Millions of Christians prepare for Easter in the traditional manner, giving up certain pleasures, praying and contemplating the resurrection of Christ, the principal event of their faith.
At the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Tequesta, a group of about 20 people used art as a direct channel to experience their faith.
They spent every Thursday during Lent with a program centered on the vibrant ecclesiastical work of a California artist, using a DVD-guided study called “What Wondrous Love,” prepared by the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. The artist around whom the program was centered is John August Swanson, 75.
The group concentrated on seven pieces of Swanson’s art, all centered on Christ’s suffering and death. The idea, said Good Shepherd pastor Robert Taylor, was to “put yourself into the Passion of Christ, imagine yourself in it. The Swanson work helped me to enter myself into those events around The Passion in a way I’ve never done before,” said Taylor, who has been a minister for more than 36 years.
“Spending time with it is much richer than just reading and moving on to the next thing in your life. Time and thought and faith come together in a rich way,” Taylor said. “The Passion puts Easter in a sharper contrast. It emphasizes the beauty and power and life associated with Easter.”
A devout Catholic, Swanson has had one of his works donated to no less than the Vatican’s art collection by Loyola Marymount University, in his hometown in Los Angeles.
“The president of Loyola became a patron of my work. He was very kind,” said Swanson, who brushes off compliments with a soft voice and just a hint of an accent from his Swedish father.
Some have labeled his brightly colored and highly detailed works as primitive art, a description he dislikes. He concentrates on workers, children, women, even farm animals, he says, “finding the sacred in the ordinary, and making the ordinary sacred.”
The curator of prints at London’s Tate Gallery once called his use of color “garish,” then bought several of his prints. Many of his paintings and silk screens are reprinted as posters and note cards.
He received no art training until he was 30, when he had the good fortune to stumble upon a brilliant teacher, Sister Corita Kent.
Her iconic flower print with the legend “War is harmful to children and other living things” was a central image of the 1970s anti-Vietnam War movement. She was that decade’s equivalent of Shepard Fairey, who in 2008 produced the “Hope” poster with Barack Obama’s face famously rendered in red, white and blue.
“When I started, I was going to do posters. I had studied lettering,” said Swanson. “Without this nun, without Sister Corita Kent, I would have been lost. My life would have gone a different way.”
Kent showed him how to open his heart and let his work communicate for him.
“That night class gave me the key,” said Swanson. “She taught me to walk through the door and let all the fresh air come in.”
After eating a church supper, the Good Shepherd parishioners listen to the voice-overs of Emory theologians as the camera pans over Swanson’s “The Last Supper.”
“We have the advantage of knowing the story, but the disciples were walking into experiences they never had before,” said Althea Lewis, 75, wearing a red padded vest against the evening chill.
For Swanson, the meaning of Easter is “bringing new light out of difficult and dark times, bringing people to work together to solve problems, everyone bringing their light, their abilities to influence, to be the voice. It’s not just for one religion — it’s to honor each person.”
After their dinner and discussion, the group proceeded to the church for a prayer vigil. Though Jesus’ apostles fell asleep while he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, this group, like many modern Christians, conducts an all-night vigil to signify their support of Christ.
“The art helped me remain in the scene long enough to feel it,” Lewis said. She zipped up her warm red vest and headed into the church.