MN Original

Artist Tara Sweeney: “What do we carry when we know we can’t return?”

“Curiosity is my risk behavior…with a pen or a brush in my hand, I do stuff and I say, ‘I wonder what would happen if?’ ”

Using watercolor and pen and ink as her main media, Tara Sweeney is always looking for the next “what if” to inspire her own work or that of her students. The recently retired Augsburg University art professor, Sweeney continues to share her passion by teaching workshops and classes to adults:

“[Watercolor is] so accessible to so many people at any age. Twenty-five years of undergraduate teaching was really satisfying and now that I’ve moved into adult programming and workshops, I find that there are just as many people that are hungry to understand how to follow watercolor.”

The roots of her current, “what if” project stemmed from a watercolor workshop Sweeney taught at the American Swedish Institute (ASI). Sweeney asked the students to bring a meaningful object from home to be the subject of their individual paintings. When the class began Sweeney quickly realized that the course was more than just teaching watercolor techniques, but on a deeper level it was really about how each student wanted to tell the story of their object through the medium of watercolor. It was a way to share stories.

Knowing of ASI’s rich historic collection of objects, this lead to Sweeney’s next question: “So here at the [American] Swedish Institute, I wonder what would happen if I brought up one collection piece at a time, painted it in the middle and people could ask questions?“

Sweeney and ASI then developed “A to Zåäö,” a Swedish alphabet book featuring paintings (by Sweeney) and illustrations (by Nate Christopherson) of objects from the ASI’s historic collection. As Sweeney notes,

“[The objects] are the things that immigrants brought to Minnesota and I have to believe they were traveling pretty light. So they brought things that meant something to them and/or they were useful, so they’re loaded with stories.”

Publically painting the historic objects at ASI gave an opportunity for institute-goers to learn more about the objects and share stories of similar objects they might have had in their own families, perhaps even from like journeys.

Ironically, Sweeney does not have any Swedish heritage (though is quick to point out she recently learned of some Norwegian in her family’s past.) “A to Zåäö” may be about objects and stories from the historic Swedish-American immigrant experience, but immigrant and refugee stories are as contemporary as ever. As art often has the power and ability to do, it begs larger questions:

“What do we carry when we know we can’t return?” asks Sweeney.

As Sweeney says, some refugees and immigrants have time to consider what they will bring with them, some do not – but many carry something. Stories from those carried objects have propelled conversations at ASI and beyond.

“I thought I was put on this earth to work visually, and it turns out when I paint it allows me to tell stories,” says Sweeney who hopes that her work will invite audiences to share their own stories.

A book of the “A to Zåäö” project is projected to publish in 2019 through the University of Minnesota Press.

Special Thanks
Kristina Fjellman
Karen Nelson

Related Links
Tara Sweeney
American Swedish Institute
Wet Paint