When Artist Gary Sweeney Quit His Day Job, He Made Plans to Visit Dallas

"Donated Artwork" by Gary Sweeney
"Donated Artwork" by Gary Sweeney

Being an artist can be a tough gig, especially if your heart is set on living indoors and enjoying the occasional meal. Naturally most artists find themselves working more than a few odd jobs to keep the lights on. So when California native Gary Sweeney was given the chance to work as a baggage handler for airports, right after graduating from U.C. Irvine in the in the early '70s, he jumped at the chance. After 35 years that include numerous public art pieces and only a few damaged suitcases, Sweeney is quitting his day job.

"I've got 35 years with it and they're offering an early out," Sweeney says. "It's truly a hard job to give up."

One of his first stops as a free man? Dallas, where he'll exhibit some of his newest work in Problem Child at Red Arrow Contemporary September 6-October 18.

Baggage handling has been a pretty cushy job for Sweeney. Not only has it given him the freedom to pursue his art, but working in the airport industry also gave him his first big break. After being transferred to the Denver in 1982, Sweeney found himself in the running for a public art commission for the Denver International Airport, which was then still under construction.

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"They wanted something big for people to look at, and they wanted something humorous to take the stress off of waiting for your luggage in the baggage claim area," Sweeney says. "I walked in and completely over-sold myself, I said 'Look, I'm perfect for this.'"

The piece, "America, Why I Love Her," is a collection of Sweeney family photographs from their travels around the United States. The photos create a roadmap of obscure tourist attractions and oddities that highlight the sense of nostalgia and humor that characterizes Sweeney's style. "That was my big break; I had done a couple of smaller art commissions for them, but my art career changed dramatically after the success of that," he says.

Since then Sweeney has completed commissions all over the world, and has graced gallery walls from San Antonio to Florence, Italy. Now, Dallas.

Sweeney describes his latest show as an extension of his recent "Overview" (He won't call it a retrospective since he is still very much alive) at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio. "There's about 25 pieces there," Sweeney says. "I'd say they give a really complete overview of my humor. It's kind of my whole philosophy of life gathered in one place."

"My Mother-In-Law's Sloppy Joe Recipe as Written by Abraham Lincoln"
"My Mother-In-Law's Sloppy Joe Recipe as Written by Abraham Lincoln"

One of the pieces that will be on display at the Red Arrow is titled, "My Mother-In-Law's Sloppy Joe Recipe as Written by Abraham Lincoln," and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. If that doesn't give you an idea of Sweeney's sense of humor, his piece titled "Donated Artwork," is the perfect example of his brand of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and wit. "Artists get asked like, on a monthly basis, to donate art," Sweeney says. "For instance, there was a group called Colorado Lawyers for the Arts. They never bought any art from your studio or your gallery or anything. They always waited until the auction because they knew they could get it for pennies on the dollar."

Sweeney shot back with this piece, which features a "clip art from the '50s" illustration of an artist surrounded by thought bubbles which are lettered with quips such as: "You're our favorite artist!" "Would you donate an artwork to our organization?" "And let us keep all the money?"

For two years, whenever Sweeney was asked to donate a piece to an organization, he sent this. "It is a little sarcastic, it does point out that art organizations sometimes take advantage of artists," Sweeney says. "If the organization is worthwhile and they are willing to [share] 50 percent of the proceeds I have no problem with it."

Sweeney describes his work as having an edge of boyish innocence. He is more Dennis the Menace than hardcore provocateur.

In a proposed public art piece for the San Antonio River Authority, Sweeney describes the fictitious "Battle of the San Antonio River." The piece was intended to be put on benches on a narrow part of the river, and was made to look authentic, but the details of the battle quickly leave the realm of plausibility as German U-Boats sink a fleet of "12th-century Turkish warships," before the USS Nevada swoops in to save the day.

"The board for the river actually unanimously loved it," Sweeney says with a laugh, even though the piece was ultimately scrapped.

Sweeney was later commissioned to do a piece for Lady Bird Lake in Austin. He changed the name of the battle, and tried to sell the piece a second time. The official response was that his humor was "not appropriate for the city of Austin," Sweeney says.

Whether you're in on the joke or not, Sweeney's not trying to hurt anyone. "I think once you establish who you are and what your humor is, then people generally take it the right way," he says. "They learn your vocabulary."

Get to know his vocabulary at the opening reception for Problem Child, from 6-8 p.m. Saturday, September 6 at Red Arrow Contemporary, 1130 Dragon St.


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