By Nancy Covert
Jean Swanson has “always loved table decorations.” Making unforgettable centerpieces has become a ‘calling’ for this Steilacoom resident. It all began when she was a young girl.
For more than half a dozen times this multi-talented artist has been the ‘brains’ behind many of the distinctive centerpieces featured at Steilacoom Historical Museum Association events such as its annual dinner.
While guests will have to wait until Dec. 4 to see what she’s made for “Not a Creature was Stirring” (this writer has taken a vow of silence), most folks will agree “they’re pretty impressive.” The pieces are for sale afterward, Jean adds.
“The centerpieces are my contribution to the Association.”
While she specializes in table decorations, such as the colorful “Burma Shave” pie table centerpieces for the recent apple squeeze, she emphasizes “it’s the people who are generous with their time and effort with the setup who make it a success.”
As has been the case with many creations over the years, she’s “made them out of nothing.” Not exactly —but she does create memorable pieces using bits of ‘this and that,’ along with a big chunk of imagination.
“I get inspiration for my work when I read Scripture.”
Scripture reading was definitely the motivation behind a memorable project several years ago when she created elaborate banners for Kirkland’s Rose Hill Presbyterian Church’s holiday dinner: the theme was the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on.
During the years she also has designed numerous Children’s Orthopedic Guild centerpieces.
Recently she taught a rose petal bead making class.
Suffragette sashes. Holiday dolls…
Backing up a bit, Jean credits Grace McVicker, her Steilacoom School teacher, for igniting her interest in creating things from nothing.
One Thanksgiving, Jean says, Miss McVicker involved her students in crafting an elaborate room display –a sort of ‘paper by number’ project—that they assembled and posted on the blackboard.
Next they fashioned crepe paper play costumes before moving on to making apple-face dolls for Christmas.
Her mother, Edna, also encouraged her, as did her twin brother, Jim, another Steilacoom artist renowned for his many Steilacoom paintings.
“I always competed against him.”
Besides making centerpieces, she’s also loved flowers. After leaving Steilacoom she branched out into arranging wedding attendant bouquets.
“I learned by watching a florist—learning techniques such as mashing flower stems to streamline an arrangement.”
“There is always someone you can learn from,” she advises. “I didn’t realize I was able to create bouquets until someone mentioned it.”
Jean strongly believes that it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to make decorations—many things can be made for a relatively small investment—it’s time consuming, true, but homemade is what matters.
“Some things come together beautifully.”
Jean never throws anything away—yards of bed ticking, for example, that her mother had saved from time spent in Eastern Washington, were used to make the bodies of her famous soft sculptures: Town butcher Fred Chelius,; Mayor Morris, Telephone operator Rosie O’Donnell; Saltar’s Point aquarium operator Ed Bair, and Steilacoom School teacher Janet Tait.
Those sculptures were made because, “I wanted to remember people from the town’s past.”
During the town’s summer concert series in the 90s Jean displayed the sculptures on the second-floor balcony of her home for concertgoers to enjoy.
Sitting at a small kitchen table on a drizzly November afternoon, she’s nearing completion on another project: dozens of puffy red and white toadstools that will be used as window decorations for the upcoming SHMA dinner.
She never knows when she’ll be inspired, but there’s always something handy to work with. Jean doesn’t throw anything away.