World-renown local artist John August Swanson died last Thursday, Sept. 23, at age 83.
Swanson had been in hospice care at St. John of God Care Center in L.A. with final stage heart failure, according to his assistant, Andrew Shimmin.
His paintings, which touched on topics ranging from social justice and biblical recreations to circus themes, have been shown in the Vatican, the Smithsonian, the Tate as well as the Victoria and Albert museums in London, the Museum of Modern Art and at Emory College, where most of his paintings serigraphs and giclee are on display.
Swanson in 2005 was one of 33 inaugural recipients — including Pope John Paul II, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter — of the Mother Teresa Award for achievement in beautifying the world.
Some of his artworks have even been transformed into stained glass windows and mosaics.
The Hill Avenue Grace Lutheran Church in Pasadena commissioned Swanson to create an altar piece based on his Nativity triptych works. He teamed with the South Pasadena-based Judson Studios to create a stained-glass reproduction of one of his works, “The River,” now on display as a mosaic at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Glendale.
Some of the scenes in his oil paintings, serigraphs, giclee and posters reflect the culture of his Mexican mother and of his Swedish father.
Swanson was born in L.A., where he had maintained his studio. He was the subject of an “Around Town” profile Aug. 25 in the Review, which recalled how his serigraph “Tales of Hoffman” was celebrated after its donation to the South Pasadena Public Library. Several of his serigraphs also remain on display at Holy Family Church here in South Pasadena, where his work is on sale at the church bookstore.
“John was a cherished friend of many years,” said Monsignor Clement Connolly, pastor emeritus at Holy Family. “The joys and insights of his soul found expression in the inspiring eloquence of his art, which was always a living prayer. His pensive, insightful smile and the patience of his peaceful spirit carried the gospel. Of great consequence was his passion for social justice. He was, at all times, my teacher.”
It was his desire to express his beliefs in social justice which led to his seeking formal art training when he was 30 years old. He became skilled in creating serigraphs, which call for each color to be individually layered by applying ink through a silkscreen onto paper. Some of the creations, from Swanson and the printing team of Jim and Sandy Butterfield, were so detailed they had more than 50 individual colors displayed on a serigraph.
The serigraph “Procession,” which is on display in the Vatican, required 89 stencils and took a year to complete.
Swanson was still working on his art until his final hospitalization earlier this year.
“His art doesn’t fit like anyone else’s,” said Ann Yee, bookstore manager at Holy Family. “He’s unique. He had a heritage in faith with strong feelings about what he believed. He was passionate and he expressed that passion through his art.”
Swanson’s gentle and unassuming way won him as many admirers as his artwork.
“John was a wonderful man and gave so much to the world he has left,” said Cambria Tortorelli, formerly of Holy Family who is currently president of the International Institute of Los Angeles and who owns several of Swanson’s works. “We are the lesser for his physical absence.”
Funeral services are pending, according to Shimmin.