Jerry Bywaters at the Blanton Museum of Art

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Jerry Bywaters (1906-1989) was a seminal figure of 20th-century art in Texas. In addition to the prominent role he played as a faculty member for more than forty years at Southern Methodist University (SMU), and as director of the Dallas Museum of Art for over twenty years (1943-1964), throughout his career he was also an artist, curator, and critic. Considered a guiding force in Texas’s regionalist art movement, Bywaters was one of the Dallas Nine—along with Alexandre Hogue, Otis M. Dozier, William L. Lester, and Everett Spruce—who promoted this style.

Born in Paris, Texas, Bywaters graduated from SMU with a degree in English and journalism in 1926, but soon after a trip abroad decided to pursue art as his career. He took courses at the Art Institute of Dallas, studied on his own in Mexico, and spent a summer at an artists’ colony in Connecticut, before deciding to move to New York in 1928 to study at the Art Students League, where he worked with John Sloan. Upon returning to Dallas, Bywaters began to exhibit his work, to seek commissions for illustration and design, to teach, and to write about art for various regional magazines and newspapers.

Beginning in 1935 he took an active interest in printmaking, which he pursued until 1948. He was a founding member of Lone Star Printmakers (established in 1938), a local organization that promoted the medium and established a strong voice for printmaking in Texas until it disbanded around the time of World War II. During this period, Bywaters created thirty-nine prints that depicted the landscape, daily life, and people of Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. These prints are the subject of an exhibition on view through November 8 at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, and organized by the Meadows Museum of SMU.

Strikingly graphic and evocative, each of the prints was thoroughly documented by Bywaters in a notebook that today provides a great deal of information about his work. The notebook, other archival materials, and photographs were used by Ellen Buie Niewyk, curator of the Bywaters collection at SMU, to fully document his prints in the catalogue Jerry Bywaters, Lone Star Printmaker (SMU Press, 2007), and have been culled for the Blanton Museum’s exhibition.

One element that stands out in Bywaters’s prints is his interest in “native” architectural structures that, like the indigenous maguey plants he rendered in vacant landscapes, record a unique aspect of the American Southwest. The adobe houses, storefronts, railroad stations and churches, prairie windmills, and false fronts he frequently depicted were in direct contrast to the subject of his first recorded lithograph Gargantua, which showed the Lomax House in Denton, Texas—a Victorian-syle mansion at that time owned by the prominent Colonel R. E. L. Knight. Bywaters poked fun at the grand and embellished house, placing it between a run-down fence and a bare and gnarled tree trunk. He pointedly remarked, “no greater paradox has ever been seen on the Texas plains than Gothic Cathedrals serving as courthouses, or wives of ex-cowhands speaking French in the Chinese drawing rooms of Romanesque mansions.”

To learn more about Jerry Bywaters and his art check out these links:
The painting Oil Field Girls at the Blanton Museum of Art
A large selection of his artwork at the Dallas Museum of Art
Special collections at the Hamon Arts Library at SMU
Mural studies at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Archival documents and interviews at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art

For further reading:
Jerry Bywaters: A Life in Art by Francine Carraro (University of Texas, 1994)
Jerry Bywaters, Interpreter of the Southwest
edited by Sam Deshong Ratcliffe (Texas A&M University Press, 2007)

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