There was as time when Kerry Swank achieved acclaim making photographic portraits of members of California’s upper echelons. But, as it has turned out over time, she aimed much, much higher.
Proclaiming herself as a person of faith, she said that after years of deep prayer she one day heard what she describes as God’s voice asking her to start photographing angels.
“I have been able to see angels since childhood and I felt that I knew God, so when I heard ‘child I need you to photograph angels,’ it was as if the world had stopped,” she recalled.
If the world did not stop, it changed its orbit 20 years ago. She obtained a divorce, sold a pricey house in Laguna Niguel and moved to San Francisco, where she said she felt compelled to photograph statues of angels.
When returning to Southern California, Swank further realized her mission by finding people she found physically and spiritually beautiful, women along with a smattering of children and men, and photographed them dressed in flowing gowns and wearing elaborately crafted, huge wings. Backgrounds vary from sacred structures such as churches, monasteries and temples to scenes in nature or elaborately cloudy skies alluding to the angel’s origins.
“I have to know my models as kind and compassionate, imbued with inner beauty. I photograph what I see inside them,” said the photographer, now a Laguna Beach resident.
The black and white photographs are converted into silver gelatin prints that she painstakingly hand colors with chemical compounds of her own inventions. She remains adamant the subjects are not portraits. “They are portrayals of angels, physical metaphors for spiritual beings that exist in the minds of many, regardless of their religious convictions,” she said.
“When I first saw Kerry’s images, they clearly moved me since all of us have spirits we could tune into if we believe,” said Donald Jolly-Gabriel, an Irvine physician and author of the book “Voices of Angels.” He said that he has always had a great interest in the concept of angels, describing them as spirit guides.
Drawing on past connections at the Vatican that include the renowned late Cardinal Maximillien De Furstenberg, he sent two prints of Swank photographs titled “Serenity” and “Divine Presence” to the prefecture of the household of Pope Francis. Jolly-Gabriel and Swank describe the gift as “an earthly expression of gratitude to God.” The Vatican acknowledged the gift in a Sept. 27 letter by Monsignor Peter B. Wells, in the Vatican’s Office of the Secretary of State.
“The Holy Father wished me to express his gratitude for your kind letter and gift. He appreciates your thoughtful gesture….” the letter went on to state that the Pope would remember Swank in his prayers and conferred God’s blessings of joy and peace.
At this point, no one knows where the angels are or will be displayed.
Former Laguna Niguel neighbor and close friend Lila Bayer, 92, had posed for some of Swank’s images , used in a series of boxed cards. Bayer, now of Aliso Viejo, remembers Swank as someone deeply religious and not at all phony. “She is an amazing person, opening herself up to messages that the rest of us could never really interpret. She really practices her Christian beliefs,” she said.
Laguna Beach neighbor Burr Von Maur became friends with Swank because his dog kept escaping to her home. “I was impressed with her art, but through countless conversations about God and her mission in life, I also became a believer,” said Von Maur, a plastic surgeon.
“The angels were simply beautiful. Kerry would describe them to me, including their appearance and clothing. They are pure and I realized that she can see what I can not,” he said. “Over a period of time, I could be supportive of someone who does so much for others through God,” he said.
Born in Denmark, Swank, 54, still has the look of the erstwhile model and the fashion designer she once aspired to be. Self-taught as a photographer, she said that photography had always been in her blood. “I learn through prayer and pray on everything; and when messages reach me, I am here to bring them to others,” she said. Currently, she wants to bring her angels to children in need and people undergoing various forms of rehabilitation. “My next hope is to take God’s message a step further and begin teaching,” she said.