Inside one of the anonymous bungalows that line the streets of LMU’s Westchester neighborhood quietly lives and works an artist whose paintings and prints meet the eye as explosions of beauty and religious meaning. John August Swanson, who spent only months on campus as a pre-med student in the late ’50s, is today an unassuming but influential artistic presence in the world of religious art and a wellspring of spiritual and political imagination in the LMU community.
In one, a medieval jester, with a look of wonder on his face, climbs a ladder over a sleeping family, beholding the lights of the heavens streaming in. In another, a string quartet tucks into a Dvorak piece, faced with an audience that seems to be communing with the music. In yet another, a robed and tonsured St. Francis leans over a pond as if praying over a colorful array of fish, with the phrase “Listen To The Earth Crying” printed boldly over the scene.
These pieces — two paintings and a poster made from another — have, apparently, little in common, but all come from the brush of John August Swanson, an uncommonly devoted man of eclectic interests but a small number of abiding concerns. Mostly unknown to members of the LMU community as well as the majority of Southland art lovers, Swanson is an artist whose pieces have been acquired by the Vatican Museums, London’s Tate galleries, The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and churches and divinity schools across the land.
Perhaps his definitive piece is “The Last Supper,” a vivid but straightforward painting of the famous meal — with elaborate and obsessively detailed border images that show the labor that made the feast possible, from farmers tilling soil to wine grapes growing to bees feeding on flower pollen on their way to producing honey.
Swanson, a quiet and humble man of 80 who listens as much as he speaks, says the piece demonstrates how “the sacred is in the ordinary, and the ordinary is in the sacred.” It also demonstrates his almost effortless ability to connect ancient iconography with contemporary debates.
To Swanson, the array of species assembled for Noah’s Arc demonstrates the 21st century issue of biodiversity. Figures in the Bible make him think of the current argument over immigration. “Ruth was an immigrant, an outsider,” he says, pointing to one of his pieces. “But God chose her to be the grandmother of King David.”
As an artist, Swanson combines several traditions: medieval painting, biblical illustration, “outsider art,” the Mexican muralists and the art of persuasion of Catholic social justice movements.
But Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, theological studies professor in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, who has known Swanson for more than a decade, says he’s more than just an artist. She deems him “an important contemporary theologian,” albeit one who does his work through visual means.
Swanson’s knack for combining disparate lineages and influences comes, in large part, from his background. He was raised in El Monte in the 1940s and ’50s, when the city was full of walnut and dairy farms. It was also dominated by Midwesterners and Dust Bowl refugees, with Latinos confined to their own barrio. The young Swanson had a foot in both worlds — his father was an immigrant from Sweden, his mother from Mexico’s Chihuahua hills — but those worlds were kept rigidly separate outside his own family.
Despite a brief tenure as a pre-med student at then-Loyola University, Swanson had trouble summoning the funds or attention to complete college.
His early adulthood was shaped by his exposure to Catholic social justice icons like Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez. He worked with the United Farm Workers and progressive immigrants’ rights groups, registering voters and marching against the Vietnam War. The notion of the common good spoke to him.
By his late 20s, Swanson had a set of convictions but little education, no profession and no real direction in life. “I was so despondent,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with academia or processing words. I was ready to give up.” He dropped out of UCLA and felt lost.
Swanson seems in some ways a man out of time: It’s easy to imagine him in one of the Mexican hill towns or Scandinavian villages his ancestors hailed from, in any century.
In 1967, while working odd jobs, he signed up for a night course at Immaculate Heart College, taught by silkscreen artist Sister Corita Kent. That was the turning point of Swanson’s life: Not only did she teach him about lettering (he made stencils out of old rubber erasers) and image-making, she gave him a discipline and sense of self he’d lacked. “She was such a thinker — so much imagination,” he says now. “She introduced me to literature, poetry — great writers like Albert Camus and Rainer Maria Rilke.”
The work Swanson began painting and printing early on was even more deeply connected to the Catholic faith than that of the nun who taught him: Kent used pure abstraction, the shapes of words, magazine illustrations and a pop art style. But her impact was immense, and Swanson would later replicate her habit of using literary and political quotations to frame or amplify his imagery. He recently has developed posters that fuse his existing images with lines from John F. Kennedy, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Pope Francis and others.
Swanson, who’s driven by an obsessive love of detail and an otherworldly level of patience, moved to London in the late ’70s to devote himself to printmaking with the group Advanced Graphics.
“I was like an oddball,” he says of his time there. “Everybody else was a professor or had come up through the art schools.”
When Swanson returned to Los Angeles in 1980, he brought with him a body of work that would soon gain international recognition, and most of the elements of his mature style were fully in place. Within a few years, his magnum opus, “The Procession,” would be acquired — with the help of Donald P. Merrifield, S.J., then-president of LMU — by the Vatican Museums. But he was only midway along his life’s journey.
The paradox of Swanson is that despite high-profile acquisitions and a towering reputation in the world of Catholic art, he is almost invisible in the larger contemporary art world. Most prestigious American museums don’t hold his work; he has no gallery in his hometown. Visual art, for most of human history, has been deeply connected to religion. But post-Renaissance secularization and the modernity’s emphasis on art for art’s sake and individual expression have largely sundered the connection.
Swanson describes his art as “outsider work,” and there’s certainly some parallel to the genre of self-taught artists, many of them rural, Deep South Protestants who combine personal concerns with biblical and apocalyptic imagery. Swanson’s passions and autodidacticism are equally strong, but his connections to art history — if not its mainstream present — are much more solid.
“He’s closer to sacramental Catholicism and early Christian iconography,” says Don Saliers, emeritus professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “That’s a much deeper tradition,” one that goes back, in its earliest form, to the third century. “He can be classified all too easily as a male Grandma Moses,” Saliers says. But a good look at his work reveals something far more complex: biblical storytelling, with a brilliant and complex color palette, in a wide range of ethnic traditions.
It was these qualities that led the Candler School to acquire more than 150 Swanson pieces. Saliers recently completed teaching a course on the body of work and brought the artist in to speak to the students. He’s struck by “the sheer care and technical facility that Swanson developed on his own. Very few artists I know are influenced by Christian iconography and Persian miniatures.”
Swanson also harkens back to a medieval tradition, says Kathryn Barush, art historian at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Christian art in the Middle Ages did not aim for photo realism, instead inviting a sacred journey. “The point of art,” she says, “was to give an indication of something from scripture, say, and engage the imagination — to make an interior pilgrimage. The art is a vehicle for ascent: It’s an invitation to enter into the work and find God.”
Yet, for all of Swanson’s grounding in Catholicism, his vision is in some ways secular. “It’s a humanistic idea,” he says of what drives him. “I’m not trying to promote Christianity. I want to bring people together, not separate them.”
Swanson seems in some ways a man out of time: It’s easy to imagine him in one of the Mexican hill towns or Scandinavian villages his ancestors hailed from, in any century, doing almost exactly what he does now, doggedly painting and printing and trying to persuade through visual art. Saliers calls him “a monastic and a mendicant.”
At the same time, though he moves and speaks as slowly as most who’ve almost entered their ninth decade, he remains fully alert to the world.
González-Andrieu recalls marching with Swanson and LMU alumni in downtown L.A. last summer in support of immigrants. “We walked for eight miles nonstop,” she says. “The young people couldn’t believe he was 80!”
An older friend of Swanson’s told him, a few years ago, that as a man in his 70s, it was high time he retired. “It’s not that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he says. “It’s that I feel like there’s too much I can add to the question of what’s going on.”
Scott Timberg, author of “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for six years, and his work has appeared in The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @TheMisreadCity.