Artists who strive for realism in historical works often rely on experts in the field to ensure an accurate representation. Glen Swanson, however, has spent 40 years collecting 7th Cavalry artifacts and needed no help to complete his new life-size sculpture of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Taking eight months to finish, Swanson has sculpted Custer much as he looked on the eve of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, complete with fringed buckskin jacket and pants, trademark scarf and broad-brimmed hat. “I’ve been studying Custer’s clothes for a long time,” says Swanson. “The buckskins he wore on the 1876 expedition were his most refined set, and he wore this set in photographs with the Grand Duke Alexis in 1872.”
‘I wanted to capture him as he was: a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army on the Great Plains—no more, no less’
Swanson admits that on Custer’s final charge, “his jacket was prob- ably tied to the back of his horse, because it was a hot day,” and that “he probably would have had more of a beard.” But his overall reliance on the written and photographic record has helped him sculpt a lifelike, not romantic, Custer. “The statue is basically Custer in a human pose,” says Swanson. “I wanted to capture him as he was: a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army on the Great Plains—no more, no less.”
Swanson studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and took a career in commercial advertising, directing TV spots for Coke, Pillsbury and Budweiser in the 1970s and ’80s. (His Budweiser Clydesdale and Seven Up “Un-cola” ads still resonate.) Seeking a noncommercial outlet for his art, he taught himself to sculpt 20 years ago. The hobby has led him to complete a set of busts featuring combatants in the Little Bighorn, but Custer is his first full-scale Western figure.
Growing up in Driscoll, N.D., 30 miles from Fort Abraham Lincoln, and spending summer days under the big sky at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Swanson became a dedicated student of the frontier U.S. military. Over the years, his collection has grown to include the campaign hat Captain Frederick Benteen wore at the Little Bighorn, chief scout Charlie Varnum’s officer’s tunic and dress sword, and Commanding General of the U.S. Army William Tecumseh Sherman’s uniform from his tenure as President Ulysses Grant’s top adviser on Indian affairs. Perhaps his most prized possession is a Tiffany cane given Custer by the actor Lawrence Barrett. “I had Custer’s presentation sword at one time, but I sold that long ago,” says Swanson. “I wished I would have kept it.”
He keeps the extensive collection at a private studio in Santa Clarita, Calif., since two previous attempts to found a museum—the first near Fort Abraham Lincoln in the 1980s and the second on the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, four miles south of Last Stand Hill, in the 1990s—ended unsuccessfully. But Swanson’s relics are captured in lush full-color in his book G.A. Custer: His Life and Times, along with other 7th Cavalry items from the collections of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Monroe Historical Society and the Smithsonian. The book also has two chapters on archaeological finds from the battlefield.
Swanson will keep the Custer sculpture at his Santa Clarita studio for the remainder of his life, after which the piece will be donated to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. He hints that the entirety of his collection could end up at the battlefield. “I’m sure they’d love to have it,” he jokes. “I’m getting older, so I can’t keep it forever. But I’m enjoying it for now.”
For more on Glen Swanson and his book G.A. Custer: His Life and Times, visit his Web site.