Remembering Brian Sweetland
So many have had the pleasure of knowing his gorgeous paintings of the Vermont landscape, and many have shared the company of this masterful artist, but some may not have had the privilege and honor of knowing the man. He was as eloquent with language as he was with paint, so let's listen to him.
"The orioles are BACK!!! Go out, listen for their single note, followed by another, lower pitched tone." A vegetarian, an animal lover, a passionate lover of Nature, he'd leave me a note. He was tuned in; he listened. He wrote long-hand- owned no computer, no TV, no cell phone. His close friend and fellow landscape painter Harry Orlyk would often comment on his 19th century sensibilities.
State of Grace
Brian had no desire for material acquisition. He needed to paint as much as he needed to breathe, and he painted every day, mostly outdoors. (He also painted still-lifes and drew perfect pencil sketches, portraits and animals.) He was always questing for "those few instances of revelatory moments of unexpected and unsolicited grace that take you and let you go" when he painted. And he was favored with more than a few such instances, as his shimmering canvases will attest.
He detested the tedium of making frames, and much to many people's consternation, he underpriced his work. He wanted people who wanted a painting to have one. He hung pictures on a wire fence at Art on the Green that could easily hang in the company of other priceless treasures in the National Gallery.
But Brian said his ambitions rarely developed beyond finishing individual pieces. "Sometimes just painting a good bovine pose before the cow moves is enough to make me extremely happy."
Brian was known to be modest, kind, polite, erudite, softspoken, and even hermitic, but on Sunday afternoon of Nov. 3, scores of friends and admirers came together, bringing their Sweetland paintings and sketches to a gathering at the Pawlet Library. Watching a slideshow of Brian's paintings and family photographs, his life flashing before our eyes, was bittersweet. We were missing the guest of honor.
He carved small wooden animals; he gifted many people with light-handed sketches and paintings and letters, jam jars of posies, books, something he'd fixed or restored. He'd advocate for someone who'd been wronged. He was a powerful, strong man, a protector.
Brian had saved Philo from the end of a chain, and the poor starving dog could not bear to be separated for one minute from his savior.
He wrote to my mother after her dog died: "When my dog Philo's appointed hour came I knew that without him I would have no ready way to express the selfless faith, constancy, and protective devotion that had been the currency of our relationship. When death removed what I loved most, I felt unmoored, useless, deprived of a vital lifeblood. The expression of love as a moral and emotional restorative was withdrawn when he passed away. I had come to rely on the obligation to guarantee his health and happiness as a way of safeguarding my own." He urged my mother to go to the local animal shelter, offering to accompany her himself. "Time helps us adjust to changed circumstances, but it also makes hollowed absence a daily, unwelcome house guest." Adopting another dog would "require another brave commitment to your sense of responsibility, and faith in providence," he wrote.
So confident was Brian's faith that he ventured to "vouchsafe this providence" by promising to take the dog to live with him "in the event of untoward circumstances." He ate enough to survive, slept a few hours a night, read constantly, and was engaged and knowledgeable about world affairs. Although he admitted that he would never deny appreciating an indoor shower. (He didn't always have one, and bathed in a creek for a while.) Whether agreeing to paint a plywood stencil of a cow for an old-timer who just knew it needed a lick of paint, or carving a table leg, he did so with altruistic care.
He never wasted time; he was never, ever late. He respected other people's time, yet he granted himself "the conceit that I have all the time in the world. Even when the light is changing, I say, "No, I'll come back again some other time if I need to." But he was betrayed by the same notion of Providence in which he had placed his faith. He took a spill one ordinary morning, a cruel stroke of fate that took his life.
He loved Vermont. "When I first came to Vermont in the 70's, I soon realized that my quiescent instincts for "home" were finally roused from a spell cast by years of living in alien spaces. Vermont allowed me to rediscover a sense of belonging. Many other like-minded pilgrims have settled body and soul here." He loved Nature. "Earlier this week I took the dogs for an evening walk in a humid, close twilight. There was the gibbous Queen Moon on her throne; at her feet, rising from the grass, were clusters of her "starry fey": our fireflies, their evening ceremony just begun. No other natural phenomenon could better prompt the poetic imagination toward the mad crowding of protean instincts that fire the imagination. Milkweed is in bloom. Its maddening fragrance is astonishing. Viper's buglose is in bloom. Chickory has come, its strangely beautiful, almost pallid azure flower defiant of the poor soil in which it thrives." He loved cows, and painted them "the way they used to be kept." (He was instrumental in saving the life of my bull Rupert, but that's another story. ) He achieved perfection in rendering their bony anatomies, their peaceful aspect, their place in Vermont's working landscape.
As Vincent van Gogh loved his brother Theo, Brian loved his tightly-knit siblings, whose support through thick and thin allowed him "leisure in which to work. To give an artist leisure is actually to take part in his creation," as poet Ezra Pound remarked, so we have all the Sweetlands to thank. "Love is what I really want to convey. It is the huge and irreducible motive in my art, described in many ways but recognizable in all forms, in all sizes, when it is there. Love. Reverence. Esteem. Obsession. All the same thing, in the company of reason. I see Love in a Blake poem, in Melville, in Yeats, and, of course, in Keats (surely Erato's high priest). I hear it lavishly in Berlioz, Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Britten. I see it in inexhaustible luxuriance in Corot, Turner, Sisley, and Twachtman. When it is there - that genius - you know it is not only as a distinguishing end quality but as a precondition and unifying principle at all stages. It survives our jabs, probing, over-fondling, our cynical corruptions. It is there for centuries." Brian Sweetland has joined the men he so admired, the ranks of the truly great.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
- Stephen Spender
What wouldn't we give to see him standing by his easel in an upland meadow or by the Mettowee River, where he should and will ever be. It's a measure of the man that we can still feel so profoundly bereft when we have this bounty of beautiful paintings and the knowledge that Brian lived a full and meaningful life every single day.
Love (It bears repeating)
"Selfless love and devotion are the divine ichor of personal health and contentment. Friendship is friendship, no matter the species, no matter the depth." Who else but a healthy and content Brian Sweetland would quote Keats's Ode to Autumn when leaving a bagful of apples.
Editor's Note: Two earlier stories about Brian Sweetland by Ms. Yanne also appeared in The Journal on Nov. 8, 2012, and more recently, on June 13, 2013.
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