Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Two passions absorbed William W. Swallow (1912-1962) his entire life: art and the teaching of art. During a career that spanned just three decades, Swallow created ceramic sculptures that transformed the people and life of agrarian Pennsylvania into timeless, time­-honored icons. Although he achieved national fame, he continued – with singular devotion – teaching high school students for twenty-seven years.

Swallow had been largely forgotten on the national art scene, until a 1996 retrospective exhibition mounted by Bethlehem’s Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts rekindled the public’s interest in his life’s work. Swallow, who lived and worked in the picturesque Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, produced brilliant ceramic sculptures, for which he is most noted, as well as many other art forms he advanced, including oil paintings, watercolors, mobiles, wood­carvings, and mosaics. From the whimsy of his brightly decorated farm animals to the deep and powerful spirituality portrayed in busts of Amish and Mennon­ite preachers, Swallow was capable of a tremendous range of artistic expression. Yet, his works – innovative, but never precious or cute – are informed by a deep honesty, one that pays homage to the source of his inspiration, the Pennsylvania German tradition and the simple people and landscape he knew best.

William W. Swallow – known to most as Bill – grew up in the Scranton suburb of Clark’s Green, Lackawanna County, eighty miles north of Allentown. He was born on September 30, 1912, to A. Irene and Daniel Webster Swallow, descendants of Dutch, English, and French settlers and a Pennsylvania German ancestor on his mother’s side. He had one sibling, a brother. His father, a civil engineer employed in the anthracite industry, died when Swallow was six years old. After graduation from high school in 1931, Swallow enrolled in the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, where he earned the Crozier Award for exceptional art, and graduated in 1935.

From 1934 to 1935 he also attended classes at the University of Pennsylvania and taught at the Germantown Academy for Boys. A happy turn of events brought him to the Lehigh Valley when the South Whitehall School District hired him, in 1935, as an art teacher for kindergarten through twelfth grade at the Troxell’s Crossing School, located in a rural setting a few miles from Allentown.

For generations, commercial potteries had formed an important industry in the Keystone State’s southeastern counties. Ceramic training in public schools, therefore, carried a practical value, and Swallow was able to garner support to build one of the finest ceramic arts facilities in the area. Students turned out plates, trays, bowls, cups and figurines. Swallow’s imagination and sense of humor inspired him to create variations on fish, birds, and animals, often finished in bright ceramic glazes. His rotund heads of angels are distinguished by his earthbound, amusing but aesthetic interpretation of a subject that could easily have been sentimentalized in the hands of others.

“Clay, water, and fire are the tools of the ceramic sculp­tor,” Swallow once said. “Forms and space are the words, grammar, and the spelling of his work. Motivation must come from elsewhere, from the life around us, from the things we know best, from ideas.

Swallow’s legendary reputation as an extraordinary teacher was well deserved. He taught his students everything he knew, from how to avoid using bright blue paint because of its overly dominant effect, to creating delicate glazes with commercial products available to anyone. Under his tutelage, students learned not only pottery and ceramic sculpture, but how to create hand-painted ceramic masks, construct mobiles, and carve wood. To this day, many former students remember his guiding principle: “Simplicity is the keynote of good design.”

Upon his arrival in Allentown in 1935, Swallow fell under the spell of the region’s strong Pennsylvania German tradition. He was fascinated by the people – many the descendants of Amish and Moravian sects – and their plain way of life on the farms surrounding him. He began creating small, robust figures modeled in eighteenth-century dress: men with long hair and beards, wearing broad-brimmed, flat-topped hats and either farm clothes or the long robes of preachers; women clothed in full-length dresses with aprons and bonnets; and children dressed as smaller versions of the adults.

Despite his desire a broad rather than limited vision, Swallow openly acknowl­edged what many called (albeit mistakenly) the “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence upon his work. It was, he felt, a natural outcome of living in the Lehigh Valley. “I did not set out deliberately to create Pennsylvania Dutch motifs,” he asserted. “It just happens that Pennsylva­nia Dutch is the thing I know best. It is all around me, but when I began to model, it wasn’t the fad it is today. That worries me. I’m afraid its popularity will some­day destroy it.” Although much of the ethnicity in the region did become diluted, even during Swallow’s lifetime, Amish residents held to their uniqueness and traditional ways and unwittingly served as living models for his sculpture.

Swallow also drew themes from Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, a German religious community founded by German mystic Conrad Beissel in 1732 (see “Pushing William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ to its Limits: Ephrata Cloister,” by John Bradley, Fall 1996). He created a dramatic lavender and blue glazed ceramic sculpture, Bishop of Ephrata, about 1941. Swallow kept the bishop’s face a buff-pink clay color, made the head small, and clothed the massive body in a robe brilliantly emblazoned with distelfink and wheat sheaves, evidencing the indelible influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch. He exhibited powerful and unusual sculptures in the style of Bishop of Ephrata in one-man exhibitions at the Everhart Museum of Art in Nay Aug Park in Scranton, The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, and Temple University in Philadelphia.

The artist’s most creative period in sculpting came in the forties, a time during which he also received his greatest national recognition. His Amish Couple was accepted by the 1940 National Ceramic Society competition, and the following year a ceramic mural composed of four tiles, The Amish Way, captured a prize at the inaugural Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramics of the Western Hemisphere, held in conjunction with a national ceramics show in Syracuse, New York.

Swallow submitted sculpture to the prestigious annual competitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he was repeatedly accepted to exhibit from 1941 to 1950. In 1942, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a national competition, “Artists in Victory,” as part of the war effort. From fourteen thousand entries, a little more than fourteen hundred were selected. In the category of sculpture, first prize went to Jose de Creeft, and Swallow’s As the Earth Sings – Pennsylvania Dutch Family placed sixth. The museum purchased the piece for its permanent collection.

In addition to teaching in the Allen­town public school system and submitting to juried exhibitions, Swallow taught adult courses. In the early 1940s, he traveled to Philadelphia to give a Saturday morning sculpture class at the Pennsylvania Museum School and taught evening classes in painting at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. To supplement his income, he also crafted decorative figurines and small ceramic pieces for commercial potteries to reproduce in large quantities.

Much of his income went for the purchase of large amounts of clay necessary to produce sizable sculp­ture, but whenever possible he enjoyed digging it from nearby creek beds.

Clay found in the Allentown area and used by local potteries was primari­ly red or white. Swallow followed a carefully defined and complex procedure of stretching, kneading, mixing, and resting the clay to achieve the quality he prized. Once it had been manipulated to remove air and make it compact, Swallow could begin his sculpture.

When the final details were finished, the work was allowed to air dry for six months to a year. He sent large pieces to Philadelphia to be fired slowly in a fuel kiln. Slow firing brought out the colors he sought and reduced the chance of losing a work due to rapid evaporation of moisture in the clay. When Swallow used the kiln at his home, he left the kiln door ajar for the first day or so to let moisture escape from the clay pieces and then gradually raised the temperature of the kiln over several days for a full firing process, often staying up all night to monitor the temperature in the kiln.

Swallow’ s large pieces are often monochromatic – a light reddish-brown tone resulting from the clay mixture’s reaction to the intense heat in the kiln. Color was achieved either from a chemical stain painted on the sculpture or a chemical added to a clay slip and brushed over the piece. Only occasionally did he use glazes to color the clay. “I use glaze when I want a sweet effect,” he remarked, “but in most instances it is too sweet to tie in with my subject matter.” The colors he favored were lavender-brown, blue, blue­-green, light gold, and charcoal.

Historically, artists used clay to model preparatory studies for work to be completed in stone, wood, or metal, but by the time of the “studio move­ment” of the 1940s, the medium had found new popularity with artists and collectors. In 1946, the National Ceramic Exhibition bestowed awards on three of Swallow’ s works: The Way of the Red Clay – Amish Boy, Horse, and Colt; Cow with the Silver Horns; and Pennsylvania Harvest Family. The works testify to Swallow’s gift of continually developing and executing new concepts with imagination and artistry. In The Way of the Red Clay, although each is distinct and recogniz­able, the boy, horse, and colt seem intimately attached physically and spiritually. With Cow with the Silver Horns, Swallow transformed an ordinary farm animal in the simple act of grazing into a moving and strangely elegant creature of fabulous, undulating proportions. In contrast, the silver horns impart a delicate majesty. In a bold move, the artist has decorated the smooth surface of the cow’s flanks, back, sides, and extended neck with traditional Pennsylvania German butter mold designs.

Swallow had been living in a three­-story duplex house on a residential street in Allentown. He had a studio on the third floor but often worked on his sculpture in the kitchen. His mother, an ardent supporter, lived with him and served as cook and hostess. Eventually Irene Swallow began fashioning small objects and figurines in clay. Bill Swallow never married, but enjoyed a large circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom were artists and former students. His home was known for its warmth, especially at the Christmas holidays during which he decorated several evergreens uniquely and hung a distinc­tive star he had designed on a red ribbon in each window. Adorning the dining room sideboard would be either his sculpture Madonna and Three Kings or a standing angel with ten wings flanked by candles.

Swallow actively promoted an appreciation of the arts in the Lehigh Valley. He exhibited regularly with the Lehigh Art Alliance and enjoyed one-man shows at several local college art galleries. Among his close friends were artists Richard Peter Hoffman (1911-1996) and Walter E. Baum (1884-1956), who eventu­ally founded the Baum School of Art (see “Painting a Sense of Place: Walter Emerson Baum and the Lehigh Valley” by Martha Hutson-Saxton, Spring 1997).

The public also relished Swallow’s watercolors, which sold very well. He painted a number of them during several summer trips to Canada. He also painted scenes of the Lehigh Valley and the anthracite region near Scranton, where he visited his brother. Swallow exhibited frequently with the Philadelphia Water­color Society. The Allentown Art Museum mounted a one-man show of his masks and watercolors in 1940.

In 1947, Swallow was awarded a solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, where he exhibited a new technique, tri­dimensional painting. Baum described Swallow’ s piece as strings stretched at intersecting angles over simply designed backgrounds that “achieve effects often seen in the newer types of abstract painting now much in vogue.” Abstract, nonobjective art by sculptors such as William Zorach and George Papashvily began to influence Swallow’s work by the late forties. His figures of farmers, for example, no longer appeared as specific, regional types identifiable as Pennsylva­nia Germans, but as more abstract, general representations. By the 1950s, Swallow had added new subject matter to his work, including St. Francis, ballet dancers, and a series of nudes.

At about this time – the zenith of his artistic career – arthritis began to exact its crippling toll on Swallow. He had been affected by the disease for years and it gradually grew so serious that he could no longer manipulate the clay. Fortunate­ly, artist friends, among them Raymond Gallucci and Al Hujsa who, by preparing the clay, made it possible for him to continue creating small pieces. Gallucci had been a student of Swallow’s at South Whitehall High School. When Gallucci returned to Allentown in 1952 as a potter and ceramics teacher at the Baum School of Art, he encouraged his former teacher to try the popular art form of mosaic. Soon Swallow was designing brilliantly colorful and dramatic figures, animals, barns, and landscapes in mosaic.

In time, Swallow could no longer travel with ease, curtailing visits to friends and galleries in New York. Nevertheless, he managed to continue driving locally and even to paint by wearing aids on his hands. His commitment to teaching continued unabated. The South Whitehall School District had merged in 1949 with two other districts to create the Parkland School District. A new Parkland High School was built in 1953 with three art rooms designed by Swallow, including a modern and large kiln. Swallow headed an art department of four art teachers. He designed the Parkland High School ring and co-created a Pennsylvania German nativity show in 1956 that became an annual event. He was a highly respected teacher, and his favorite students often helped him in his studio at home.

Al Hujsa had begun working with Swallow in 1956 as a student at Parkland High School and continued for the next six years. He helped with studio chores, which included the preparatory work for the last large sculptures from these years, including Three Pennsylvania Wise Men. The late pieces from Swallow’s crippled hands have deeply carved folds in the clothing, rather than the detailed patterns and textures prominent in the work of his earlier years.

Swallow’s students were moved by his courage. The class of 1952 dedicated their yearbook to him, acknowledging their respect for the “determination that is necessary for success.” A tall, hand­some man in his youth, Swallow began to grow thin and frail. His disease could not cripple his spirit, though. He refused to stop teaching or to look upon his fate with bitterness. He did avoid public appearances, kept his canes and crutches out of sight whenever possible, and greeted new students or visitors while seated at his desk.

The end came far too quickly. While at school working with his students, Swallow suffered a stroke and died the following day, May 26, 1962.

Even though his life was cut short at the age of forty-nine – and despite the fact that his is not a household name­ – Swallow’ s role in the development of ceramic sculpture in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s is secure. His Pennsylvania German figures, with their quality of composure and quiet nobility, are assured a place in American artistic history for their theme, technical brilliance, and stylistic purity. In his works, Swallow stresses the timelessness of people of the land. The utilitarian plainness of their clothes could have been worn by farmers, their wives, and children anywhere and any time. The farmers represented in these sculptures possess an everyman quality that surpasses their regionalism and speaks a universal language.

One of the many former students who signed the guest book during the exhibition at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts typified the sentiments of many. “I didn’t realize what [it meant] to have had Mr. Swallow for a teacher” she wrote. In her simple statement, she expressed what so many students and local citizens surely felt on seeing the great breadth and depth of Swallow’s creative legacy. For he had always been among them, never leaving home to pursue fame or fortune. It might have been easy to take his joyful and calming presence for granted, and to overlook his genius for revealing the mythic in the commonplace.

Swallow would have been well pleased that, past their youth, the students he valued and enjoyed so much came out in droves to pay homage to him and his work. Yet it was no wonder that they had done so. He shared with them, all his life, the same roots of understanding. The farms and people of the Lehigh Valley were models for Bill Swallow and for his students. The highest art, they all believed, came “from the things we know best.”

 

For Further Reading

Armstrong, Tom, et al. 200 Years of American Sculpture. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1976.

Craven, Wayne. Sculpture in America. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984.

James-Gadzinski, Susan, and Mary Mullen Cunningham. American Sculpture in the Museum of American Art of the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1998.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition from the American Renais­sance to the Millenium. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1983.

 

The author and editor heartily thank Raymond E. Holland of Allentown for generously underwriting the original color photography by Bradley A. Schaeffer, Mertztown, to illustrate this article.

 

Martha Hutson-Saxton is the author of George Henry Durrie (1820-1863), American Winter Landscapist Renowned Through Currier and Ives (1978), and Walter Emerson Baum (1884-1956), Pennsylvania Artist and Founder of the Baum School of Art and the Allentown Art Museum (1996). From 1974 to 1977 she was editor of the American Art Review, to which she continues to contribute articles. She received her undergraduate degree from Mills College and her doctorate from Harvard University. The author has served as guest curator at the Allentown Art Museum, the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in Collegeville, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.