Painting the Towns

Johnnie Swearingen's jazzy paintings of his native Washington County challenged its genteel version of the past, and some folks wanted to get rid of them. But today the works of one of Texas' best self-taught artists are proudly displayed there.

August 2000By Comments

History is an elaborate effort to make the past sit still. But in Johnnie Swearingen’s paintings, now hanging at the Chappell Hill Historical Museum, there’s a world of commotion. Sedans flash past a nursing home like sharks. People wag beer bottles. They jaywalk in front of a bank, where two flags blow in opposite directions. Outside the Washington County Courthouse today, you’re lucky to find one clerk on a lonely cigarette break, but Swearingen’s downtown Brenham jumps. You’d take it for Times Square, or perhaps Red Square, since the courthouse door is weirdly crested—for Christmas?—with a Bolshevik star.The best-known—many would say the best—self-taught painter Texas has produced, Swearingen died in 1993. He was ordained a minister at age 75, and in works like The Devil’s Got the Church on Wheels, he found another way to preach. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art owns a Swearingen horse-race scene. A gallery in New York’s SoHo recently priced one late painting at $15,000.

Even so, 66 extraordinary pieces by this African American artist were so controversial in his hometown of Chappell Hill that they almost got away. A group of the local museum’s trustees wanted to sell off the collection and use the proceeds to restore yet another building. After months of wrangling, the paintings were consigned to the vault of Faske’s jewelry store in Brenham, ten miles away, where they sat for four years. “It was something that was talked about and fussed about,” says Mary Tom Middlebrooks, a past president of the Chappell Hill Historical Society. “There was no shade of gray when you had a conversation about the Swearingen paintings. And I found it so interesting that all these people had an opinion about something they’d never laid eyes on.”

Now the paintings have emerged, and through August 27, all who care to can see Swearingen’s jazzy streets and oscillating landscapes for themselves. Newly framed, the works are on view at the historical society’s museum on Poplar Street, one block east of Main (part of the exhibition appears on the Web at www.syntuit.com/artspace/jss/ex1.htm). Thereafter, they will remain at the museum, a permanent addition to its record of the past. “This collection is a survivor,” says Middlebrooks, smiling.

Why such turmoil over some homegrown paintings? Larry Boehnemann, the owner of Uniques gallery in Brenham, knew Swearingen well, and as a lifelong resident, he knows Washington County too. “I think it was his style of art,” Boehnemann says. “I think people looked at it and said, ‘This has more of a childish-type look to it,’ so they didn’t take it seriously. And I think the other thing was because he was black. I think that held him back here in Chappell Hill a lot. You still have people here who don’t want to know, who don’t want anything to do with it because he was black.”

Swearingen and his art posed a good-humored but very real affront to aesthetic and social norms in this tiny town, a village more of the Deep South than the Old West. Just as nettlesome, the paintings also challenged its gingerbread version of history. “Chappell Hill residents today quietly promote the vanished age of elegance through careful preservation of the town’s past,” reads a panel in the museum. Displays of plow points and sepia photographs of couples in their tennis whites, documenting what the museum calls a “gentler era,” are, as anyone knows, code for plantation life. For Chappell Hill, as for many other small Southern towns, such images of refinement and antiquity have affirmed a comforting, proud identity.

Johnnie Swearingen saw things differently. Less interested in a “vanished age” than in the present-day world around him, he offered a roving, bird’s-eye view of Washington County during four decades of change. Men stagger into taverns. Nurses dawdle in a parking lot outside the local hospital. A farmer steers his tractor into an iridescent field of maize.

It’s as if we have two tales of Chappell Hill, and the discrepancy between them is what has made Swearingen’s paintings so unsettling. They blow up the lacy skirts of yesteryear, chronicling a history that’s closer to the present, slippery but true.

The rich, rolling land along the Brazos River was home to some of the earliest Anglo settlers and African slaves in Texas, including Stephen F. Austin’s original colony. Until the 1880’s Washington County was the most populous in the state, and Chappell Hill, encircled by cotton farms of a thousand acres or more, was busy, a commercial center and an architectural jewel.

News of emancipation and an epidemic of yellow fever in 1867 began a century of decline. Families of German immigrants lured here to work in cotton found the tenant system unappealing and moved west to Brenham and beyond for land of their own. Polish settlers who followed managed to acquire farms around Chappell Hill and built a Catholic stronghold at St. Stanislaus Church.

In the twentieth century Washington County’s agrarianism and influence were eclipsed for all time by Texas oil and the rise of an ungentle neighbor to the southeast, Houston. According to Chappell Hill historian Nath Winfield, the town’s population dwindled from one thousand in 1945 to a mere three hundred souls in 1972. By 1964 the Texas Almanac had branded it a “ghost town.”

As it turned out, ghosts were just what Houstonians wanted. Up to here with carpeted offices, billboards, and pavement, in the late sixties great enervated flocks began motoring west on U.S. 290, over the Brazos River, where the monotony of coastal plains gives way to tumbling pastureland. Washington County, an easy 75 miles from the city, was balm for dispirited eyes, especially in its lush wildflower season. A trip to the “cradle of Texas independence”—Washington-on-the-Brazos—took Houston driv- ers right through Chappell Hill, its narrow streets the perfect antidote for a week of freeways.

Soon the roadside scenery included Johnnie Swearingen, his paintings humming into this horse-and-buggy theme park like a red Thunderbird. Born north of Chappell Hill in 1908, Swearingen worked alongside his sharecropping parents. “The whole Swearingen family picked cotton for Granddaddy,” says Ruth Roberts Spain. A longtime Chappell Hillian and an artist herself, Spain would join her grandfather Henry W. Hughes, Sr., bringing “cold water and sliced melon” to the hands. “Grandmother always put an old quilt in the truck for me to rest and play on. Johnnie and I would play on the quilt under the wagons.”

Swearingen fled Washington County during the Great Depression, hitchhiking and freight-jumping, working his way west to the shipyards of San Pedro, California. After World War II, he returned, called home by the death of his father. He married a local woman, Murray Williams, in 1949, and grudgingly went back to tenant farming. “The boss man would let you have your seed and your equipment to plant with, and then when the cotton grew, he would get half,” explains Swearingen’s step-daughter Joy Dell McDonald. In his spare time he painted, using what materials were handy—shoe polish, mud, kerosene, house paint. “He had a lot of pieces that just got wasted away,” says McDonald. “Like the ones he painted on cardboard. We’d put them on the wall over a hole to keep the north wind out.”

His earliest extant work, painted on a cardboard diaper box in 1952, shows “boss man” Robert Schaer overseeing the delivery of cotton at his gin. True to life, trucks line the roads waiting to unload, while the pale orange gleam of dusk seeps through the tree line. Swearingen was obviously proud of the painting because he found a way for all the town to see it. He gave it to Schaer, then the president of the Chappell Hill Bank, who put it on display there.

By the sixties, Swearingen’s life as a farmer had become nearly desperate. He told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle, “My tractor’s down, and I’m trying to sell it. My horse died, but I still got a pair of mules.” McDonald remembers when federal loans for small farmers began drying up. “That just pushed the little small farmers out of the way,” she says. “They couldn’t compete.” The industry as a whole was being mechanized. As Chappell Hill resident and former field hand Eddie Dorsey puts it, “That’s when we put the sack down. They stopped making cotton and corn and all like that and went into ranching.”

Its planter economy crumbling, Chappell Hill found a way to profit from its loss. Beginning in the sixties, the town put a new coat of paint on its anachronism and sold the past to present-day tourists. The Chappell Hill Historical Society, which was organized in 1964 with Spain as its first president, held an antiques sale to raise money for its first project: restoration of the local library.

As savvy in his own way as any chamber of commerce executive, Johnnie Swearingen saw the traffic along U.S. 290 and sensed Chappell Hill’s incipient rebirth as a tourist destination. “He figured he’d make more money painting than he did farming,” McDonald says, and he was right. Swearingen began nailing his paintings, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time, all over his car and parking across from the Chappell Hill post office, near Brenham’s town square, or along the highway, anywhere he could catch the public eye.

“The first burst of energy to spruce up the town occurred right before the antiques show, when practically everybody got in the grass mowing, stoop sweeping spirit of things,” reported the Houston Post. In Swearingen’s paintings, one sees this custodial fury. Women with hedge clippers tidy the greenery along a front porch. A couple push lawn mowers below towering palm trees.

The spruce-a-thon never stopped. Twelve buildings have been declared state historic landmarks. Ten sites have made the National Register of Historic Places. The Providence Baptist Church’s former parsonage, now caved in like a rotten bird’s nest, will be turned into a visitors center. And as if its own architectural past weren’t rich enough, Chappell Hill has become a kind of plein air cabinet of architectural keepsakes. Buildings that once stood in LaGrange, Industry, Ellinger, and Huntsville have been wrenched off the ground and resettled among their antebellum and Victorian relatives here.

Swearingen too caught the fever for architectural grandeur. Most of his paintings portray what McDonald calls “majestic buildings,” many of them animated with a sinister power. High windows stare over the yard. Doorways moan from the jaws of wraparound porches. Where people do appear, they’re faceless, scurrying errand-runners or Pac-Men in a crowd. By some accounts, Swearingen’s approach compensated for clumsy draftsmanship, his inability to paint the human face. But isn’t it more likely that he showed what he saw: people dominated by buildings, and a town whose fortunes had come to revolve around immense plantation homes?

As with the sidewalk painters of Montmartre and Rome’s Piazza Navona, Swearingen’s artistic fortunes were bound up with tourism. He became an attraction himself, part of the local color, a genial spirit in a cap that read “I Love EVERYBODY . . . You’re NEXT.” “When they started having these bluebonnet fests,” McDonald says, “he’d pick him a little spot where he’d have his paintings, mostly on 290.” One painting sees through the walls of a house, showing an empty living room; the people have rushed out-of-doors onto the hillsides, where bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush bloom knee-high. Here, as elsewhere, he exaggerates Washington County wonderfully, turning its rolling pastures into bullet-shaped buttes.

Local people seem to have more or less dismissed him. Larry Boehnemann remembers him as a fixture in downtown Brenham, stationed on the lot where Michalak’s Garage now stands. “I know he was there quite a bit during the sixties, because when I was a kid, we’d ride our bikes down there and go watch him, pester him more than anything. We were a little afraid of him but not really. He was a nice, harmless old man.” Says Karin King, the proprietor of Brenhamwwwired, a new Internet cafe across from the courthouse: “I remember him from when I was kid. He was just some old black guy in a beat-up truck trying to peddle his paintings.”

Even in the late eighties, after Swearingen had achieved some statewide and national acclaim through touring exhibitions, he met mainly with local indifference. Willie Bennett, a former school principal and a leader of Washington County’s African American community, remarks, “I knew him. I used to see him by the side of the road, but I never took the time to stop.”

Swearingen’s early pieces showed workaday life, but in the seventies his attention turned to sport and recreation: couples on speedboats, the buffet line at a barbecue, youngsters in a frothy swimming pool. After all, it was among fun-seekers, outsiders primarily, that Swearingen found his early patrons. Says Mike Shoup, who with his wife, Jean, owns the Antique Rose Emporium, near Independence: “A lot of the customers were people like us, people who had moved from Houston and had come in with kind of new eyes. I think that’s where he made his money.”

In fact, the collection that now belongs to the Chappell Hill Historical Society was purchased in the early seventies by a wealthy Houstonian, Margaret Austin, who, with her husband, Don, owned a farm just south of Chappell Hill. “Mrs. Austin would commission him, give him three months to paint eight pictures—just paint what he liked—and she would come get them,” says McDonald. “That was his first big break.”

Margaret Austin introduced her Houston friends to Swearingen’s paintings, selling some but keeping a sizable collection herself. In 1991, after her husband’s death, she left her Swearingen paintings to the historical society. It was after her death the following year that discord over the Johnnie Swearingen Collection arose.

Especially for longtime residents of Washington County, the paintings have caused uneasiness, belying as they do Chappell Hill’s sit-down-and-mind-your-manners portrait of a “gentler era.” In contrast to the daffodil wind socks of the town’s gift shops, the ruffled curtains and stick candy of its cafe, Swearingen shows men lining up at a beer barrel the size of a small grain silo, people loitering at a dingy drive-through gas station, and striped hogs jostling at a trough. Even his paintings of country pastimes feel raucous rather than bucolic, and nearly all his pieces shout with his signature color: Heinz tomato red.

With Margaret Austin’s donation of Swearingen’s paintings to the Chappell Hill Historical Society, such incongruities squirted to the surface. Which Washington County is real? The contrary portraits of the past reveal an uncertainty that runs deep, a social vertigo felt most keenly by county natives, who have seen change here accelerate.

Over the past fifty years, the region’s agrarian economy—a legacy of slavery and the plantation system—has been supplanted by make-believe agrarianism and the business of leisure. The Houston Zen Community now hosts retreats on what was once part of the Austins’ farm. Washington County tourists can even stay overnight in “authentic slave quarters,” comfortably appointed with a four-poster bed and a fax machine. Large-scale crop farming has given way to weekend hobby ranching. Says Page Michel of the county chamber of commerce: “People refer to ‘the mink-and-manure crowd,'” Houstonians who can afford second homes, horses for their preteen daughters, a few cattle, and some pastureland. These people, for the most part, were Swearingen’s patrons, those he strove to please.

And they are Washington County’s new citizens. “We’re growing real fast,” says Chappell Hill postmaster Gerald Johnson. “They’re opening up subdivisions around here, and they’re all exclusive.” Improvements completed two years ago along U.S. 290 have trimmed the commute to Houston’s northwestern edge to under an hour. “Seventy-five percent of our rural land is owned by people from out of the county,” estimates Charles Gaskamp, the chief appraiser of the Washington County Appraisal District. “They’ve run the prices up so high that local people can’t afford land.” Around Chappell Hill, he says, one- to three-acre tracts are selling for $10,000 to $20,000 per acre. But what did you expect to pay for a “vanished age of elegance”?

Transformations like these are freighted with ambivalence. Jean Shoup, of the Antique Rose Emporium, has sensed mixed feelings about tourism among the county’s established landowners: “I think they do welcome it, truthfully, because it brings so much business to the area. But when the bluebonnets are in full bloom and people are stopping anywhere they please and crawling under fences, there is irritation, and you can understand why.” Shoup says that recently one local farmer “literally plowed up his bluebonnets” in protest. Laments Ruth Spain: “It’s getting so commercial. We old-timers say, ‘Every twenty minutes we have a festival.’ You can’t park, you can’t get to church, you can’t do anything.” But it was this festivity (along with a Social Security check) that enabled Swearingen to trade his plow for a paintbrush.

Four members of the historical society—the trustees who stowed the works in Faske’s basement—wrote to the group’s board in 1992 that the paintings’ value had been “obviously exaggerated, overstated.” But according to Austin art dealer Randy Franklin, prices for Swearingen’s paintings, which start at about $2,500, “are going up all the time.” As for the Chappell Hill collection, “Nothing out there compares to the pieces they have,” he says. “Some of those big early pieces are priceless.” As recently as 1997, the same group of trustees recommended keeping only a dozen works, selling the rest, and using the proceeds to finance other historical society projects. With obvious exasperation, they wrote to the board, “there is not one soul in the Universe more desirous of having a decision made as to the disposition of the Johnnie Swearingen paintings than the undersigned.”

Those who advocated keeping the paintings have prevailed, but the collection has had to pay its own way. With the help of Franklin’s Yard Dog gallery, the society sold fourteen works to pay for framing and exhibiting the remaining paintings. “Not one nickel of society money was spent,” says Middlebrooks. “None of this would have happened had we not sold some, because it never would have been passed by the members to spend the money on these paintings.”

Historical society member Edward Bentley admits that the group is “not a very diverse organization at this point, unless you count Methodists and Baptists.” However, since the opening of the Swearingen show, Joy McDonald has been invited to join. Will she? “Well, maybe not this year; maybe later on. I don’t want to be the first one.” Despite all the changes in Chappell Hill, vestiges of the Old South remain. McDonald says blacks and whites don’t mix much socially. The Chappell Hill Bank, where Swearingen delivered his cotton gin painting nearly fifty years ago, ignores the federal Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday in January, but bank executive Edward A. Smith says it’s the only bank he knows of that closes for Confederate Heroes Day.

Swearingen, in his emboldened paintings of the eighties, remembered the somber, less “elegant” dimensions of the plantation past. In one piece, owned by the Shoups, mothers and children have been pulled apart at a slave auction. In the historical society’s collection, allusions to race are subtler. A white figure stands under an awning at Brenham’s Green Grain Building, pointing, while a black man pulls sacks from a truck. In another work, a black man wipes the steps of the town’s old Alamo School as white children stare from a classroom window.

McDonald says that her stepfather was scoffed at by most locals, black and white. “People were laughing at him,” she says. “They never thought he was going to amount to much. They think because you’re black you shouldn’t know how to paint.” Mary Tom Middlebrooks of the historical society has seen the same attitude: “It’s always been my contention that had Johnnie Swearingen been white instead of black, these paintings would have been hung on these walls a long time ago.”

Swearingen lost his wife, Murray, in 1991 and, in frail health, moved to Huntsville. Paintings he had once sold from the roadside for $25 were commanding thousands of dollars and had been featured in several major touring exhibitions of folk art. Nevertheless, “If he had lived to see this up here at this museum, it would have topped the cake,” says McDonald, looking around the current exhibit. “He’d say, ‘Now I’ve finally made it.'”

The longer you look, the more brazen it all becomes. Swearingen’s art does more than depict this county’s history. His transformation from a sharecropper into a Texas folk artist is Washington County’s history. As the region became a retreat for Houstonians, an excursion for wildflower enthusiasts, and play-act ranchland, he could shed his identity as one of the Swearingens who had always picked cotton, instead making a name for himself through his art and a living by his wits rather than with his back. Inside the historical society’s museum, one may look with horrified respect at a five-hundred-pound cotton bale. With what relief he must have greeted the demise of Chappell Hill’s farming culture and the influx of nostalgic newcomers who preferred their bales on canvas. As a Jaguar pulls behind a rusted pickup truck on the town’s Main Street, the bustling intersections of Swearingen’s paintings seem audible, portents of things to come.

Bettie Schramme, who used to greet Swearingen from behind the counter at Norman’s Pharmacy in Brenham, remembers him fondly. “He would keep us entertained,” she says. What did she think of Swearingen’s paintings? “That’s like having Blue Bell Ice Cream in Brenham. Like the bluebonnets. You just took it for granted.

“It’s sad,” she says. “We just thought, ‘There’s Johnnie driving around town with his paintings.’ I always meant to buy one.”

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