Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
In July, Los Angeles artist John August Swanson completed the
extraordinary, multicolored silk-screen print of Francis and
the Wolf you see on this month’s cover and in the photo to your
The silk-screen process enables
an artist like Swanson to make prints—or serigraphs, as they are called—so full
of color and texture that they nearly “sing” with beauty and vibrancy!
In late June, St. Anthony
Messenger spent a weekend with Swanson in Los Angeles. It was my good fortune
to witness the 39th color run of Francis and the Wolf at Aurora Serigraphics,
the fine-arts print studio in Van Nuys, California, where Swanson does his silk-screening
with master printers James and Sandi Butterfield.
In mid-July, Swanson informed
me that the Francis and the Wolf serigraph was finished—on the 48th color
run of the silk-screen press. This means that, all in all, Swanson had to draw
48 separate stencils, mix 48 different inks and oversee 48 color printings of
225 separate silk-screen prints—all in close collaboration with his master printers.
The result is a feast for the eyes.
Such a process requires a tremendous
investment of love, patience and time on the part of the artist. John August
Swanson has that kind of love and patience. He has dedicated more than seven
months of his life to producing this serigraph.
The Meaning of Francis and the Wolf
There is a special vision or meaning that shimmers forth from this
work of art. Swanson says he is trying to recapture what “Francis taught us
a long time ago when he spoke to the wolf, treated him with kindness and welcomed
Swanson believes that we cannot really be at peace in our world
unless, like St. Francis, “we embrace ‘the wolf,’ which is a symbol of our shadow—or
the part of ourselves or of our society that we deny. The fear of our shadow
is destructive,” says Swanson, “until we see, speak and accept that fear.”
Swanson’s serigraph is based
on the famous story of St. Francis making peace with a wolf that had terrorized
the Italian village of Gubbio. The wolf had attacked and even killed some of
the townspeople, including children. Through the intervention of Francis, the
vicious killings ceased and the wolf and townspeople made peace with each other.
The story certainly has significance
for our day, as we deal with violence and terrorism from individuals and groups
who act fiercely and hatefully toward brothers and sisters at home and abroad.
Such experiences force us to face our inner shadow and raw human impulses like
fear, hatred, violence and revenge.
When, as an artist, he was dealing
with the story of Francis and the wolf, Swanson says, “I had to go into my own
psyche. I see art as a way to bring healing to the fearful things within me
that I’m afraid to confront and would rather walk away from than try to understand
or see in the light of forgiveness.”
As we look at John Swanson’s
Francis and the Wolf, we see the saint taking a posture of humility,
peaceful reconciliation and utter vulnerability. Francis sits humbly on the
earth before the wolf, his bare feet totally unprotected and only inches away
from the wolf’s sharp teeth. Francis seems, moreover, to experience a mystic
communion with all brother and sister creatures, as well as with their Creator.
I had with me a copy of Murray
Bodo’s book Francis: The Journey and the Dream, in which the Franciscan
author describes St. Francis’ meeting with the wolf. I read the passage to Swanson,
asking if it conveyed something similar to what his serigraph is saying.
The passage reads: “Francis felt
sympathy for the wolf. There was something of the wolf in all of nature, that
ravenous hunger, that restless pursuit, that baring of fangs, so symbolic of
what was wild and violent in all of us....Everyone feared wolves and disliked
them, and he saw in the eyes of wolves a fear, a hunted look, an anger and hostility
that wanted to devour everything in sight in order to avenge their own hurt
and alienation. Wolves, after all, were like people. If you feared them and
ostracized them,...they eventually turned into what you were afraid they were
After hearing the words, Swanson
simply nodded, smiled gently and suggested that I include the passage in this
Another Swanson Painting
Three years ago, John Swanson did another popular painting—the
colorful acrylic Francis of Assisi. In this painting, the
saint stands before a mountain-like cluster of huge rocks and gazes
in awe at the landscape before him—a landscape filled with lovely
trees, wild animals and birds. In the distance, amidst rolling hills,
stand a church and two towns with the golden sun overhead sending
out rays of glory. Bordering this central painting of St. Francis
are 24 miniature paintings depicting the saint’s life.
A new book about St. Francis features all these images painted
by Swanson, with the central image of Francis on the book’s jacket.
The book, entitled Saint Francis, was just released by Orbis
Press. The text by Marie Dennis is based on the art of John August
book is reviewed in this month's book review column, "Turning
Saved by Corita Kent
John Swanson’s life story reveals a great deal about his artistic
vision and interests. He was born in 1938 in Los Angeles to a Mexican mother
and a Swedish father. Both were immigrants who found their way to Los Angeles.
Swanson attributes his knack
for storytelling to his mother’s side of the family, as well as his love for
the Mexican muralists and the bright colors of Latin American art. His mother,
Maria Magdalena Velasquez Swanson, spent the first 18 years of her life amidst
the mountains of northern Mexico in the state of Chihuahua. Magdalena (or “Maggie”)
is still very much alive at 93. The weekend I interviewed John, he invited me
to accompany his mother and him to Sunday Mass at St. Rita’s Parish in Sierra
Madre, California, near Pasadena.
Afterward, I learned from his
mother that she is an avid reader on a wide variety of subjects and a devotee
of St. Anthony of Padua. John has one older sister, Olga, who lives with their
John derived his interest in
Swedish folk art, as well as his love for the circus, from his father, a fruit
and vegetable vendor. John’s father and mother were separated when he was a
For many years, John was not
sure what to do with his life. He took courses at Loyola University and UCLA
but dropped out. He had various jobs over the years, including one in a paint
A constant thread in Swanson’s
life has been a keen interest in social action on behalf of the poor. In the
1960s, for example, he became very involved with the Young Christian Workers.
From them he received a solid spiritual formation and a commitment to Catholic
social teaching. Swanson has been a longtime supporter of Cesar Chavez and the
farmworkers’ movement and many other causes.
Swanson didn’t really find his artistic avocation until he was 30 years old.
Hounded by a sense of failure and weary of searching and drifting
without clear goals, he decided to take an evening class on lettering
and design from Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College in
Los Angeles. Corita Kent (1918-1986) was a highly respected artist
of that era and famous for her colorful silk screens. Her art had
a powerful spiritual impact on Swanson.
“Corita saved my life,” Swanson
says. “She became a mentor and helped me find the door that had been closed
in my life. She opened me to art and ideas. She made me feel important and helped
me find healing.” Swanson helped Kent with some of her serigraphs and soon found
himself intrigued with the silk-screen process. He credits Corita Kent with
helping him discover his own artistic path and voice.
Swanson’s Art Embraces All Life
John Swanson’s interest is by no means restricted to St. Francis
or even to religious topics. As an artist, Swanson works in many media and on
a wide variety of subjects. He has a special interest in the circus and in clowns,
as well as in concerts, opera and social celebrations of all kinds. Yes, Swanson
has done major works on biblical stories, but he is quick to point out that
the biblical story “is only a starting point.” He wants viewers to look for
“universal meanings” in his work.
Swanson often focuses on everyday
existence, like walks in the country or visits to the library, the train station
or the bakery. His narrative is usually direct and easy to understand. His vision
is positive, optimistic and spiritually profound.
The art of John Swanson is displayed
in many prominent universities and institutions. It has also found its way into
some of the world’s most prestigious art collections, such as the Vatican Museum,
Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of American Art, London’s Tate Gallery and
the Art Institute of Chicago.
How Swanson Views St. Francis
Swanson explains the genesis of the painting that recently appeared
on the Saint Francis book jacket. “In 1973, while visiting
the Frick Collection in New York City, I saw a painting that showed
St. Francis in ecstasy. It was by Giovanni Bellini, done in the
late 1470s. [The painting can be seen at www.frick.org.]
“The Bellini painting was powerful,”
adds Swanson. “It marked the beginning of my artistic interest in Francis of
Assisi. The boldness and grandeur of this picture had such a startling impact
on me that 10 years later when I was about to begin a lithograph of St. Francis—the
forerunner of this St. Francis painting—I had to return to New York to see the
“Again, I stood there before
the painting, reflecting on it for a long time. For me the painting conveyed
a moment of sacredness and grandeur,” Swanson recalls. Of one thing he was sure:
“I wanted to get a sense of wonder into my own painting.”
Unquestionably, Swanson’s painting, which shows Francis gazing
out at the world of creation, conveys that sense of wonder. And
that same feeling of mystery and awe emanates from much of Swanson’s
Two quotes readily apply to this
painting of Francis of Assisi. One is “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power
and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory,” from the Roman Missal’s
eucharistic prayer. The other quote is “The world is charged with the grandeur
of God,” from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur.”
Francis’ posture in the painting
is certainly one of awe before the glory of God’s creation. He appears so stunned
by its beauty and mystery that he is barely able to lift his hands.
There is a doorway or opening
behind Francis that appears to be a cave or maybe a tomb. Swanson suggests that
it could be either—or both. It could be the cave of prayer where Francis found
union with God in contemplation—where he faced his shadow, died to his old self
and assumed a new glorious life in God. Or, says Swanson, it could “be the tomb
by which we enter into the depths and shadows of our own place so as to be called
out of ourselves to the place of God’s glory.”
Like Lazarus emerging
from his tomb (a theme Swanson has taken up in other paintings), Francis seems
alive with a new vision and new life, having been raised and called forth by
the healing love of Christ.
The 24 miniature
paintings that surround this central image are scenes from the life of Francis,
such as Francis’ embracing the leper, renouncing worldly goods, preaching to
the birds, receiving the stigmata. “I see these events,” says Swanson, “as challenges
and turning points in Francis’ life that helped him make a change of heart and
Rounding Out the Portrait
The whole range of John August
Swanson’s art cannot be covered in a short article. But two other works by Swanson
help us round out the picture and reveal a lot about the artist’s personal and
A Visit (1995). This serigraph
by Swanson focuses on the moment of the Incarnation, when the angel of God visited
Mary to announce the dawn of the world’s salvation. But in this artistic 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.
In Swanson’s view, Mary was not
a woman of the leisure class. “Very likely,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger,
“Mary was a very poor person of her day. She was probably illiterate and had
to work hard to help her family survive. She may not have always had abundant
time for prayer.” Mary’s wide-eyed, thoughtful demeanor as she feeds the chickens,
however, suggests that she is prayerfully open to God’s presence—and special
Scattered throughout the picture
are 25 scenes of people doing their ordinary tasks: baking bread, watering the
animals, caring for the sick and elderly. Interwoven among these vignettes are
27 biblical scenes. The meaning of the Incarnation is being borne out in this
tapestry of everyday life: Those going about their daily tasks in loving service
of the community have God living within them.
As writer-artist Gertrude Mueller
Nelson has commented regarding A Visit, “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 [and] discovering the divine in the earthly task at
As the artist himself suggests,
“Finding the sacred in the ordinary is what A Visit is all about.”
Jester (2001). This serigraph also merits special attention.
It ties in well with Swanson’s “sense of the wonder” and gift for
“finding the sacred in the ordinary.”
In this work, a clown-like figure,
a jester, rises from his sleep and climbs a ladder to gaze through a high window
into an amazing star-studded night sky. To use Swanson’s own words, “The jester
climbs the ladder to identify with the wonder of the universe.”
But the scene is more richly complex than this. In 1986, Swanson
had done a serigraph entitled Dream of Jacob. In this work, the biblical
figure is lying asleep on the ground amidst lofty mountains. Starting not far
from the sleeping Jacob’s head and extending high into the starry heavens is
a glowing ladder with many angels ascending and descending.
As Swanson himself points out,
there is a connection between the jester’s ladder and the ladder of Jacob’s
dream. That makes sense. For are not clowns, dreamers, artists, mystics and
people of imagination keenly attuned to the constant interaction between heaven
and earth, the sacred and the ordinary, God and humankind?
In Swanson’s mind, St. Francis,
too, belongs on this list, especially with the jesters and clowns. Says Swanson:
“Francis fits well into this company of holy fools referred to by St. Paul when
he writes that God chooses ‘the foolish of the world to shame the wise and...the
weak of the world to shame the strong’” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Finally, one might rightly see
the jester as Swanson himself. For, through his art, John August Swanson opens
windows for us so that we might regain the sense of wonder we enjoyed as children.
As adults living in our everyday, self-absorbed and low-ceiling world, we too
often forget that we are part of an immense universe, filled with mystery and
the majesty of God.
Swanson’s gift is to put us back
in touch with that vast mystery and sacredness.
John Swanson’s paintings and serigraphs may also be found on
his Web site at www.johnaugustswanson.com.
Posters and notecards of Swanson’s work are available from and also
benefit The National Association of Hispanic Elderly, 234 East Colorado
Blvd., Suite 300, Pasadena, CA 91101 (626-564-1988).
Send a John August Swanson e-card!