John August Swanson Papers and Artwork

About the Artist

John August Swanson is a Los Angeles-based artist specializing in the portrayal of biblical stories and scenes from everyday life. He was born on January 11, 1938, in Los Angeles. Both of his parents were recent immigrants to California when he was born; his mother was from Mexico and his father from Sweden.

In the early 1950s, Swanson worked at a Passionist retreat house in Sierra Madre, California, and then, in 1954, he joined a Passionist monastery in St. Paul, Kansas. After nine months, he returned to California and attended Loyola University, majoring in pre-medical and Spanish (1957-59). He became very involved in political causes, working and organizing for peace and civil rights. He went on to study economics and anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (1965-67). During his time at UCLA he became involved with the United Farm Workers movement; the poster, Struggle for Justice (1972), was created to help raise money for UFW.

Due to an interest in creating political posters, he left UCLA and studied lettering with Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College in 1967. Swanson, at this point, was not yet considering a career as an artist, but Corita’s tutelage at this early stage remained with him. When he began making art in the late 1960s and early 1970s his artistic abilities and style progressed as an autodidact. Still, one can identify the influence of Corita on his early serigraphs; Simon and Garfunkel (May, 1969) and Sand Castle (September, 1969) both display certain characteristics common to Corita’s style, such as prominent lettering and the limited but bold color palette. Thus, Swanson remained indebted to Corita’s influence despite forging his own, unique style as an artist. 

Swanson’s art takes many shapes. He paints in oil, watercolor, acrylic as well mixed media, and is an experienced printmaker. The Morning Suite (1979) aptly demonstrates his printmaking versatility as it contains etchings, engravings, lithographs, and serigraphs (screen prints). Many of Swanson’s paintings have been adapted into limited-edition serigraphs, a medium he has championed. These serigraphs necessitate an advanced level of technical acumen and typically feature 30 to 60 separate colors, each of which require a separate stencil drawn by the artist. Swanson’s elaborate serigraph process results in pieces that have unique textures and colors that are characteristic of his mastery of this medium. The Procession (2007) is the most elaborate of Swanson’s serigraphs; it contains 89 separate colors. Swanson worked closely with master printer James F. Butterfield II of Aurora Serigraphics to produce many of his serigraphs, but with Butterfield’s passing in January of 2011, Swanson no longer makes serigraphs. Many of the pieces he produces now are paintings that have been modified into limited-edition giclées (high-quality, fine art prints produced on professional-grade inkjet printers).

While Swanson’s serigraphs are often intricately developed and are quite sophisticated in their design, they convey stories that are meant to be easily understood. In November of 1971, Swanson traveled to Mexico for five weeks and was inspired by the art and the people there. At this moment, he decided to use his art to tell stories in a linear approach. Overall his style is rather eclectic. He attributes as his influences the "imagery of Islamic and medieval miniatures, Russian iconography, the color of Latin American folk art, and the tradition of Mexican muralists” (artist's biography; box 1, folder 1).

The subject matters that Swanson treats most often in his art are biblical stories, scenes from live performances (e.g., circus or theatre), and scenes from everyday life. He draws inspiration from both Old and New Testaments, but has a particular interest in retelling events in the life of Christ. He also portrays many mundane or menial tasks as serious and positive actions. In his art, Swanson praises the virtue of doing one’s best, regardless of their position. He writes, “The woman who irons her family’s clothes has as much dignity and worth as the statesman” (artist's biography; box 1, folder 1). For example, the serigraph The Train Station (1975) depicts conductors, vendors, and a technician with an oil can and rag, as proud and content workers whose roles are just as important as the engineer operating the train. There is a strong social component to Swanson’s art, and he has repeatedly stated that his art is his most social act. One explicit example of this is a series of 13”x19” posters that he created in 2014 that raise awareness of immigration and hunger issues.

Swanson has received considerable recognition for his art. In 1996, he was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree honoris causa from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. In 2005, he received the Mother Teresa Award for the role his art has played in raising awareness for social justice. He was awarded the Dean's Medal by Emory University for the transformative effect of his art on the campus. In 2012, Swanson received the Immaculate Heart of Mary Award from the Immaculate Heart Community. Swanson’s art is held in a number of prestigious collections, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, National Museum of American Art, National Air and Space Museum, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Vatican Museum’s Collection of Modern Religious Art. Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has the largest collection of his work on public display. His art is also frequently featured on book covers, as well as promotional material for churches and non-profit organizations. To learn more about John August Swanson and his artwork, visit his website at

Swanson's Archives at Pitts Theology Library

With more than sixty pieces on display, Candler School of Theology has the largest public display of Swanson's artwork. Swanson's archives at Pitts Theology Library complements the Candler collection. The John August Swanson papers and artwork (MSS 388) consist of biographical papers on the artist and his work; correspondence; printed material by or about the artist; reproductions and descriptions of his art; audio-visual material; telephone journals; photographs; and original artwork, prints and proofs.

Notable items within the correspondence is a postcard that Swanson wrote to his mother while in England (1976); a transcribed email written for “Lewis” (undated) on the subject of Christianity and the arts; and extended correspondence with individuals such as Janaan Manternach, Stanley Johnson, and Panchita Seyssel. The correspondence also shows how Swanson's art is discovered, used, understood, displayed, and appreciated by individuals as well as organizations.

In terms of artwork, the collection contains art representing all stages of the artist’s career. There are a number of pieces dating from 1969 through the early 1970s that demonstrate the early evolution of the artist’s technique and style. While most of the prints in the collection are serigraphs, there are some etchings, engravings, and lithographs as well. The oldest piece of artwork in the collection is an Untitled work (August 1968) containing a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which features printed text from the artist’s hand-carved alphabet. One of the strengths of this collection are the various working proofs that that artist used in developing the serigraphs as well as many of the handdrawn stencils used for making individual color layers of the serigraphs.

See the finding aid for a complete list of contents in the John August Swanson collection: Finding Aid - MSS 388.