The Artist’s Odyssey: Sculptor Accepts Prize and Reflects on Art’s Past and Future

Michelangelo saw David in a block of marble and “freed” him in his studio. Benedictine College has just recognized a sculptor in Florence who says God saw him in his studio and freed the artist.

On Nov. 10, 100 people were on hand as the sculptor who lives in Florence, Italy, was awarded the Prize for Excellence from the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Bishop Robert Barron was the previous recipient of the Prize, calling it “the best thing I’ve ever gotten.”

Swanson thanked the Center’s director Jason Baxter and Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis, saying “I am honored to be here and humbled to receive this award from such a distinguished Catholic school in our nation.”

Swanson’s life has been a pilgrimage from his Pentecostal roots to the heart of the Catholic Church. “I was attracted to art, but Christ was looking for me through it,” Swanson told the Italian edition of Aleteia news service. Though he was raised a Protestant in Ohio, his talent for art brought him to the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. There, he and his wife found their Catholic faith through art.

“We spent many hours in churches, and from there we started to think deeper,” he said. “The thing that struck me is the presence of Christ in the Church through the Eucharist. In fact, in Protestant churches it is seen that a part is missing. Only Scripture counts, and therefore I did not feel a living presence.”

His faith changed his work into a vocation. “Before I made art to sell,” he said, “now I know that through it I can make visible an invisible reality. For example, an angel is a real but hidden presence, like many other mysteries of faith, such as the Eucharist. But we need images, to remember history, because this helps faith and prayer.”

Swanson told the audience at Benedictine College that he was especially honored to design the medallion that will be given to future recipients of the Prize for Excellence.

“Given the center’s devotion to Beato Angelico who was a Dominican and painter, I chose to illustrate the legend that he wept profusely every time he painted the Crucifixion,” he said. “The underlying idea is that his labor and devotion is born out of love for Christ and in service to the Church, which is perhaps the most important reason why someone would be honored with this award. It is also a depiction of humble self-abandon for Christ who is our center and at the center of the image.”

In a talk about the history and future of art, Swanson spoke of the importance of the visual arts. “In the past, a faithful, virile society produced classical churches and had big families. Now empty, ugly, modern churches and little or no families are a symptom of a sterile society with a dwindling faith,” he said.

The many students in the audience appreciated his explanation of the process of creating great art.

Alumna Kate Marin studied with him in Florence and created the Return to Nazareth sculpture at St. Benedict’s Abbey on Campus.

“Cody Swanson’s work is an inspiration to our students,” said President Minnis. “St. John Paul II reminded us that ‘Beauty will save the world,’ and Swanson’s work is a model for what our Center for Beauty and Culture wants to achieve.”

Swanson told students what it took to achieve what he has created.

“I studied at the Florence Academy which is a traditional figurative art school founded by Daniel Graves and based upon the ècole de beaux-arts of the 19th century. Their approach is 100% from observation of the live model, no photographs and all in natural light,” he said.

He shared the expense and hours that each finished product represents.

“Money and time aside,” he added, “one of the things I love most about this process, and what I have spent a long time studying is the control and accuracy over how a small scale model is enlarged. Moreover, for my personal approach the enlargement isn’t just a mechanical copy of the smaller reference, but I develop the marble beyond the model, searching for greater subtlety and refinement.”

And that is what he does for his viewers: Show in large form what already exists in their hearts.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.