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 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.

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