The Schwidder Project

What do retired clergy do? Some hang around as guest preachers filling interim positions vacated by other clergy. Some play a lot of golf. Others travel and lead tours. Three retired Lutheran pastors who happened to have graduated from the same seminary in the same year (1965) have banded together to record and preserve liturgical artwork under the prosaic name of The Schwidder Project.

Ernst Schwidder earned his master of fine arts from the University of Washington in 1959 and became the first head of the arts department at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. In the mid-1960s, he elected to return to the Northwest as chairman of the art faculty at Seattle Pacific University. From 1967 to his 1992 retirement, professor Schwidder taught art and headed the art department at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Following his retirement, he opened his own south Seattle studio and continued to produce art suitable for worship space in churches of a variety of denominations throughout the U.S. and western Canada. 

His principle medium is carved mahogany wood, but he designed objets d’arte in repousse, metal sculpture, fabric art, concrete and stone. He collaborated in executing his designs with associates, students and other artists in glass and metal arts.

In all, Schwidder artwork graces over 90 worship facilities in Washington alone and over 300 from Massachusetts and North Carolina to California and Alaska. 

His wood sculpting is easily recognizable for its long, lean, flowing lines, as well as for its idiosyncratic uppercase lettering of Scripture passages. In the craft of an artist, Schwidder did not intend to produce lifelike images, but to design through wood carving and other media visual theological truth apropos to the church setting and ministry in which his work had been commissioned. Thus, a church whose ministry was set in a mountainous, sea or farming area could expect that setting to appear in the carvings. A church whose name evoked an image (Good Shepherd, Saint Matthew, Holy Cross, Advent, Incarnation, et al) would be graced with a sculpture to remind the parishioners of a living name and ministry, and often with unique calligraphy to unite word with image. 

The durable and monumental character of Schwidder’s designs (some as large as 40 feet) is borne out by the fact that most remain in their original settings – and even when relocated because of a renovation or other reasons, they continue in use in other settings.

Schwidder died in 1998, but his liturgical art lives on to inspire worshippers and artists who follow him. You will recognize his unique style in a number of Pierce County worship sites:

·         Tacoma: Annie Wright School (chapel door, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Grace Lutheran Church, Parkland Lutheran Church, Saint Mark’s  by the Narrows Lutheran Church, Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community (chapel), and Trinity Lutheran Church.

·         Lakewood: Prince of Peace Lutheran Church (triptych) and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (parish hall).

·         Puyallup:  Immanuel Lutheran Church and Mountain View Lutheran Church.

His work appears also in King, Kitsap, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties in the worship spaces of Christian, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic chapels and churches. His artistic efforts are present also in residential and office designs where, somewhat facetiously, he promised his patrons that his completed design for living or work space might resemble the interior of a church, for in fact Schwidder did not confine the notion of the sacred to churches alone, but also to where people live and work.

The Schwidder Project Committee is self-appointed, including two clergy artists (the Rev. emeritus Joel Nickel from Salem, Ore., and the Rev. emeritus Roger Sylvester from Seattle) and Richard Tietjen, Schwidder’s Tacoma-based pastor from 1983 to 1998 at Grace Lutheran. The three have pictorially recorded over 100 sites of Schwidder design in 10 states and seek not only to give record to the prodigious output of Schwidder designs, but also to assist parishioners to treasure visual art as enhancement to worship and as an abiding reinforcement of teaching the faithful over the generations. 

Richard Tietjen, who wrote this article, retired in 2011 after 46 years of active parish ministry, the final 28 years as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Tacoma, where liturgical artist Ernst Schwidder was an active member from 1967 until his death in 1998, and

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood is among churches in the U.S. and Canada graced by the carvings of Ernst Schwidder.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood is among churches in the U.S. and Canada graced by the carvings of Ernst Schwidder.

where chancel carvings and vestments are Schwidder designs.