Power to the People: John August Swanson

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Today's "Feel Art Again" features the American artist John August Swanson at the request of reader lisa, who describes Swanson's work as "Color for a taupe world!" Some of Swanson's works, such as "Power to the People" (above), depict themes of social justice, although Swanson is most well-known for his biblical imagery.

1. John August Swanson describes his art as telling stories through narrative scenes. In the popular "Power to the People," Swanson tells the story of an unemployed man looking for work. The man journeys from an employment agency with a long line of people, at the left side of the painting, through the city to join with a group of people, at the right side of the painting, who are gathering to call for human rights and justice. (For scene-by-scene description of the painting, head to Circles of Hope.)

2. Often described as combining the "flat, stylized look of iconography" with the colors and stories of Mexican folk art, Swanson's artwork is influenced by his own mix of cultures. Swanson was raised by his mother, a Mexican garment worker who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 18. His father, a Swedish vegetable vendor, was mostly absent from Swanson's life, though the culture still had some impact on Swanson's artistic development.

3. Swanson's serigraphs are produced through a laborious process which involves Swanson creating a Mylar film stencil for each of the colors being used in the final image. Although Swanson usually uses 40 to 60 colors (and stencils) for his serigraphs, his most elaborate work, "Procession," involved 89 stencils. "Procession" took Swanson more than a year to complete; he considers it "the grand work of [his] life." It is one of the relatively few contemporary works residing in the Vatican Museums' collection.

4. Swanson only found his passion for art at the age of 30, during an evening art class at Immaculate Heart College. Despite his late start, Swanson has achieved great success, receiving an honorary doctorate from California Lutheran University, having his "Entry into the City" featured in Life magazine, and having his work displayed in many museums, including three of the Smithsonian Institution's museums. Swanson's crowning achievement, though, was in 2006, when he was named one of the 33 recipients of the first International Mother Teresa Awards, which acknowledge spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, and philanthropic accomplishments. Other 2006 recipients included Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter, Mel Gibson, and Sister Wendy Beckett.

5. To Swanson, "art is important as a way of communication," a way to "convey transcendent ideas that will empower people to take the next step on their journey." While most of his serigraphs feature religious imagery, Swanson emphasizes that his work shouldn't be defined as "˜Christian art.' For Swanson, his art "goes beyond Christian" and can bring about hope and change.

A larger version of Swanson's "Power to the People" is available here.

Fans of Swanson should check out his official web site; his Flickr account, which includes photos of him creating "Procession;" and the collection of his work at Grand Gallery.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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