Brian Sweetland's nature remembered at Southern Vermont Arts Center
MANCHESTER -- Abe and Brenda Madkour befriended Brian Sweetland soon after he'd arrived in Dorset, and they were immediately impressed by the young man and his paintings.
"We were always enthralled when we listened to him -- his vocabulary was like no one else's," Abe said. "He was a very deep thinker; he always made you think more."
In those lean early days the Madkours had seven children to feed, but they would give each other Sweetland paintings for birthday or Christmas presents. The family owns 10 of his works.
"We always looked forward to seeing him," Brenda said. "So kind and gentle, an animal lover ... We love the person; we love the art. They go together." She paused. "And we miss him terribly."
Brian Sweetland died when he fell while walking his dog last Oct. 16. Shock and sorrow still reverberate far and wide, but especially deeply in the heart of the Mettowee Valley, where he was a beloved and familiar figure standing with his easel by the roadside, shadowed by his dog, painting farms and holsteins in the blazing sun or snow-clad tractors frozen in time.
He inhabited his work as fully as he inhabited this place he loved -- completely, utterly. His brush was the conduit that fixed the restive skies and the resting cows to the canvas; he caught and saved the profound peace of fleeting moments that he experienced physically, spiritually, emotionally.
Of his own development, he once said he attributed the lightening of his palette over the years to "the commanding dictates of being outside, the raw sun. The value range has heightened; it's a departure from the tonal method I used when I observed the procedural rules set out by Dean Fausett," the prominent artist who recognized Sweetland's exceptional talent and brought him to Vermont in 1977.
Sweetland painted with a sure and practiced hand; he was a skilled draftsman. His palette was subdued, he explained, because that's the way he felt about the landscape here.
As Vincent van Gogh loved his brother Theo, Sweetland loved his tightly-knit siblings, whose support allowed him the leisure time to work on his art.
Sweetland's sister, Mary Beth Sweetland, supported his work. As co-curator of the upcoming retrospective show of Brian Sweetland's work at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, Aug. 2 through Oct. 26 and creator of a book of his selected works -- a monumental project that has consumed her for months -- she is part of his legacy as well.
"Brian could have lived without anybody's help," she said, "and did for many years, but when I came to appreciate the extraordinary qualities of his art, this just had to be facilitated. I guess I was so proud of him that I wanted nothing more for him than that he should be free to paint. It was understood by everyone in the family that he was born to do this."
She describes her brother as "a man of incredible resolve."
"Whether it was banishing sugar from his diet, quitting smoking his pipe, he would just do it. No fanfare," she said. "And one thing he resolved to do for the past four decades was to paint. Paint every day."
Sweetland was indifferent about pricing and did not burden himself with keeping track of his work. When the family asked people to bring their Sweetland paintings to the gathering at Pawlet Library shortly after he died, scores of paintings appeared on display. One came from Axel Blomberg, a friend and lifelong Rupert resident who had handed Sweetland a few gallons of maple syrup after they had spent an afternoon boiling sap.
Portraits of companion animals, perfect little wood carvings and sketches Sweetland did for fun appeared among more serious works.
But hundreds more exist, and Mary Beth put out a request for owners to lend their paintings, and plans for the retrospective exhibit began. Though some paintings have found their way to California and Paris, most are located within 40 miles of Pawlet. She picked up paintings and delivered them to George Bouret, a photographer affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and documented them.
One private collector in Manhattan, aware that he had acquired a gem in the award-winning landscape of Lake Champlain from the Mount Philo outlook, is moving to London this month.
"It's a major work and it must be in the show," he told Mary Beth, so he agreed to lend the piece for the SVAC exhibit.
"There's no-one else like him," said Penny Viscusi, SVAC board member, friend, painter and co-curator of the retrospective. "It's a huge goal of this endeavor to bring Brian, the person, into this exhibit. He had the courage to live life the way he wanted. It really didn't matter to him that he didn't always have running water, that other people had computers and cell phones. He had what he needed."
About a hundred works have been chosen to represent various stages in the development of his 37 year career, "so that more people will have a greater appreciation for what he did," she said. "Nobody has ever seen this many paintings of Brian's together. This is going to be a very special event. It's not going to happen again for a long, long time."
With this retrospective, along with the book compiled by his sister, Sweetland's devoted following of peers, admirers and collectors can now get a fuller sense of the all-too-brief journey of this beloved painter as he takes his place in history.
"I do not start, work on, or conclude a painting without thoughts of him. We all miss him terribly, and will continue to do so for a very long time," said painter George Van Hook.
What a gift he had, and what gifts he gave.
Laura Yanne was a close friend of Brian Sweetland's and has written this reflection in his memory.
If you go ...
What: Brian Sweetland
retrospective art show
When: Reception 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2
Where: Wilson Museum, Southern Vermont Arts Center, West Road, Manchester Center
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