FOR A MOMENT, ONE CAN MISS whose arms are whose: one pair is gaunt from famine and hard work, the other thin from age and grief over two sons gone astray. The faces and nearly bald heads are mirrored, too—the aged and the youthful each leaning on the other for support in their moment of unlikely reconciliation. Skin and bones and hair and fabric are rendered in the rough, fibrous texture of the Aqua-Resin sculpting medium, left uniformly white and unglazed, further dissolving the difference between the two figures. Yet against the overall roughness of the modeling, the delicacy and care with which the faces are rendered is striking, especially as both men’s expressions suggest weariness and relief more than an all’s-well-that-ends-well joy.
Karen Swenholt’s life-sized sculpture The Return of the Prodigal [see Plate 1] does not emphasize the contrast between the profligate degradation of the foolish son and the profligate mercy of the wise father, but focuses rather on the deeply compassionate identification of the father with his son. In Luke’s Gospel, the son is stripped of every outward sign of his past privilege, his very identity, bared to the scorn of his family and village. Yet the father scandalously bares himself to the judging community, too, hiking up his robes so that he might run to meet the son “while he was yet far off.”
In shaping an image of the father and prodigal son who seem to meld with each other physically, Swenholt draws out the connection between the parable and the greater Christian narrative in which God himself not only seeks out but becomes his broken and lost children in order to restore them to their rightful place at home. This subtle restatement of a familiar story encompasses many of the themes—intimacy, folly, brokenness, and compassion—that saturate Swenholt’s work, whether based on biblical or mythological texts or on the no less dramatic narratives of sin, loss, and restoration to be found in the daily news or among her neighbors.
Swenholt, who now lives and works in northern Virginia, has followed an artistic path that looks more like a pilgrim’s progress than a strategically planned academic or commercial career. Born in Baltimore and raised mostly in New York, she returned to suburban Maryland during her high school years. Her training in art began with junior college classes to see “if art was going to be ‘it’ for me.” It was. She progressed to studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art and California College of the Arts, and later a stint at the New York Studio School. Swenholt began as a painter, threading her way uneasily between the cultures of hard-edged and minimalist East Coast abstract expressionism and the West Coast’s Bay Area figurative movement. While drawn to the graphic power and compositional discipline of formal abstraction, she seems always to have been compelled by the stories to be told through the human figure. She was drawn to portray the complicated drama of the lives around her, including her own. Too, the conceptual, hands-off aspect of much modernist sculpture left her cold, as she is resolutely one to stay engaged with her materials. Finally, art for Swenholt is communication and response as well as process and art-historical dialogue; her desire is to connect and converse beyond her peers and predecessors in the world of art.
If Swenholt’s technical facility was honed in studios from California to New York, her skills at observing and recording the complexity of human forms, faces, and folly were sharpened in an altogether different venue: the courtrooms of Washington, DC, and surrounding jurisdictions. For the first half of the 1980s, she put her creative skills to work rendering criminals, victims, and their disoriented families as a courtroom artist. In case after case she documented the faces and bodies of those whose lives had been marred by violence, greed, and all manner of other sins—whether their own or as casualties of the depravity she learned both to take for granted and despise. Most jarring to her sensibilities about who is worthy of love and grace were the sentencing hearings, where advocates for the hurt cry out for vengeance and advocates for the convicted appeal for mercy.
Two such hearings were particularly unsettling and revelatory: first, when the mother of a young man convicted of raping and murdering a young art student came forward with the appeal that what he had done was not all of who he was, was not his essence. Holding up some drawings he had done, she said, “But look! He’s an artist!” The effect on Swenholt was chilling. But was he an artist? Did the boy or his mother expect that to outweigh or even mitigate his guilt? Didn’t Swenholt herself claim that same identity? We all might ask what such an appeal can mean for the nobility of art, its claims to truth and beauty.
The second incident was almost the inverse of the first, not an appeal for mercy but a self-destructive inability to extend forgiveness. A woman, drunk at the wheel, was on trial for killing two young girls. The girls’ mother was gripped not only by her loss but by what Swenholt describes as an “agony of hate.” Swenholt could see (and draw) the bitterness and anger literally twisting the woman’s frame. Swenholt did not fault the mother for her response. She was entirely sympathetic to the desire for justice and retribution, and in fact she herself struggled daily with a burgeoning hatred for the perpetrators and their litany of brutality. But at that moment she also became profoundly aware of the toll unforgiveness was taking on the mother, on top of the crushing tragedy of the girls’ deaths. For the mother and herself, she could only hear the words of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us—and feel their seemingly unbearable, even dangerous weight.
If the first incident upended the artist’s trust in the independence of art, the second upended her estimation of what is required to actually extend the grace of Christ—to forgive. It also exposed how difficult extending forgiveness is if we approach it as a matter of personal will and desire, rather than as something that requires a realization of our own brokenness and need, and the presence of God himself. Yet rather than despair or cynicism about the uselessness of art or futility of mercy, Swenholt’s courtroom experiences fostered a deep compassion for the characters she came to know so intimately by drawing them every day, and whose struggles mirrored her own.
What she saw in court brought her hard-won but still fragile sense of security, purpose, and identity as an artist face to face with her growing suspicion that all forms of identity-seeking outside our core identity as creatures made and loved by God are inevitably thin, twisted, and brittle. And it nurtured an ongoing artistic and spiritual dialogue around the central questions of identity: Who am I? And, more importantly, who do I trust to give me an answer: family, the law, the marketplace, myself, or God?
Another of Swenholt’s life-size sculptures, Monumental Fool, began with a found object—a gnarled root that looked enough like a foot that she took it back to her studio to find out what story it wanted to tell. Inspiration by found object is her mode of creation more often than not, especially if, as she does, you consider her models to be a kind of found object as well. She does not typically have a story or subject in mind when she begins, or guide her models’ poses (“They don’t have to obey!”), or even try to recreate the exact poses struck in earlier sessions.
Instead, by looking intently at the person standing or sitting naked in front of her while she sculpts at a quarter or smaller scale, she performs a kind of figurative abstraction on the fly. The narrative and meaning emerge as she shapes the clay, guided now more than ever by her conversation with God about what—whom—she sees. Roots, desiccated flowers, crumpled wires, beads, and scraps of cloth have all found their way into these works. But Swenholt’s work is decidedly without the sense of detached irony that accompanied Duchamp’s readymades. She wants to know: What is this thing, or who is this person really? And she believes that the answers actually matter.
The story that emerged as she began building a large figure from the root-foot speaks directly to the questions of identity already broached. A man sits semi-splayed on the ground, his right foot firmly planted in the earth. His left hand holds a knife, ready to hack off that very foot in order to be free. The Little Fool [see Plate 2] is a smaller clay rendition of the same figure, which the artist crafted in order to work out spatial and narrative questions. Here the knife is larger, the figure gaunter, the rooted feet perhaps even more alien and grotesque. The pose seems somewhat more aggressive in its preparation for self-mutilation, but both pieces allow a range of interpretation around the central theme of our modern drive to cut ourselves off from anything that denies our freedom—even if what binds us also gives us nourishment and life.
Swenholt makes some of her implications explicit in a poetic caption:
The Dawn of Reason
One morning in the garden of reason
the monumental fool divorced his God and died.
He didn’t know there was food in that root
that seemed to tie him like Gulliver’s
bonds of snappable cord.
The dry crack of the great divorce still echoes
in the unsteady gait of the proud footless one.
Tying on philosophy and bravado like
shoeboxes roped onto stumps
he stalks through his world, conqueror
king of fools
In both versions, then, Swenholt suggests that our many alienations derive from the age-old, ever-new drive to declare independence from God—our spiritual soil—and to make and remake ourselves and our world according to whatever image seems expedient or technologically feasible at the time. The title Monumental Fool puns on both the scale of the sculpture and the enormity of the folly, yet the more intimate Little Fool reminds us of the sculptor’s perennial mix of indignation at and compassion for those bent on dissolution or self-destruction—almost a clucking of the tongue that names it folly rather than evil.
In emphasizing the figure’s strange root-feet, Swenholt allows us to take a step back from simple condemnation of even this folly. Would we so readily cut ourselves off from connection to God or each other if our relationship with him and others were truly beautiful and unblemished, or even just easier? Perhaps we would even then, but the often strange and ugly state of our actual selves and communities (including spiritual ones) makes it understandable (if still folly) that we would want something more readily recognized as good or pleasant or pretty—or just less work. In other words, we often reject the framework of community and identity we have been given because it just doesn’t seem that attractive from where we sit, splay-legged, knife in hand, looking at our gnarly extremities. We think even a crippled liberty must be better than dependence on the clearly imperfect or strange—even in ourselves.
If Swenholt’s pair of Fool sculptures names our desire to divorce ourselves from what seems to us ungainly, ugly, or inconvenient about ourselves and others (including God), her take on the mythological figure of Narcissus addresses the opposite tendency: our way of becoming absorbed with our successes, talents, beauty, or imagined perfection. In the Greek myth, Narcissus was a young man so captivated by his own reflection in a pool that he gave up everything but staring at himself, eventually becoming rooted to the spot and losing his humanity, turning into a flower. The tale of Narcissus cautions that a fixation on surface eventually robs us of anything deeper: we become nothing more than the material of which we’re made.
Swenholt’s Narcissus wears a crown of the flowers known by his name. Her facility with her materials is remarkable: the texture of the sculpted petals seems dry, brittle, even transparent. The stems and dried heads of real narcissus flowers that Swenholt found while walking into her studio one day are especially visible in the studio shot of the work that looks up into the figure’s almost sleepily self-satisfied face [see Plate 3]. They hardly seem an afterthought, or appear much different in weight or texture than the sculpted blooms on his head.
Another jarring detail is visible in the low-angle view, as well: Narcissus’s left leg is splitting open, more like a green branch drying suddenly and pulling apart than an ordinary wound. Moreover, what we see inside is not red or even brown, but an eerily luminescent yellow, the same floral hue that Swenholt has used intermittently on the mottled surface of her vain young man, a shade that represents the fleeting beauty he literally immortalizes.
The sculpture subtly suggests that superficiality is (ironically) more about what’s inside than what’s outside—there is an internal source of the sickly hues that seep to the surface. Perhaps a critique of finding our identity in the masks we craft and present to others is unsurprising, but Swenholt shapes this face with love rather than condemnation or even satire. It is highly individualized and gently molded, and indeed so beautiful and inviting in its self-satisfaction that it would be hard not to care for and desire this person, or this folly. More so here than in the harsher Fool images, Swenholt portrays the allure of falsehood as much as its danger.
While Swenholt creates many larger works, too, her figures most often remain at the scale of The Little Fool and Narcissus—one that allows her to move around a piece and work its surfaces with tools fit for hands and fingers, and that invites engagement more intimate than monumental. On pedestals in the studio or gallery they do not appear so small as to seem insignificant or toy-like; they are large enough to allow the viewer to enter their space without too much bending or squinting. Her invariably rough and painterly surfaces invite closer inspection and exploration, drawing viewers into the story of the piece, especially when (as with The Return of the Prodigal and Narcissus) the roughness gives way to delicate, nuanced, and individualized faces.
Even when used as stand-ins for more general types or broadly experienced struggles, Swenholt’s faces and bodies are specific. Marked by her courtroom study of real people, she trusts in the particularity of human beings to be a more authentic representation of the general than are abstracted or idealized forms. For Swenholt there seems to be no category of “the nude,” but only actual naked people with authentically oversized feet and ample hips, hard-earned lumps, bumps, and signs of the wear and tear of life—though all mediated and stylized by her hands. Her mottled surfaces do not hide the flesh that is so symbolically important to her work, but rather accentuate it.
It is not a stretch to suggest that the representational connection between identity and compassion may even be nakedness: emotional and spiritual in life, and explicitly physical as rendered in clay. In our age of mediated self-revelation, Swenholt’s sculpture gives a physical analog to our common experience: we find it difficult to connect with others via carefully crafted, manicured surfaces, while we respond readily to un-prettified, confessional honesty. We want to listen in on other people’s conversations and see them “warts and all” as a way of finding authentic fellowship, but also to feel better about ourselves by comparison. Yet Swenholt’s take on symbolic nakedness is not about either confession or voyeurism; it is prophetic and priestly: her representations are a form of advocacy for her fellow creatures with God, even as—on behalf of the creator—she suggests that exposure is only the beginning, not the end of relationship. In the divine household, exposure leads to compassion, and compassion facilitates repentance, transformation, and redemption. Like the changing, aging human body, compassion is dynamic and evolving, not a static, one-time transaction. Through her lumpy, bumpy nudes Swenholt seems to argue that the crux of understanding our identity and having compassion for others is a willingness to continually lay ourselves bare, before each other and before God, in our rough, unpolished states.
Even in their specificity, both Narcissus and Fool portray fairly abstract and philosophical forms of folly. But over the past few years much of Swenholt’s focus has been on forms of sin and estrangement that are much more concrete and damaging—often touching places where cultural brokenness and vice come crashing down on people. While The Return of the Prodigal and many of her other biblical works focus on moments of reconciliation and rescue for the outcast, broken, and shamed (including a particularly tender rendition of Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman), Swenholt just as often draws on her experience in the courtroom among those still very much lurching towards misery and death.
“I go to ugly places in my work,” she says, “because I’ve seen a lot of ugly.” A large and variable set of works she exhibits together as The Seven Deadlies is only a subset of an ongoing sculptural and meditative project on permutations of the seven cardinal sins (which, she concludes, “are all deadly”). Throughout, she pays special attention to the way women’s bodies are the sites of some of our culture’s most wrenching cruelties.
Endgame is another project that brings together multiple pieces. Presented at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women a few years ago, it connects figures of three generations of women touched by abortion (including the killed child) with cultural narratives of freedom and shame. Swenholt is bold to depict the intimate collusion between liberty and death (pace Patrick Henry), between our will to self-determine and our easy refusal of self-determination to those whose voices we choose to ignore or deny.
The artist’s voice here is prophetic, and though it is political, it is not partisan. She always has in mind the way the personal is political and vice versa, and the way sin is a corporate, communal responsibility, perpetrated both by and on individuals. As always, she goes beneath the rough surface to caution against too-ready condemnation and lament the way we consume and are consumed by sin.
One of the Seven Deadlies in particular connects these various threads of surface and substance, identity and purpose, and material and spiritual contests over women’s bodies—while also hinting at a recent twist in Swenholt’s life and creative practice. Greed presents us with a statuesque middle-aged woman standing naked, arms slightly raised and open to the viewer [see Plate 4]. More than usual, Swenholt has worked the clay surface with a mixture of paints and pigments in wax so that the pale white skin glows. It looks to be the result of a calculated artifice; the woman is made up to some standard of beauty. Swenholt has applied touches of cosmetic red to the nipples of the well-formed breasts, the lips, and the eyebrows, and the woman’s bobbed hair is carefully colored an almost dramatic blue.
From a few angles, Greed could be taken as a classic nude, and the sensuousness of the figure veers closer to the erotic than any other work in Swenholt’s studio. But taken as a whole, the work is impossible to read that way. A gaping red wound runs deep into her abdomen, from which a cascade of black lace, silver lamé, red satin, and wire beads spills artfully over her feet and the pedestal. She is literally spilling her guts, or giving birth, but what emerges isn’t the confession of truth or a child, but fashionable choices or perhaps a record of relentless self-curation.
Along with Endgame and other works that consider the fate of women worldwide, Greed shouts Swenholt’s disgust and anger at how women have been made complicit in the reallocation of their bodies from being sites of real and meaningful production (not least, though not only, via childbearing) to being used as sites (and objects) of consumption. Swenholt’s is a generation that saw increasing numbers of women freed from manual work but perversely returned to a bondage of expectation, availability, superficiality, consumability. Meanwhile, the capacity to make and care for other human beings was strangely devalued, delayed, or discarded in the interest of a tenuous and suspect “freedom.”
The artist suggests we have taken Narcissus’s fixation on appearance to its logical end, reshaping bodies to conform to a marketed ideal via surgery and a lifetime of fashionable accessorizing, while medical technologies allow us to stave off the natural results of our exercises in passion. Our (especially women’s) generative identity has been replaced with consumption: inside we are little more than the sum of what we have bought and worn, the marketplace choices we have made.
Swenholt’s focus on our human calling (especially women’s calling) to be producers, not merely consumers or objects of consumption, is manifest in her entire working life as a sculptor: in the winding journeyman’s path of her training and in her efforts to include what she learned from illustration and design, but as art rather than commodity. She feels strongly that making is what she was made to do, and that sense of calling is intimately tied with her connection with God: “If you are made to do art then part of your rubbing up against God, part of your energy with God is in doing the art form…of making [your experience of] God’s presence physical.”
And yet in thinking about her overarching critique of misplaced modern notions of identity, might not this very connection between her sense of herself as existing in relationship to the divine, on one hand, and her skill in looking, listening, shaping, on the other, be its own spiritual trap? Is not the tendency of artists (like many others) to find our surety in our usefulness to God or mankind just a permutation of finding it in intellect or accomplishments or beauty or other natural qualities? If Swenholt ever took her ability and desire to make things for granted, or was able to ignore those questions about herself, a recent forced sabbatical showed her just how much of a treasure her work is to her, while also underscoring the danger of finding identity in work.
Swenholt’s small, somewhat strange Self-Portrait [see Plates 5 and 6] is the literal outworking of her relationship to her gifts in the wake of an automobile accident and resultant brain injury that robbed her of cognitive, creative, and even perceptual faculties for the better part of three years. The beginning of the piece was the cocoon-like body cradled in the arms of the second figure, a young woman. It originated in another bit of found-object providence: as the sculptor was taking her tentative first steps back into the studio, she noticed a coat hanger on the ground, “scrunched and sad,” with a loop on one end in the shape of an awkwardly flattened head.
Her immediate response to the proto-figure was, “The poor thing, she’s lost something!” But even as she added some details, like a carefully drawn but completely flat face and hands drawn on instead of sculpted, it remained a stubbornly rudimentary form—a purposefully unelaborated and “failed” bit of sculpture the purpose of which was unclear. The seated figure cradling the first emerged as if from the Karen of old, a mixture of expressive posture, complicated texture, and intimate, gentle face. Eventually she added touches of color to the white resin, and the whole found a balance between finished and rough, familiar and weirdly unmade. In those early stages, Swenholt referred to it as The Mourner, for the two seemed to exchange a gaze of lament, loss, and confusion, though she was not sure whether it was a parent grieving a child, a child grieving a parent, or something else. One thing she knew: it was about loss. “It’s a heartbreak.”
Early on in the making of the work, after she had placed the first figure within the embrace of the second, her neurologist, and later a group of others recovering from similar traumas, helped her see what was really being mourned—though she might have guessed from the flat face. Brain injury results in an ongoing loss of damaged brain matter for a period of time. “I picture sheets shearing off an iceberg,” she says. One thing she lost—for over two years—was her depth perception.
She described realizing one day that the world had gone flat in more than just a physical sense: without her ability to see in three dimensions, gone too was her ability to process sculptural form, her primary means of being Karen Swenholt. If producing art was what she was made to do, did losing her abilities mean she had lost herself entirely? Had she permanently lost her identity, her meaning as a human being and member of society, her connection to God? She tried to process these brutal possibilities even as her brain struggled to repair itself. As her faculties began to return, one by one, the questions remained.
Curiously, the gentle half-gaze of the young woman at the cocooned figure in her arms is not unlike that of Narcissus looking in love at his own reflection. In Self-Portrait, the subject is looking at an alternate, lost self, mourning a now-dead version of herself she is loath to let go. Each figure looks at a reflected, refracted version of herself, and there is an implicit suggestion that their gazes are misdirected if they are seeking what is most beautiful and lasting: self-reflection does not always lead to true self-knowledge. Yet the embrace also recalls Swenholt’s prodigal and his father, embodying a gentle and compassionate identification and reconnection.
Swenholt confesses that both figures in Self-Portrait are her, but that the cradling figure is also her daughter, the personification of the love and restoration offered by those who could see the artist “in three dimensions” even when she herself could not. It seems almost inevitable, then, that when Swenholt was finally able to begin working again, she returned to her habit of turning a compassionate but unflinching eye toward the hurting and broken as a way to understand and stand with them. The compassion came perhaps more easily, but the unflinching self-critique was probably more profound and bitterly earned, even in the midst (or perhaps because) of the surpassing joy at having been restored to her calling. Perhaps in ways she never had before, she recognized that the path to her own fully human identity was not through exquisite performance but through allowing her own struggle and grief to help her enter even more deeply into the experience of the forlorn and lonely.
But if being an artist is not her most essential identity, why is it so important to her? Why does it seem so critical to keep making art? It may be that in divorcing the two identities—in making that one last, most subtle, but also painful separation between the artist and the true self—God actually freed her to more deeply appreciate her ability to create. Her identity is still very much wrapped up in being an artist, but in a transformed sense, more focused on the ongoing practice and discipline of being present to God than on producing an endless series of excellent works.
The time when she couldn’t make anything (or even see rightly) was a desert that reminded her that God does not actually need her to make art, nor is making art her right, much less her identity. Rather, art is her privilege, a dance between divine presence and ordinary dirt. Swenholt came to know that art is “worth it” for that relationship with the divine, and that the actual work of art, what she calls “the only true alchemy,” happens as the clay is being transformed into something more. It is being in the flow with God by listening, discovering, learning, seeing, touching, shaping.
Art, no longer burdened with the weight of being who she is or why she matters, is freed to be itself: a dance between observation of the world and people around her; contemplation of what is right and wrong with our culture and our hearts and how she fits into or resists the narratives of our time; and meditation on a creator who works on both cosmic and intimate levels. In the midst of her desert, Swenholt came to see in art a fleetingness that does not imply a lack of meaning, but the opposite:
There comes a time when [making art] may become impossible; when the gift is crippled, when the leg breaks and you will never dance like that again. Then the immortal grace of the silk-ribboned foot turns back to the decaying flesh it always was. The bunions morph from trophies formed in triumph back to only pain. It is a privilege to make art. Make it while you can. Make it if you can. Make it.
Trust in the creator with whom we partner enables Swenholt to live into those fleeting moments of creativity with abandon and joy. With Swenholt, we can take comfort in knowing that our creative practice is wrapped up in and shared by one who shared all other aspects of our human existence as well. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Swenholt’s work, in both its practice and result, reminds us all—artists, prodigals, narcissists, fools—that there is comfort, freedom, and truth when we have the confidence to ask the same question of Jesus, and trust in his answer to us: “Beloved.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.