This column is a tribute to a humble man whose art and spirit has touched people like me and many of his friends and admirers in South Pasadena and around the world.
John August Swanson is 83 and is getting hospice care for final stage heart failure at St. John of God Care Center in Los Angeles, according to his assistant, Andrew Shimmin.
His paintings are on display in the Vatican, the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert and Tate museums in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Emory College, the Art Museum in Chicago — and at the South Pasadena Public Library.
I donated one of my Swanson serigraphs — “The Tales of Hoffmann” — to the library several years ago, and head librarian Cathy Johnson put together a night of music to celebrate him and his donated work.
“Afterwards,” Shimmin recalled, “he downplayed the fuss that was made over him and talked instead about the wonderful music and the people he’d met.”
Someone came up to me after the performance and said, “Did you really donate your serigraph?”
I’m a big fan of the library and John, and I immediately pleaded guilty. I have several serigraphs and have known John for years.
“There is no way I’d give up one of my Swanson pieces,” he said, and we both laughed.
If you know John, you know that he is always giving something away — a book, a bunch of postcards, signed posters that an organization can sell for a benefit. An executive at the Puente Learning Center admired a giclee that John had done of a bridge connecting two sides of a city. Puente in Spanish means “bridge.”
The piece cost $500 — too much for her to spend, but John knew our group and wanted to help. So he came up with the idea of making a few changes and turning it into a poster which sold for $45. Proceeds would go to the literacy center.
“He’s interested in everyone he meets,” Shimmin said. “He collects peoples’ stories. He remembers so much. He knows so many people by sight — not in context of anything. He’s just interested in people. He’s so unassuming that it draws people to him. The whole time he’s talking to you, you are his focus.”
If you know John, and he thought you were interested, he might send you a book he enjoyed or postcards you might like. It wasn’t a way to sell artwork. He just liked to share his interests with people.
Music is a love of his life — he plays violin and viola — and a group of performers would sometimes join him at his home or at a nursing home. Anne McGann Yee, manager at the Holy Family Bookstore in South Pasadena, which sells John’s work, said his spirituality and passion for social justice shine through in his work.
“He’s persuasive in a gentle way,” she said.
It was the desire to express those feelings about social justice that led John to his formal training in art. He really didn’t begin that formal road, according to Shimmin, until age 30. Before, Shimmin said he’d had such diverse jobs as a taxi driver and working in a paint factory. His posters are filled with cries for social justice for farm workers, prisoners, climate control and arms control. It was a desire to learn to letter that led him to a class on lettering at Immaculate Heart College.
He’s being named this week as an honorary member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart. John went to London for about 10 years, where he began designing and printing serigraphs and then came back to L.A. where he teamed with the printing team of Jim and Sandy Butterfield, and his art became more detailed and more colorful — a combination which required long hours and long days for artist and printer alike.
Subjects range from clowns and circus performers to operas to religious scenes. Some of the scenes in his oil paintings, serigraphs, giclee and posters reflect the culture of his Mexican mother.
“His art doesn’t fit like anyone else’s,” Yee said. “He’s unique. No one can take his place. He has a heritage in faith with strong feelings about what he believed. He is passionate and he expresses that passion through his art.”
Shimmin, who has worked with John for 11 years, said that the artist liked to think about the way that stories connect people across time.
“The stories that he grew up with were told to his mother and to her mother — I think he would like being a part of that chain for people he will never meet,” Shimmin said.
Shimmin said his fondest memory of John was of the way he would say goodbye.
“No conversation I had or ever saw ended with one goodbye,” he said. “After that first goodbye, there was always one more thing he wanted to show them. And after the second goodbye, there was always one more thing,” — a poster or something from his garden, Shimmin said — “that he wanted to give them.”
“And even though I knew that it was coming,” Shimmin added, “it always felt like a surprise when it was one of our conversations ending. I knew for sure that the phone call was not over when John started giving the usual wrap-up queues, but when he pivoted from them to asking about my family, the feeling of the shift always came back and always felt new, despite its familiarity. It’s like a joke that you know by heart, but that still makes you laugh every time you hear it.”
I can imagine that when John goes to Heaven, he’ll come bearing gifts. He has certainly scattered enough gifts on Earth to last a lifetime.
A serigraph print is an original artwork created by applying ink through a silkscreen onto paper. The final product can last a lifetime.
A silkscreen or other porous fabric is stretched taut on a frame and that fabric becomes a stencil held together by that fabric. Then, one color at a time, ink is posited through the fabric until the printed image appears on the paper below it. The stencil maker blocks out the negative space around each section before applying the paint to the silkscreen. Each color — one at a time — then goes through the screen onto the paper either by hand or printer.
Some of John Swanson’s serigraphs use 45 or more individual colors and each one had to be individually screened onto the page. He and the printer would often start at 8 a.m. and work late into the night on production or drawing stencils.
“He’d work until his hands hurt and his eyes were starting to stop focusing,” said his assistant, Andrew Shimmin.
Swanson stopped producing serigraphs in 1988 with the death of his printer, Jim Butterfield.
An enhanced giclee is the closest resemblance to an original painting. The fidelity and vibrancy of these prints is further enhanced with the addition of simulated brushstrokes on the finishing coat.
Prices for Swanson’s serigraphs still in stock go up to $1,000. Giclee prints are $500 and posters are usually between $15-25.
For further information about John Swanson, his life and art, including available work, visit johnaugustswanson.com.