Leadership and Social Change
5 April 2020
The Unexpected Blessing
Walking up the steps of John August Swanson’s home one sunny evening at dusk, I
didn’t realize what a blessing I was about to receive. Fourteen Gonzaga students were as eager to
meet the artist as I. We entered with great anticipation to learn more about John and how he uses
his gift to connect with others. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I didn’t realize that I would be
walking into an art studio, a workshop, a sanctuary. My eyes were transfixed on the artwork
which covered the walls. I marveled at the emotion and the story that was told in each piece. The
amount of time, dedication, depth of soul and imagination that went into each of his elaborately
detailed paintings was beyond comprehension. By scanning the walls, I learned that his work
encompasses human values and spiritual transformation. This comes to life through powerful
visual representations of Bible stories, life celebrations, and all that embracing life embodies.
The paintings and his gentle spirit both spoken as an artist and as a person touched me. I was
touched by how gracious he was; with open arms he welcomed us into his home and I wanted to
soak it all in.
Mr. Swanson led us throughout his home turned studio. Inside, we crowded around tables
full of prints that John crafted. He showed hundreds of them that he created pertaining to social
justice and issues in our world today. He talked about his intensions behind his work and why he
made certain artistic choices. I could tell these posters meant something special to him by the
tone in his voice. While standing for a long time, my legs started feeling tired and I was starting
to lose focus, but his zeal was infections; he just kept going. He never lost that spark to show us
one more story through his artwork. He kept saying “Oh you have to see this one” and would
with just as much fervor as the last, share his passion, his empathy, and his love for people. I was
inspired by him to embrace a meaningful mission myself at some point, work hard at it, and to
share it with others someday as well. I look forward to having a spark and passion like Mr. John
August Swanson someday.
Eventually, we were led to a beautiful garden in the back. The smell of fresh lavender,
arugula, and guava brought a sense of peace and calmness as it reminded me of my grandma.
She and John both cherish and take great joy in gardening. It made me happy to hear him ramble
on about every little thing that he grows. Getting to hear his insight and passion to help things
grow and flourish is what has inspired me. He talked about poison ivy and how it’s good to make
tea out of it. John found the healing properties in all things. I had never thought of poison ivy as
something to use or as something that could do any good. I was always told to stay away from it
and would often see my neighbors killing the ivy that grew outside. However, John sees this as
something different than what they may appear to be. He sees the good when others don’t. With
this perspective, has inspired me to find the light and good in all things.
Later in the evening we went out for dinner. Here we were in LA, eating great food,
surrounded by great company, AND the Zags were playing their very last game! John also had
the opportunity to join us for dinner. I had the privilege to talk to him for the whole evening as
we shared chips and guacamole and just talked about life. I was so fortunate to have had the
opportunity to have some personal conversations with he and Sophia. I was touched and
humbled. I felt that this was the moment God had designed for me on this mission trip. John
shared a little about his family, how he was doing, and what he does for other people. One of the
things he does for others is send postcards to inmates in prisons. As John told me about this, he
also touched on a letter he received back from an inmate. The man expressed his gratitude to
John for reaching out and shared how his artwork had inspired him to create art himself.
Although the inmate did not have many art materials, he used what he could. For him, art is a
form of meditation to get away from the chaos of prison life. John was so touched that this
gentleman took the time to write back and share how John’s work had made an impact. He
never expected this. John continued their correspondence and included some art supplies. John
was just as blessed by the inmates outreach who reciprocated the same love and passion for
expressing themselves creatively. John let me know that he read the letter over 50 times because
it meant that much to him. While John shared this with me, he also made sure I didn’t leave his
house without a copy to read. Because of the story John shared with me, the art meant so much. I
felt like I could step into the story. I was touched just the same.
John’s heart poured out in everything that he did. He gave his all and whatever he could,
TO US. What did we deserve from him but just to learn and hear from him? Instead, he sent us
home with articles from things he mentioned in conversations, he gave a hardcopy video to
Rachel about the process of printing, forty-two posters to take home as a group, little chocolates
before we left, and a packet full of postcards and devotional readings. He even offered up a
sweatshirt to Grace because she was cold on our walk home from the restaurant! He is such a
sweet man with a heart for others that loves without bound. I was so moved by his genuine spirit.
Looking back at all the paintings and the stories they told, my favorite was the feeding of
the 5000. I not only loved his interpretation and how he created it, but it reminded me of him. In
the book of John, Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fishes to feed 5000. Like this parable,
John’s small gifts and service blesses thousands of people. He takes what little he has, and he
gives generously to others. His generosity, in turn touches the lives of so many. John has a heart
As we said our goodbyes, we all gave John a last thank you and elbow bump as we left
his house that evening. Reflecting on our visit, I am so grateful to have met John. He is the
blessing I received. His kindness, love, and selflessness has shown me to love all people without
reservation. The more time I spent with him the more I learned how much he loved others. It was
like this endless flow of water that couldn’t turn off. He cares so deeply for others and believes
the best in, the possibilities in, and the restoration of people. I was so overwhelmed by his
generosity, he never stopped giving. Giving of myself, loving without question, and finding
worth in things considered worthless are what John does so effortlessly. He has moved me to
strive to do just the same. John August Swanson is such a light to people, and it is so visible in
every painting seen, conversation had, and guava given.
(This is a picture I took of the Feeding of the 5000 incase you didn’t see this painting!!)
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