Please Remember in Your Prayers Dr. Mary Swanson, Professor Emerita of Art History

Please remember in your prayers Dr. Mary Swanson, professor emerita of art history

Dr. Mary Towley Swanson, a historian of Scandinavian art and professor emerita of art history at the University of St. Thomas, died Saturday, Sept. 11, at her home in Minneapolis. Swanson, 65, had battled ovarian cancer for the past four years.

Under Swanson’s leadership as chair of the university’s Art History Department from 1988 to 1993 and as first director of its Graduate Program in Art History in 1998-99, the department expanded and flourished; moreover, she was well known at St. Thomas as a prolific scholar, a nurturing teacher and a generous colleague.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 2730 E. 31st St., Minneapolis. Visitation will begin at the church an hour before the service.  

Swanson was born Jan. 3, 1939, in Minneapolis and grew up in Hopkins. After graduation from Hopkins High School in 1957, she attended Gustavus Adolphus College and received her bachelor’s degree in 1961 from the University of Minnesota. After her marriage to David Swanson on July 28, 1961, she pursued her master’s degree at Minnesota, receiving an M.F.A. in 1964. After her first college teaching position – at Gustavus for the 1964-1965 academic year – she taught studio art at Waldorf (Iowa) Junior College, Normandale Community College, the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, and Augsburg College.

In 1968, Mary taught art history for the Department of Home Economics at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. By 1976 she had completed a second master’s degree – this time, in art history – and was a busy mother of two young children. In 1982 she received her Ph.D. in art history and began teaching in St. Thomas’ new Art History Department in 1984.  

As only the second faculty member in a fledgling academic department, Mary would “grow” St. Thomas’ Art History Department, teaching survey through modern courses and interdisciplinary honors seminars and leading six January art history courses in France and Italy.  In addition to Mary’s leadership roles in the Art History Department, she co-chaired the university’s Undergraduate Research Council from 1996 to 1998; chaired the Art Exhibitions Committee from 1992 to 1996 and served on several additional committees; and directed St. Thomas’ first liberal arts program in Paris during spring semester 2001.

In August, the UST Art History Department named its annual undergraduate research paper award in her honor.

She loved to study and do research, particularly about Scandinavian immigrant artists. She wrote and published extensively in this area, including a chapter on Minnesota ’s Swedish-American artists in the book, Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota’s Urban Frontier (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), and a catalog for the exhibition, “The Divided Heart: Scandinavian Immigrant Artists, 1850-1950” (University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 1982).

She curated art exhibitions and wrote dozens of articles and catalogues for exhibitions at the American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis; the Minnesota Historical Society; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; the University of Minnesota Art Museum; the National Museum, Stockholm; and Millesgården, in Stockholm.

She published Konsten och Fäderneslandet, om svensk-Amerikanst konst (Elusive Images of Home, Stories of Swedish-American Art) in conjunction with a touring exhibition traveling to Swedish galleries in 1997. In 1995 and 1997 she served as an art historian for two Smithsonian Institution tours in Scandinavia.

A board member of the Swenson Archives of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and a former board member of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study, she encouraged young art historians. She received a grant from the Scandinavian American Foundation to research an exhibition of Finnish women’s art and returned to Finland to continue her research.

After her retirement in May 2002 she volunteered as a docent for the University of Minnesota’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and was a member of the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, helping local physicians learn more about early detection of the disease.  She also relished her newest role – as grandmother.

She was preceded in death by her parents, Carl and Vi Towley, and is survived by her husband, David, of Minneapolis, and their children and grandchildren: son Philip, daughter-in-law Claude-Albane and grandson Martin Swanson of Paris, France; daughter Gillian, son-in-law Brigido and grandson Theo Lopez of McAllen, Texas. She is also survived by her sister, Cathryn Towley Olson, Minneapolis; her brother, Carl Kahrs Towley, and his wife, Carol, of Pittsfield, Mass.; and many nephews, nieces and cousins.

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