Sister Thoma Swanson shares the gift of art in 'Swan Song II'

A new, wide-ranging exhibition at the Vanderelli Room reveals the lifelong artist's faith-inspired love of people and the natural world

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
“Tears for Aaron, Rain on the Green Mountain,” acrylic on canvas by Sister Thoma Swanson

Sister Thoma Swanson grew up in Kent, Ohio, but through her artwork, her role as an educator and her calling as a Dominican Sister of Peace, she has traveled the world, spending a dozen of her 93 years in Peru. She also went to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in power, and her experience visiting Iraqi hospitals filled with children suffering from cancer moved her deeply.  

"Where do these cancers come from? They came from the fact that the environment was polluted as a result of the use of cancer-causing chemical weapons,” Swanson said. “So why were we buying oil from them? Because money was more important than anything else. The chemical weapons didn't matter much. It was the fact that you could make money from the oil in the sand. That angered me.” 

Swanson drew on those emotions and experiences to make “Two Rivers of Fire,” a haunting mixed-media piece on paper that greets visitors to the local artist’s new exhibition at the Vanderelli Room, “Swan Song II.” Two columns of orange, yellow and red flames close in on black-and-white drawings of countless men, women and children in the middle of the artwork. An Arabic prayer above and below the image loosely translates to, “May the people of Iraq have peace at last.”

“Two Rivers of Fire,” mixed media on paper by Sister Thoma Swanson

“One river represented Saddam Hussein. The other river represented the United States,” Swanson explained, also calling back to Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “The people in the middle are suffering from the two rivers rushing past them. … People now will object to calling us the oppressors, but I think if you were there, if you knew the stories, you would have to say that it was true.” 

Growing up a block away from Kent State University, Swanson began making art at a young age thanks to the encouragement of a supportive uncle, who supplied her with crayons and paper. In high school, Swanson took a two-week painting course at Kent State, her first opportunity for formal art instruction. She later came to Columbus to spend two years at the College of Saint Mary of the Springs, which later became Ohio Dominican University, and finished her undergraduate degree studying liturgical art at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee. 

After entering the Dominican Sisters at 21, Swanson got graduate degrees at Notre Dame University and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, later teaching art at the high school and college levels. “In the beginning, we didn't have lots of art teachers. I was the only one. So I made a point of varying different media when I had the opportunity,” she said. “I would always enjoy that enough to keep on working in that media for a while.” 

Indeed, “Swan Song II,” reveals Swanson’s proficiency in a wide range of styles and mediums, including watercolor on paper, acrylic on canvas, tapestries, silkscreen prints, ink drawings, paper sculptures and more. Some of the pieces are directly inspired by scripture, such as “Tears for Aaron, Rain on the Green Mountain,” a large acrylic painting referencing the weeping of Aaron, brother of Moses. “As I read the Psalms, I saw that mountain with the tears coming down, and it struck me,” Swanson said. “It was this image of the tears of a man that were so plentiful, so huge – this huge burst of tears that could run down a mountain.”

"Rio Vilcanota," acrylic on canvas by Sister Thoma Swanson

Other works come from the time Swanson spent in Peru while on sabbatical from teaching at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. The beauty of Peru’s rivers, lakes and mountains led Swanson to paint the natural world, which is intimately connect to her faith. “Who could paint those mountains, who could paint the ocean, without marveling at its source, at its creation? There is a strong pull as I paint creation and the natural world. It's the work of God's hands, and he gave me the gift [of art], and I'm happy to have that gift. I love it,” she said. “My gift of art is part of God's gift to all of us. Not everybody gets art, but they all get gifts of various kinds.” 

Swanson also made portraits based on Peruvian women she met near the coastal city of Chimbote. “Florinda and her Sisters,” for instance, originated with a beloved cook whose husband died. “She was from the mountains, and she had come down from the mountains with her sisters, who came down to accompany her in the death of her husband. And here were these three strong women... that really impressed me,"  

Eventually, Swanson retired from Albertus and returned to Peru with boxes of art materials. She taught the women, who weren’t given educational opportunities, how to draw and paint, and she also brought their beautiful, embroidered wall hangings to the States, selling them and giving the money back to the women. “That money they used for their children to buy shoes so they could go to school, because the law was you had to have shoes on to go to school,” she said. 

Swanson has asked God why he gave her the gift of art, and her conclusion is the reason for “Swan Song II.” “He gave it to me so that I could share it with others,” she said. “So that's what I've tried to do, not only by teaching art, but also by making things that would [cause] people to raise their hearts to God, would give them an insight into things that they hadn't thought about. … It's a different way of looking at life.”