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.

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 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

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