Year of St. Joseph
Looking back on his childhood years of growing up at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Owatonna, Michael Sweere always remembers being in awe of the stained glass windows. Little did he know some 40 years later, he would be sharing his own artwork with the parish.
And he has his late mother to thank.
Mary Sweere mentioned to her son Michael that Rev. Jim Starasinich had a project that he wanted completed. Starasinich envisioned a mosaic being added to the church after being approached by a parishioner.
“I thought it sounded like fun,” said Sweere, a mosaic artist with a studio in Minneapolis.
Over the next two years, he went to work to find a location within the church and work with church leaders to pick out a design. The actual project took him five months to finish.
Unfortunately, during the time it took to complete the project, Sweere’s mother died in February 2020. However, Sweere incorporated his mother’s influence into the mosaic.
“My mom really had an artistic eye,” Sweere said. “She was happy that I had taken the project, and she liked the idea of having a feel of Steele County in it.”
Some of his mother’s suggestions were bright colors and a lot of animals.
While mosaics are often associated with Egypt, Sweere focused on keeping a local flavor to this art piece. “There is a lot of influence of Steele County in there,” he said, pointing to landscapes of farms and crops. “Steele County is farmland and I wanted to make it look more like Steele County instead of Egyptian.”
Sweere added a stream reminiscent of the one in Mineral Springs Park in Owatonna. He also gave it a religious twist by combining the two St. Josephs from the old and new testament in the mosaic. Ironically, this year has been declared “Year of St. Joseph” by Pope Francis.
“The mosaic generalized the look and feel of the life of St. Joseph,” Sweere explained. “I also wanted a contemporary feel.”
He completed the mosaic at his Minneapolis studio before transporting it to the church in 28 different sections. The mosaic has been added to the staircase leading from the fellowship hall to the church.
The artist found it tough to work with angles on the staircase and the curvature on one of the walls. He did a lot of measuring ahead of time. It is 36-feet-long and 12-feet-tall. But in the end, it all came out.
“It was amazing the math I did. It turned out perfectly. It fit just like a glove,” Sweere said.
“This is one of the most challenging mosaics I have done so far,” Sweere said, adding he had never done a mosaic before with a religious theme.
After graduating from Owatonna in 1983, Sweere attended college in Mankato, where he majored in commercial and technical art. He always wanted to be an illustrator, but that has pretty much gone away with the computer.
He initially worked at an advertising agency before discovering mosaic art. “I became real fascinated with mosaic artwork,” Sweere said, adding he previously knew nothing about it.
But, after reading a lot of books, Sweere taught himself to do mosaics. “I was intimidated about getting started,” he said. “I would have never guessed doing mosaic art.”
He got his first big break when the Mayo Clinic in Rochester commissioned him to do a major project. At the time, he was going to try it for a year and before the year was up, he had another commissioned project. He has now been doing mosaics for 16 years.
Sweere finds himself going to thrift stores and garage sales, looking for materials to use in his mosaics. He often focuses on broken plates and ceramic tiles. “I love to hunt for materials,” he said, adding the fun part is he never knows what he will find.
He refers to mosaic art as “a little bit of like playing chess.”
Within the past few weeks, Sweere completed a project made out of recycled tin in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has projects in nine different states.
The St. Joseph mosaic was donated by a parishioner who loves the arts but wants to remain anonymous, according to Rev. Starasinich.
The church held a Blessing of the Mosaic in June. “What a nice gift for the parish to gather and see the art,” said Starasinich, adding it was a great gathering for the church, especially coming out of COVID-19.
Starasinich is impressed with how the mosaic blends into the stairwell. “This is who we are as a working-class society,” he said. “It shows us nature, river and countryside. This reminds us of who we are and where we are living.”
He also likes how the mosaic engages people.
“You can approach it and touch it,” Starasinich said, noting there are no sharp edges.
Starasinich also credited Sweere’s mother with influencing how the mosaic turned out. “The good Lord has her looking down with a lot of joy in her heart,” he said. “It was a great moment for our parish,” he added.
Sweere is thrilled to do something unique for the church he grew up in.
“Forty years later, to get a chance to do artwork in the same building is pretty rewarding,” he said.