Bay County artist to celebrate 100th birthday in September

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LYNN HAVEN – Jeanette Swenson, who discovered her love for creating ceramic figurines late in life, will be turning 100 on September 24.

I recently sat with her on the back porch of the house she shares with her son, Wes Swenson, who is also a ceramist and hosts a backyard craft festival every December. We talked about his life, his children, his art and his outlook on the world.

“I’m not dying yet,” she proclaimed. “I love to sit here and watch the critters and birds. I love working in the studio.… I don’t dwell on things. I don’t live in the past.… I just think of what a good c ‘is life.”

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“Mom has a happy heart,” Wes said.

I first met Jeanette in 2015, when I stopped by Wes’s backyard ceramic studio for an interview. He molded cups and bowls while she made tiny details to add to a basket where the birds perched next to the eggs.

Jeanette, also known for her “Pocket Angel” designs, was born September 24, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Claribel and Henry Wachter. She remembers when her family first got a phone and a radio.

“You take everything for granted,” she said. “We were at the start of everything.”

Jeanette Swenson is seen in her youth.  She will celebrate her 100th birthday on September 24.

During the Depression, Jeanette left school in her senior year to help care for her younger brother while her mom and dad worked. She learned to sew and make her own clothes. Parents who were farmers provided them with vegetables to help them get by.

She remembered going to see the Capital Steamer on the Mississippi River and hearing her calliope playing across her house at night.

“I loved music,” Jeanette said, adding that she was a member of the Panama City Sweet Adelines for several years. “Dad and I sang together. He played guitar. We sang at weddings.”

She met her future husband while working at Montgomery Ward. She was walking with a girlfriend and asked her about a boy she saw stuffing socks into a trash can. His name was Wes Swenson.

“I said, ‘I’m going to marry this boy.’ I liked it instantly, ”Jeanette said. “Funny how you just know the right one.”

Jeanette Swenson works on a ceramic figurine in Lynn Haven's backyard studio.

During World War II, Wes entered the Navy and fought in the Pacific. “He was in the thick of it for four years,” said his namesake son.

In 1951, they moved to Orlando with their young son Wes, born in 1945, and daughter Nancy, born in ’46. senior Wes got a job with JC Penney, and for the next decade life was good.

“I had a great husband and great kids,” Jeanette said.

The family built a house on a lake. Jeanette was a popular mom, attending all of young Wes’ ball games and chaperoning all of the school dances. Wes remembers his classmates even asking his mom to dance. Junior Wes joined the military in 1966 and Nancy got married in the late 1960s after meeting her future husband in college.

“Dad was the artist,” Wes told me in 2015. “Mum was the artist in the kitchen. “

Jeanette and her husband moved to New York City when he was in charge of all advertising for JC Penney stores in the eastern United States and Puerto Rico. But it wasn’t really a life, she said. They didn’t know anyone there, Wes worked long hours, and they were away from their children. They decided to return to Florida to enjoy the closeness of their children and grandchildren.

The couple moved from Tampa to Lynn Haven in 1998; their son had lived there since 1974, in the same house where he still lives. Senior Wes had planned to join his son in the studio and make Viking figures (his heritage was Norwegian), but he never got the chance. He died in 1999.

“Mom came to the studio for something to do,” Wes said. “She started to develop small action figures that rival Hummels, in my opinion.”

A pair of whimsical Jeanette Swenson figurines.

She calls the figures “Netchin’s Little People”, after a pet name her beloved grandfather called her.

“I didn’t even know I could do that,” Jeanette said. “I was going around and it just started to happen.”

His Pocket Angels are currently very popular gifts for sick people.

“A lady bought 10. She told me they were getting better,” Jeanette said of the recipients. “Marvellous.”

When Hurricane Michael hit, she and her son sat on the back porch and watched the trees fall. Her apartment complex was damaged, so she moved in with Wes. Until then, she was driving her own car, which the hurricane demolished.

“I’m not getting any younger. It was better that I stop” driving, she said, noting that she only has one eye sight.

“She’s doing these 3D figures in proportion and has only one eye,” Wes said.

Jeanette said her years had taught her not to worry about the future or focus on the past – not that either of these had ever been in her nature.

“It is what it is,” she said. “Take me or leave me.”

Tony Simmons is a writer and editor for The News Herald. His column appears most weeks in the Entererer.


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