud Mueller Nelson

Swanson uses the vertical composition to emphasize the progression of the story. We go through the village first, making our way down the streets, in and out of the various shops, dodging the animals to find our way to the bottom, where Mary comes to meet us. “Interwoven through the picture are 25 scenes of people doing ordinary tasks along with 27 vignettes of biblical scenes. The meaning of the Incarnation is borne out in this tapestry of everyday life” (Wintz, “Artist John August Swanson and His Images of Francis of Assisi”). Our story commingles with the story of God coming to earth and bringing forth new life. The “little stories” all start pointing to that big story of “redemption.”

“Discover the divine
in the earthly task at hand.
Then we entertain angels.
The divine and the human meet.
Heaven and earth are one.”
(Gertrud Mueller Nelson, “Reflections on ‘A Visit’” in John August Swanson’s artist notes on “A Visit,” 1995)

Swanson’s friend, the writer/artist Gertrud Mueller Nelson, wrote, “Daily life is the material of spiritual life. It’s that simple. A spiritual life is not about escaping the world and its daily requirements—it’s about infusing the world with a vision of the holy. Then we begin to weave real community . . . ” (Getrud Mueller Nelson, “Reflections on ‘A Visit’” in “Artist Notes on ‘A Visit’” by John August Swanson, 1995). There we see the message of Swanson’s art: that of loving our neighbor as ourselves and caring for other people as God cares for us.

Dr. Steven J. Kraftchick observes, “You start to engage John’s art and it starts to engage you. You quite literally have a new way of seeing, a physical shift, a vision. . . . As you become a better art appreciator you’ll be a better Bible interpreter. You’ll start to attend to things in ways you hadn’t attended before” (from the DVD A Thrill of Hope: The Christmas Story in Word and Art, Morehouse Education Resources).

“Beauty has the capacity to help us to value the good, the goodness of the most ordinary things,” writes Greg Wolfe, editor of the journal Image, in his recent essay “The Wound of Beauty.” “The greatest epics, the most terrible tragedies, all have one goal: to bring us back to the ordinary and help us to love and to cherish it. . . . That is the magic of art. It may spread a huge canvas, it may be bold and baroque, but its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament” (Image, Issue 56).

This is what John Swanson does through his art. “While no human experience can disclose what the mystery of God is,” writes Cecilia González-Andrieu in Bridge to Wonder, “experiences that brim with beauty can suddenly make us aware of the mystery that envelopes us. We are caught in its midst, and wonder is our only response. . . . To know ourselves, express ourselves, and imagine our better selves through that reflection of God’s vision for us—that is wonder—it is a compelling reason to attend to art” (p. 26, 121).

“If you have a song you have to sing it, if you have a gift you have to share it, this is what my art is to me,” says Swanson (A Thrill of Hope).

May the gift of John August Swanson’s art inspire us this Advent season to regain our own long lost sense of wonder and help us…

“Discover the divine
in the earthly task at hand.
Then we entertain angels.
The divine and the human meet.
Heaven and earth are one.”
(Gertrud Mueller Nelson, “Reflections on ‘A Visit’” in John August Swanson’s artist notes on “A Visit,” 1995)