Margo Swena is a woman with many hats. A former respiratory therapist and blood gas analyst, Swena made her way on screen as an actress for commercials and local films. Then, she went to stunt school to perform stunts in Hollywood. Family, affordable housing, and love brought Swena to Keokuk twice in the last 20 years. However, within these last 20 years, Swena has uncovered a remarkable talent as an artist.
Rebecca Everett, Swena’s sister, moved to Keokuk to be strategically located between her children and was blown away by the real estate prices. Once Swena heard of the affordable housing, she and her husband Ed followed.
Everett was a trained and talented artist. Swena was good with administration and design. Together, they opened a fine art gallery on Seventh and Main streets called Lock 19 Gallery. Between clients, Swena would paint behind the closed doors of her office.
One day Brian Riggs, then director of the Fort Madison Area Arts Association (FMAAA), entered the gallery and asked about the sculptures the gallery was showcasing. The sculptor was Ed Swena, Margo’s now late husband. Ed had also started his career as an artist in his late 60s after bursitis in his shoulder forced him to pause his profession as a surgeon. He began working with clay as a form of physical therapy and discovered his love for sculpting and bronze work. His newfound talent and passion inspired Swena and fueled her desire to create.
Swena retreated to her office to grab some information for Riggs. He followed her and was impressed by her paintings, which she kept hidden from the gallery view. He invited her to showcase her and Ed’s artwork in a two-person exhibition. The gig was Swena’s first show. “I sold 12 paintings,” Swena recalled.
Later, her work was invited back to Fort Madison for an art show connected to the Tri-State Rodeo.
Health and circumstance called Swena back to Southern Utah, where she continued painting and began apprenticeships and training with other artists. Up until this point, Swena’s work was abstract and earthy. She was known for using charcoal made from grapevine, white oak, and willow twigs. She blends with feathers and uses “I did a lot of experimentation. I mixed different minerals and things with my paints and pigments,” Swena said. “But I couldn’t draw a stick figure to save my life.”
Swena had taken classes from and studied with artists in Iowa, like the late Wendell Mohr, but it was only after she studied with artist Del Parsons that she had a breakthrough in portraiture. She enrolled in four semesters of his art classes from 2012 to 2013. Margo attributes her breakthrough to “ingenious” advice from Parsons.
“He said, ‘Turn the piece you’re working on upside down, turn your reference photo upside down, and forget you’re painting a person —just do the shapes, the values, and the shadows.’ Just follow the shapes, and by the time you get the values in and turn it right side up, it’s a person,” Swena said.
After studying with Parsons, Swena shifted her style from abstract to portraits. “I had a feeling to do Native Americans,” Swena said. “I have long admired Native Americans’ respect and care for Mother Earth; their honor and gratitude to Father Sky; bravery, wisdom, reverence for all things, and sheer determination for survival amid great injustice.”
Swena started a collection entitled “Respect for Mother Earth— Tribute to Native Americans.” The exhibition comprised 20 pieces, which launched a new season of art shows and sales.
All of Swena’s subjects are based on historical or living indigenous people. Only after meticulously researching the subject’s history, stories, and traditions, along with studying the photographers or artists of photographs and paintings Swena found during her research does she turn to the canvas. “I pray that I will have their spirit to help me bring them to the canvas,” she said.
Sometimes Swena will add authentic tribal embellishments to her pieces, such as shells, buffalo bone jewelry, feathers, turquoise, or medals of honor to deepen the connection between the subject and the art itself.
On one occasion, Swena decided to Livestream her work on a portrait of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, also known as Chief Joseph. Nearly complete, Swena had stayed up all night painstakingly blending the charcoal with feathers.
After completing the Livestream, Swena propped the painting on a pillow and checked the camera. Unfortunately, when she turned around, she saw the image was disastrously smudged. “The piece was made using charcoal, and I hadn’t sprayed it with the permanent fixative yet,” Swena said.
Somehow, Swena had brushed against the portrait, which had taken her about 80 hours of labor. “My sweatshirt was wearing about 70% of it,” she said.
Devastated, she showed her mother and told her what had happened. Swena remembered her mother’s words, “Well, Margo, you can take it as a defeat or a learning experience. He’ll be even better next time.”
It took Swena a couple of weeks before she could bear the idea of starting again on the portrait.
But, once she began again, she periodically shared the progress with her mother. “He’s trying to come out, but he’s not quite there,” Swena remembered her mother saying.
Swena worked on Chief Joseph every day without results until one day, Swena’s mother remarked he was finally “starting to come alive.”
Triumphant and tired, Swena went to take a shower. When she came out, she glanced at the easel — half of Chief Joseph’s face was missing.”It was just gone,” Swena said.
Horrified, she ran to her mother, asked her if she had come into her room, and showed her the portrait. After a moment, her mother gravely responded, “All I can say is, you pray that their spirit will help you capture them. He must not have liked it.”
It took Swena months to finish the portrait. “I finally got it to where I felt like he was in there — I could sense him and feel his spirit when I looked at it,” Swena said.
And so I waited overnight, and then I sprayed him with permanent fixatives. Later, when Swena went outside her studio, she found a strange circular design made with rocks, “There were stones with dark lava rocks in between and one curious-looking rock in the center,” Swena said.
Puzzled, she ran to grab her phone and take a picture of the design, but the camera refused to capture the image. “I would take a picture of it, check to see if the picture was there, and — blank. It was the weirdest thing,” Swena said.
Swena’s mother attributed the pattern to children playing with the rocks. “I lived with my mom in a retirement neighborhood,” Swena said. “There are no kids. Mom said that some kids must have been visiting. I said, ‘Then why won’t my camera take a picture of it?’”
Uncertain of what the symbol meant, Swena treasured the experience. Later, when she participated in an Indigenous People Art Show, a group of Apache people visited her booth. One remarked that Swena had “a real ability to capture their spirit.” As he looked at the portrait of Chief Joseph, he told her, “I can feel them when I look at your work.”
Swena recounted the experience of creating Chief Joseph’s portrait. After a moment, the man responded with an indigenous word unfamiliar to Swena. “What does that mean?” She asked him.
“It means it’s accepted,” Swena recalled him saying. “That’s the symbol.”
Only recently has Swena discovered that she has indigenous heritage. Towards the end of COVID, an old church released genealogical records dating back centuries. Swena’s nephew, a genealogist, combed through the documents and called her with astonishing news. “My dad’s missing ancestors from the seventh generation are Mohawks,” she said.
Swena’s seventh-generation great-grandfather was Chief Teoniahigarawe, also known by his Anglo name, King Hendrick Theyanoguin, which was christened by Queen Anne. He lived from 1680 to 1755. This knowledge has validated Swena’s connection to her earthy style and indigenous subjects.
Swena had a booth set up during Eagle Days, where she sold her work and demonstrated her technique while painting her piece called “The Spirit of Chief Keokuk.”
Swena has received several awards for her work including first place in oils at the 54th Annual Exhibition, a Tri-State art show, and first place in watercolor at the 58th Annual Exhibition Keokuk Art Center. She was the featured artist of the month at the Arrowhead Gallery, a non-profit gallery in Saint George, Utah.
Her work is available on fineartamerica.com and http://email@example.com. In Utah, her art can be seen and purchased at the Split Rock Gallery in Saint George, Gallery 873 at Kayenta Art Village in Ivans, and ARTé in Saint George. In Iowa, her art is showcased at the FMAAA in Fort Madison. Later this year, Swena will be a featured artist of the month at Keokuk Art Center.