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Paul Sweany: Twentieth-Century Renaissance Man

A retrospective exhibition at Bloomington's Wandering Turtle Gallery remembers an artist and teacher who was central to the Indianapolis art scene for the second half of the twentieth century. It's a special show for gallery owner Jaime Sweany; the artist is her late father.

Technical Master, Avid Instructor

Native Hoosier Paul Sweany (1927-2009)Â had over 75 solo exhibitions during his lifetime. His art won hundreds of awards, and was acquired by collectors around the world.

Sweany was born in 1927, and received his B.F.A. from the John Herron School of Art in 1951. An enthusiastic instructor, Sweany went on to teach art and art history at Orchard Country Day School, Park Tudor, John Herron School of Art, Marian College, the Indianapolis Arts Center and the John Waldron Art Center.

A Man In Full

"When I think of Paul Sweany, I think of a Renaissance man," recalls lifelong friend and colleague Earl Snellenberger, an exhibiting artist who has long taught at Herron.

Adept in the gamut of two- and three-dimensional media, Sweany's interests beyond the visual arts were equally far-ranging. A trained ballet dancer once invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company, Sweany also wrote poetry, taught science, bred orchids, sang in nightclubs, traveled frequently, and entertained with gusto. When he was feted with a retrospective at the Indianapolis Art Center in 2001, the exhibition included watercolors, oils, ceramics, enamel jewelry, intaglio, lithography, pen & ink, pencil, dry brush ink, silkscreen, photography, and a book of his poetry.

"Paul was so intellectually curious," Snellenberger says. "If there was a subject he wanted to know about – say, astronomy – he would just throw himself into that wholeheartedly."

A Yearning To Know More

Paul Sweany's watercolors evince the vigilance of his inquiry into the world around him. The nearly fanatical devotion to botanical detail is reminiscent of the work of the pre-Raphaelite painters – the riparian vegetation, for example, in John Everett Millais' painting of drowned Ophelia.

"One might even go to the notebooks of Albrecht Durer," Snellerberger suggests. "His studies of plant life, and animal life as well, point to his yearning to know more about the structure of the natural world."

More Than The Sum Of the Parts

For all his precision as a draftsman of flora and fauna, Sweany's paintings are so much more than illustrations. The elegance of his palette, the strength of his design and the effortless grace of his execution summon up his ballet training. Although the degree of detail in his paintings might be dizzying, the effect of the whole is always far more than the sum of its meticulous parts.

A Sense Of Place

Sweany led students on many trips to Europe over the years, but he always called Indiana home. The Hoosier landscape held particular meaning for the committed environmentalist. In his attachment to place, along with the quiet strength of his watercolors, Sweany recalls Andrew Wyeth, whose bent toward representation also ran counter to prevailing trends in American art in the mid-twentieth century.

Vagaries of the art world notwithstanding, the home that Paul shared with his wife Margaret, also a painter and sculptor, and his four daughters, was a hub of culture in mid-century Indianapolis. "It was a salon, if you like, at the Sweany household," Snellenberger muses. "Artists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals of the city would come to the Sweanys' for parties."

A Retrospective Becomes A Memorial

The artist passed away in July 2009, just as his daughter was planning a retrospective at her gallery. What is now a memorial exhibition of Paul Sweany's original oil paintings, drawings, and water colors from the family's collection is on view through the month of December at the Wandering Turtle Art Gallery. Giclée reproductions of Sweany's original watercolors are available for purchase. Margaret Sweany's clay busts are also on view.

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