Some 18 years ago, Minnesota-born Cody Swanson arrived in Italy on a two-way ticket as a fresh-faced 18-year-old keen to discover more about traditional art. That he did. But his trip wasn’t quite what he had envisioned. He’s lived in Italy ever since, having never used his return flight.
His Roman Catholic faith and family are most important to Swanson (the couple have five children), and his wife is one of a number of artists who help him in his studio, he said in a telephone interview.
After he graduated, Swanson taught at The Florence Academy of Art and also at the Sacred Art School in Florence, which focuses exclusively on serving the Catholic Church.
Now, Swanson concentrates solely on creating sublime sacred art in clay, bronze, marble, and plaster in his private studio. With each and every one of his sculptures, he has one aim: to serve God. To that end, he sincerely hopes that each sculpture brings people closer to God.
His sculptures in Europe can be found in Florence, Madrid, Rome, and London, to name a few cities. Among his major works in Italy are a silver processional cross for the Florence Cathedral and a 13-foot sculpture of St. Emygdius for Foligno Cathedral in the Umbria region of central Italy.
In America, his work can be found in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minneapolis; and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill, Wisconsin.
A Classical Art Training Quest
Swanson grew up on Maui, Hawaii, where his father worked as a pilot. In high school, he became interested in the Renaissance and also classical French academic art, that is, realist art defined by the traditions established by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Keen to become a professional artist, Swanson first began drawing figures during high school, occasionally attending figure-drawing sessions at an art center.
Initially, he looked to study art at a U.S. university but found there were no options available for studying classical figurative art. Disappointed, he began looking at learning opportunities overseas. “I thought that maybe the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris still maintained the traditions of the 19th century.” The school did still exist, but it wasn’t offering any classes that were traditional. “It was clear that I had to avoid the university system,” he said.
Then he discovered The Florence Academy of Art, a private school in Italy, which was founded by fellow American artist Daniel Graves in 1991. According to The Florence Academy website, the school specializes in teaching “the classical-realist tradition rooted in the 19th century” as exemplified by three French Academy teachers and master painters Jean-Léon Gérôme, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat, and Charles Auguste Émile Durand, also known as Carolus-Duran.
The school suited Swanson, so he applied to the academy’s painting program, only to be told there was a long waiting list. While waiting, he took the opportunity to travel to Italy with his high school, which offered educational tours to Italy and Greece. While in Florence, he said, he “just showed up at The Florence Academy [of Art].” Again, the academy staff told him there was a long waiting list—about a year for the painting program.
Swanson was interested in both painting and sculpture, so when the academy told him that he could circumvent the waiting list by entering the sculpture program, he applied straight away. “Well, once I started sculpting, I realized that’s what I wanted to pursue,” he said.
Moving Closer to Christ
Swanson has always been interested in serving God. “I was interested in Christian subject matter. But I became very interested in sacred art and much more interested in how I could serve God, as well, with my work,” he said.
“With my art, I would hope that I can uplift people, bring them closer to God, and inspire them. I think beauty is inspirational. I think that beauty is synonymous with truth. Truth and tradition are synonymous, and I think that tradition should be upheld. Beauty is synonymous with truth, and beauty has an origin; It doesn’t exist for its own sake,” he said.
A School to Serve God
After the three-year program, The Florence Academy invited Swanson to become a principal sculpting instructor, where he taught students for five years. All Florence Academy teachers are graduates of the academy, which allows the school to maintain unity in its standards, Swanson explained.
Through the academy he met Irish sculptor Dony Mac Manus, the creator behind the Sacred Art School in Florence, which Mac Manus founded with Swanson and others in 2012. The two became friends, and Swanson became a principal instructor at the school.
Of the school, he said: “It was very simple. Our mission was to serve the church.” The school maintained the academic standards of The Florence Academy of Art, while introducing drapery, iconography, and of course, theological studies to the teaching repertoire, Swanson explained.
Swanson also taught idealization at the school, something that artists have done for centuries but that he believes is lacking in art education. Deities, for example, were normally idealized figures in the Greco-Roman tradition, he explained. “There was a theological reason, … which in the light of the incarnation in the Catholic Church is very important, because Christ is the son of God, Our Lady was preserved from original sin. They shouldn’t look like any ordinary individual,” he said.
“Personally, I find it quite lazy that people don’t attempt idealization,” he said. Artists need to apply themselves to create idealized images. Swanson explains that it is not a case of replicating past masters, “because you can see in any museum or church where there is classical art that everybody idealized differently. It was actually very personal; it was very liberating for an artist to make aesthetic choices in that regard,” he said.
Swanson was involved with the Sacred Art School up until late last year, when he decided to concentrate on his private art studio work.
Upholding Traditional Art
Swanson said that artists need the foundational basics of art such as observing nature and setting up a live model, for example. But he believes it’s by looking at the great masters of the past that you learn a lot about yourself and develop taste: “Taste is something that’s very important, and you’re not going to develop taste unless you’re really, really well-informed about what kind of art has been produced for many centuries.”
“Following in the footsteps of the masters requires a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of very hard work, and dedication,” he said. For instance, it can take him between eight and twelve months to complete a monumental statue with the help of his assistants.
Swanson’s artistic goal is continuity with the past. He’s extensively studied the practices of past masters, and he’s specifically drawn to 17th-century art, because of its universal appeal. “I’m trying to not reproduce, but follow their process. Just as Bernini followed the processes of Raphael and Michelangelo, I’m trying to do the same and maintain that continuity, … and continue their legacy,” he said.
“I think that the Greco-Roman language, which has been really prevalent in Europe for many centuries, is the most universal. … It has a lot to offer all cultures. I think it’s very approachable. And certainly I find it beautiful. I find it very moving, very inspiring,” he said.
Essentially, art “should uplift people and take them beyond the fleeting superficiality of one period of time, and it should be something that is relevant and speaks to people in all periods of time,” he said.
The Enduring Strength of Divine Beauty
Swanson has been immensely influenced by 17th-century artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was studying the history of the Catholic Church and was astounded by the spiritual aspects of Bernini’s work, so much so that he sees Bernini as “a huge, huge inspiration.”
“It’s not just the aesthetic of Bernini but also what it’s connected to as well. As much as his work is so different from Michelangelo’s, he was very much connected to it,” he said. For instance, Bernini was one of the principal architects of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a role Michelangelo once held in the 16th century. So Swanson said that Bernini’s work per se was a continuation of what happened in the Renaissance, of looking to the past for inspiration, and therefore his work was a continuation of 16th-century artists Raphael and Caravaggio, for instance.
“He brought it to another height. … He certainly loved Christ and he wanted to serve the church as well. … These artists were men of faith. These were things that they believed.”
Swanson finds the Counter-Reformation period fascinating. Of the artists during that time, he said: “They fought hard to defend their faith, and they were very good at it. And they did it with beauty. They did it with great, beautiful works of art.”
He finds the counter-reformation period similar to our current day–essentially the fight against atheism and secularism.
“And looking at people tearing down statues everywhere nowadays, … I look at Bernini, and my response to that is I just want to use beauty to fight,” he said. “Just make beautiful statues, keep putting out beautiful statues, and just make as many beautiful statues as I can.”
To find out more about sculptor Cody Swanson’s work, visit CodySwansonSculpture.com