by Len Lear and Constance Garcia-Barrio
There are many, many different types of art and many, many different types of artists, but I doubt if there is any other artist in the world quite like Anne Swoyer, 63, of Mt. Airy, who takes apart owl pellets and uses the mouse bones in them to create vivid works of art.
“I am a scavenger with a creative bent,” Anne explained, “and I was captivated by the wonder of owl pellets while birdwatching at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, back when it was referred to as Tinicum. The pellet, which a fellow birder showed me that day, sat undisturbed for many months until the magical moment I decided to take it apart. My first piece was a single mouse mandible in a tiny box. Since then, the designs have evolved.
“A few designs I repeat again and again, as they seem to have an archetypal resonance. But most times I don’t know what will appear; the inspiration comes through the bones themselves and through the energy between the positive and negative space. Rarely do I have an idea of what I want ahead of time. As with words or music which have a finite amount of letters and notes, there is a limit to the different bones I will uncover, but a myriad of designs can be made from them.”
Anne is the first to admit that her art is not for everyone. “People either LOVE it and connect instantly with it, totally ignore it or get grossed out!”
Eight years ago, Anne and her husband, Bill Jacobsen, were saying goodbye to fellow travelers at the end of a trip to Burundi in central Africa. “We were standing under an evergreen tree, and owl pellets were all over the ground. I smuggled some onto the plane and made some pieces with African shrew bones.”
Making bone art is slow, meditative work. “I sketch out what I want to do and then use tweezers to place the bones.” At first Anne made pins out of the mouse parts that she sold privately and at craft shows, but her latest work is mostly larger scale, meant to display rather than wear. And she concedes that she has not created as much art since 2015, “when my husband was diagnosed with liver failure, and I cared for him until he got a transplant. That knocked me off track for a couple of years…
“Recently a friend who moved to Texas told me he needed bone art and bought five pieces, which was half of my remaining stock. The last five pieces are on my own wall … Part of my therapy is walking about four miles a day, and it’s become much harder to spend long amounts of time sitting and being indoors. I am outside as much as possible. All recent sales were done privately or by inquiries through my website.”
Another unusual passion of Anne’s has been working as a “standardized patient,” a position in which she poses as a patient for medical students. (A famous episode of “Seinfeld” introduced this job to millions of viewers for the first time.) “Essentially, I’m a fake patient who helps the students develop the skills they’ll need once they begin treating real people,” Anne said in a previous interview. “You have to be alert and provide honest and useful feedback for the medical students.
“You have to recall not only if the student took your blood pressure but what his body language conveys. For example, did the medical student knit his eyebrows when I, as a standardized patient, said that I smoked a pack a cigarettes a day? That expression suggests judgment, something doctors want to avoid.”
Anne is still affiliated with two standardized patient programs, Perelman School of Medicine (Penn) and Cooper Medical School at Rowan University in Camden. “My sister received a dire diagnosis in May, and that impacted significantly my ability to maintain regular work, as I was managing her care … Happily, both institutions were radically generous and understanding and gave me lots of leeway.”
Anne is also the coordinator for the outside volunteers who participate in AVP (Alternatives to Violence Program) at Phoenix, a new prison on the same land where Graterford Prison used to be. The program helps inmates learn to communicate, cooperate and collaborate.
Anne, who is the sister of Ellen Manning, a late advertising manager at the Chestnut Hill Local, also has a remarkable collection of more than 1,000 handkerchiefs printed from the 1940s and ‘50s. Many are signed by the designers. Her favorite is Tammis Keefe, whose designs are colorful and gorgeous. She has even taken the collection “on the road” to various Quester groups, mostly elderly folks whose focus is on all kinds of unusual private collections.
If Anne could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, past or present, who would it be? “It would be myself as a small child. I would tell her she was smart, unique, beautiful and to follow her heart and trust her instincts.”
For more information about Anne’s art, visit boneartbyanne.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org