Lynn Sweat’s artistic journey has deep roots in Southeast Texas
I had to wait until the afternoon to talk to artist Lynn Sweat as he had an important appointment. An avid golfer, he belongs to a group called “The Geritolers” who play every weekday morning.
“Ben Hogan said I can’t wait for the morning sun to rise so I can get on the course again — that’s my motto,” Lynn said.
The artist best known for his drawings for the Amelia Bedelia book series, chatted by Zoom — his first time — from his home in Simsbury, Connecticut. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, Lynn’s father was a construction worker and the family moved to Port Arthur when Lynn was about 4 or 5 years old. From there, the family moved to Nederland where he grew up.
After high school, Lynn attended what was then Lamar Tech to study graphic design, where his teacher Myrtle Kerr encouraged him to take up printmaking. While he was there, he did graphics for the student newspaper. Sweat said he loves newspapers and also worked at the Mid-County Review doing camerawork, layout and paste up, which increased his love of newspapers and media in general.
One of his first jobs was at KBMT, then a UHF TV station out of Vidor. From there he moved to KFDM doing promotional flash cards. He also worked for the Beaumont Enterprise where he replaced Jack Shofner drawing editorial cartoons for a while. He was friends with Milton Turner from college and Turner wrote some of the first articles about Sweat’s work.
Lynn had his first solo show at the Beaumont Art Museum, now the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.
“What’s great about being an artist, sometimes people respond to your work in a crazy way, they love it,” Lynn said. “(Director) Jo Scurlock had seen my work and she said, ‘Lynn, you’ve got to have a one-man show. And, you know, after that show, I made lifelong friends — I was selling paintings very cheaply.”
Lynn laughed, as he does frequently. Every piece of information is accompanied by an anecdote, many of which are accompanied by more laughing on both sides of the screen.
Eventually, Lynn made his way to Houston where, after working for a few studios, he was approached by Frank Tammen, the son of the man who founded the Denver Post. He invited Lynn to join his agency.
“He said to me, ‘Look, I’ve got a little printing press here. You can become my partner,’” Lynn said. “So, I just jumped in and did it. And we started printing material. So, when I picked up and moved to New York, I had a perfect portfolio to show my work. For me. It was just great.”
By the late 1960s, Lynn was married to Elynor Irene — “the lady behind the artist” — and the couple had two boys and two girls. He worked with acclaimed nature painter Jack Cowan and his work was beginning to be noticed farther afield. A writer for ARTnews magazine told him it was time to go to a big city.
“I had one friend there who worked for an art studio in New York City. His name was Tom Ballinger and he’s a wonderful artist I met I’m in Houston,” Lynn said “And so that was my contact. I put my family in my car and drove to New York. Yeah, you gotta be young to take risks like that, right?”
Lynnwentonareconnaissance mission, arriving in the Big Apple with $250 in his wallet. His wife said the Roosevelt Hotel, which is near Grand Central Station would be a nice place to stay.
“I took a cab there and the guy gave me the price for staying overnight,” he said. “I thought, ‘Uh, oh, my 250’s not going to last too long.’ So, I said, I’m gonna take a walk. I walked over to the west side, across Madison Avenue, and I found a little hotel, which I’ve never found again, but it had people that were blind with walking sticks. I think it was like 35 or 40 bucks a week, which is perfect.”
Lynn got his portfolio together and made a few calls. He met a man named Alan Walski who offered him a chance to create material for a Sophia Loren movie, “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
“We worked for a whole week on a campaign,” Lynn said. “I finished my week and said (I) have to go back to Texas to see my family. He made the promise that everything is fine. So, I went back and got my family and drove back. It turns out that the campaign didn’t go through (but) that’s how it started out.”
The movie business was in transition with studios using photography rather than graphics for posters, and before long, Lynn found himself designing book jackets.
“I love the covers,” he said. “Books are certainly a major love of my life. I started doing some book covers. One thing led to another, and it was a slow process, but it all worked out.”
As well as covers, Susan Hirschman, an editor at William Morrow, saw a small book Lynn had made for his children called “Birds Without Words.” She suggested he try his hand at doing a children’s book. Lynn’s first book was “Cluck the Captain’s Chicken,” which was picked up for TV, he said. After that, he did a few more.
“One of the better ones was called ‘The Wonderful Hunting Dog,’” he said. “It was just a story about an old lady that had a hunting dog who would hunt rabbits. And my editor was into women’s liberation (and) she loved the idea (that) the master was a woman.”
Lynn said he thinks of his designs in terms of simplicity and graphics. He is best known as the illustrator of “Amelia Bedelia” — he has illustrated more of the classic series than any other artist. He recalls one time an editor came up with a suggestion.
“She said, ‘I have a great idea, Lynn, let’s do a parade on this last page.’ Well, I don’t do parades. I do single people. I don’t do ‘Where’s Waldo?’ you know?” he said with a chuckle.
Despite the simplicity of his illustrations, Lynn said he is inspired by the great masters, such as Caravaggio, Reubens and Rembrandt.
“Early on, I don’t know how things happened, but even in high school I was looking at Rembrandt and DaVinci,” he said. “So, I was trying all this stuff out early on. Somebody says, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ And, you know, I’m always open to new ideas. Everywhere I look, I see ideas. I call it the hawk on the wing.”
Nowadays, Lynn produces small oil paintings, many of which are available for sale through The Art Studio, Inc. in downtown Beaumont. He donated the works to the organization to help with their capital campaign to repair the roof. He visited The Studio more than 20 years ago when he was invited to judge their membership show. He quickly made friends and learned to work with clay through Greg Busceme, Steve Herron and Pam Oneil — more people he considers life-long friends.
“When I heard The Art Studio was having trouble with their roof, I said, ‘You know, I’m just going to donate some paintings,” Lynn said. “I started sending packages of five paintings down, and Michelle Cate was my contact. She would do videos, opening the packages, and immediately display the paintings. And I sent her another batch. And if someone bought a painting, she would do that person holding it.
“And that’s the artist’s reward, when someone buys your painting.”
Lynn’s paintings are richly colored and seem to glow from an inner light. He said he is inspired by the artist Paul Gauguin, who wrote about returning from an evening’s painting.
“He described in a letter once, his response to color, which really stayed in my mind,” Lynn said. “It’s a late evening, and there were these carved wooden shoes, sabots, and he says, ‘I look for the sound of my wooden shoes against the soil.’
“I thought, that’s a wonderful image of color, for me, was that soft, muted color, the way he put it was beautifully done. But a wooden shoe striking the ground. It’s a crazy thing. It’s crazy, but it really hit me.”
Lynn may be 88-years old but his passion for art is as bright as his paintings, and he remains an advocate for the arts scene in Southeast Texas. He recalls a conversation he had with Lynne Lokensgard, longtime art history professor at Lamar University, after a lunch date.
“We’re driving back, and I said, ‘Lynne, you know, Beaumont is little bit like Florence, Italy,’” he said. “She said, ‘What?’ I meant Beaumont had also little art enclaves. It’s a unique thing that Beaumont had all these little pieces of art.
“There’s just an artist spirit there. There really is.”
To see more of his work, check out lynnsweat.illustrator on Instagram.
This story first ran in the July 22, 2022, Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.