During the recent three-day Calvin Symposium on Worship, artist and printmaker John August Swanson spoke of how the story of the unexpected catch of fish described in Luke 5 has helped him to get through some hard times.
“I believe art imitates life, and this scene is an image of my life as an artist,” said Swanson.
In Luke 5, Jesus is in a boat with Simon Peter and tells him to “let down the nets for a catch.” Simon is reluctant, but he does as Jesus instructs, and they catch so many fish that he has to call other fishermen to help. They “filled both boats so full that they began to sink” (Luke 5:7).
“This scene is key for me,” said Swanson. “I see this story as a symbol of not giving up. Even though you don’t want to do it, you throw the net into the lake and catch riches and blessings.”
Swanson began sketches for what he calls The Fishermen in 1969, covering the canvas with different colors of crayon and etching images into the wax. The work evolved until he made it available as an acrylic painting in 2012, showing disciples in a boat, a net full of swirling, multicolored fish, and a bright sky in which an angel is blowing a horn that looks like a swirl of clouds.
The symposium, which took place Jan. 24-26, offered times of worship and praise, plenary speakers, and dozens of seminars, one of which was titled “Sharing Our Stories: The Art of John August Swanson.”
Larry Gerbens, a retired physician and strong supporter of Swanson’s work, ran a laptop projector that showed The Fishermen and other works as Swanson spoke to a group about his nearly 50-year career.
“I was inspired in my work by looking at the beautiful, illuminated manuscripts in the British Museum,” said Swanson, a slender man who spoke in a soft voice.
Before the introduction of printing in the mid-15th century, he said, books were written by hand. Many manuscripts were Bibles, or had biblical themes, and were decorated with images, often of Scripture characters in bright colors and burnished gold leaf.
“These are images that can make you happy,” said Swanson. “Looking at them can be like a meditation. You can come to them feeling anxious and tired, but they will help you pull yourself together.”
Also influenced by Russian icons, Latin American folk art, and the tradition of Mexican muralists, Swanson tries to create intricate work that he hopes will illuminate and tell easy-to-grasp stories such as the one in Luke 1:26-28, in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant with the Savior of the world. Swanson calls his work on this passage The Annunciation.
“I’m trying to show the whole community and to show Mary at work as a young girl. She has a broom in her hand and wears an apron decorated with a tree of life,” said Swanson.
Finished in 2017, The Annunciation features Mary near the bottom of the image as Gabriel speaks to her. The artwork depicts several other scenes as well, representing community life. At the top is a starry sky. Below it are images of buildings in the community, a man studying a text, a mother putting children to bed, a woodcutter delivering wood, and a woman preparing supper.
Swanson’s prints hang in many churches, cathedrals, universities, and seminaries. One, The Procession, was even selected for the Vatican’s Collection of Modern Religious Art. Several of his works have been made into murals. Three of his paintings were recently hung in a hallway at the H. Henry Meeter Center at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
At the symposium, Swanson spoke of some of his other artworks, featuring Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fleeing to Egypt; Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist; and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
When he thinks of his work providing hope to people, Swanson said, he likes to consider his painting inspired by Psalm 85, especially the words of verses 10-11, which he described this way: “Justice and peace shall kiss; truth shall spring out of the earth. Kindness and truth shall meet; justice shall look down from the heavens."
“I visualize the poetry of the words, the hope they make me feel about living,” he said.
Titled Psalm 85, his image shows a young man in the crook of a tree whose roots twist deep into the earth. Above him, flying across the tree branches, is a white dove. Nearby is a man pouring water from a bucket into the ground. Surrounding the youth and the tree are rolling hills on which people are sowing seeds, talking in groups — and above it all is a large, luminescent sun whose rays spread and fill the sky with a rainbow of colors.
“It took a long time from the early sketches to make this as an artwork that people could see and get excited about,” he said.
As in much of his work over the decades, he said, ideas evolve. Even up to the point of an installation, he might notice something, grab a brush, and touch up a painting.
“The work that I do takes time,” said Swanson. The artworks “have to germinate, like a seed. I’ve grown from every work that I’ve done as I move them forward with my own vision.”