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Columbus Dominican's art reflects ‘beauty of the world’
Friday, November 03, 2006
Felix Hoover

A Dominican sister on the East Side [of Columbus] has won an arts award that puts her in a class with religious and political luminaries.

Sister Thoma Swanson of St. Mary of the Springs has taught high-school and college students in America for decades and has helped Peruvian artisans escape poverty. But it was her artwork, including stained-glass windows, that earned one of this year’s Mother Teresa Awards, presented by the St. Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in Albuquerque, N.M.

The award bears a quotation from Mother Teresa, who in 2003 was beatified for her work with the poor in Calcutta, India: "The world is hungry not only for food, but also for beauty."
The message resonates with Swanson, 78, who said art is intrinsic in our humanity.
"It’s a rejoicing in the beauty of the world," she said. "Without it, our lives are very empty and cold and boring."

She and 32 others received statuettes made by the R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, which also makes the Oscar figurines. The other winners include poet Maya Angelou, former South African President Nelson Mandela and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Some winners get the red-carpet treatment, but Swanson declined that. Her statuette was mailed to St. Mary’s and will be presented at a private ceremony on Tuesday.

Swanson works most days at the Milo Arts Center, a former school on the Northeast Side. An eclectic mix of art lines the walls and desks in her studio, and classical music from WOSU-FM constantly plays.

Her early works were watercolors, the medium she still uses to indulge herself, but she has gained acclaim for designing and creating stained-glass windows. Examples are at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., where she used to teach; St. Mary of the Springs; and Capilla Alberto Magno, a convent in Lima, Peru.

In Chimbote, Peru, a seaport about 250 miles north-northwest of Lima, Swanson organized small groups of women to create and sell needlework and other handcrafts at fair-trade prices, meaning that artists are justly compensated for their work.

In her studio at the Milo Arts Center, Sister Thoma Swanson displays some of the items made by Peruvian craftswomen she has helped.

Global Galleries, a local nonprofit, carries some of their items, including holiday cards and stockings with Peruvian scenes, said Connie De Jong, president of Global’s board.
Swanson’s influence shows in the depictions of saints and other holy figures with Peruvian features, rather than the European ones that typically were used before her arrival.

"One thing I like about Sister Thoma is how she connects with people in a very natural way," De Jong said. "She is very humble about all of the work she has done."

Sales help Chimbote’s artists live above the poverty level, $200 a month in Peru, De Jong said. Some of the items will be sold at the International Festival this weekend at Veterans Memorial.

Swanson had lived in Columbus in the 1950s, when she attended the College of St. Mary of the Springs, now Ohio Dominican University, and when she taught at Watterson High School. Work and further study took her to many parts of the world before she returned to St. Mary in 1997.
At the convent, Sister Colleen Gallagher describes her longtime friend as entertaining, spontaneous and "a very colorful person."

In recent years, Swanson has given up teaching to concentrate on her artwork. Except for volunteering with the Hispanic community, she spends most of her time at the convent or her studio.






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