Dusti Swetman Bongé
(1903 - 1993)
Dusti Swetman Bongé was active/lived in Mississippi, New York. Dusti Bonge is known for modernist-leaning landscape and regionalist painting.
Dusti Swetman Bongé
Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography from The Johnson Collection
The following information was submitted in March of 2006 by Paul Lyle Bongé:
I am the grandson of Dusti Bongé. Not Eunice Lyle Swetman Bongé, Dusti Swetman Bongé, but plain old Dusti and that's the way she liked it. She signed her cheques E.L. Bongé and she signed her paintings Dusti Bongé.
Dusti was from the late 40's a close friend of Betty Parson's and continued to be until Betty's death. Betty included Dusti in her stable of Abstract Expressionists from the very beginning. My grandmother painted with Theodoros Stamos, Kenzo Okada, Mark Rothko (a personal friend) and knew them all quite well. She was once prevailed upon by Betty to move back to NYC and Betty said she would make her as famous as any of the men in her stable (my grandmother was one of the very few women at the time being given one man shows at Betty's) but after some time my grandmother tired of hosting quaint little "let's meet the bohemian woman painter in her studio parties" and moved back to Biloxi to paint in peace which she did tirelessly almost every day until her death in 1993. She had been in small group shows and one man shows at Betty Parsons from the 50's until the mid 70's when she retired from showing.
She was born the youngest child of Orcenith George Swetman and Eunice Lyle. Her father O.G. Swetman was one of the three founding members of The Peoples Bank of Biloxi in 1896 and would shortly thereafter assume control with a sizable majority of the stock. Dusti was ever the independent one, assertive and "Tom-boyish" and from early childhood acquired the moniker that would come to replace her first name. She was forever covered in dust and sand from the beach and dirt from "God only knew where" and Dusti just seemed to suit her.
She wrote and directed and performed plays for the neighborhood children and adults, and fashioned a stage in the breezeway and front porch of the family home. This being her passion and much frowned upon when she didn't grow out of it, she struck a deal with her parents that if they would let her go to a drama school she would first complete college. She graduated a precocious flame headed strawberry blonde 16 year old from high school and attended Blue Mountain College for girls. Really, at the time, the only avenue for higher education for women in Mississippi was Blue Mountain, and it was not necessarily all that challenging a school.
She attended with the firm belief, which she drummed into each following generations, that the school or the professors mattered not in the least and that anyone could get a fine education as long as the school had a library. She was a formidable intellect and reasoning that she got double credits for theology classes, took as many as she was allowed and attended two installments of summer school each summer. Leaving very few holidays or days off, she completed the 4 year curriculum in just under 2 years.
My great grandfather, seemingly foiled by Dusti's headlong rush and satisfactory fulfillment of the contract, remained steadfastly opposed to Dusti's path, though really powerless to do anything about it. Dusti headed to Chicago to study acting. She quickly gained the stage and traveled extensively with shows in the early years of her career. She was a fixture on the New York stage and did early film work when studios were still based on Long Island.
One of the things that has always connected me in an intimate way with another actress of the time and ours, happened in the late 20's. Dusti was the lead in a play, which I've sadly forgotten the name of, when she discovered she was pregnant with my father. She immediately withdrew and never acted again. The woman brought in to replace her, for the quality of her work and the amazing physical and personality likeness, was none other than Kate Hepburn.
Their lives now diverging, Kate's into films firmament of stars and Dusti's into comparative oblivion, couldn't have been more alike. Both these women lived their own lives the way they saw fit and refused to conform to societies expectations for women of the time. Their speech, inflections and accents were eerily similar and their likenesses didn't end there. Suffice to say that I've always felt as though I had two grandmothers and the connections to them were immutable. One I knew intimately and the other only casually.
Except for a short period after the death of my grandfather in 1936, Dusti's painting could never be characterized as regionalism or modern landscapes. Yes, for a short while as she developed her own style and grew into what she was to remain for 50 + years, she did explore the local waterfronts and flora and fauna for subject matter. This was as she said more to train her hand and eye than to create serious work. Much of what she did though must be taken seriously as it is a legitimate and original expression and hardly derivative of anyone else. In the 40's she became much more the surrealist and by the late 40's and early 50's she was firmly and undeniably an abstract expressionist. Nothing from the 40's to the end could be confused with anything regional or landscape inspired.
Dusti Bongé had childhood dreams of becoming an actress and an artist, aspirations she successfully realized on the stage and on canvas. Later in life, vivid dreams would lead her to create dynamic non-representational paintings and become the first artist in Mississippi to fully embrace modernism.
Biography from Amanda Winstead Fine Art LLC
Bongé was born Eunice Lyle Swetman, the youngest of three children in a well-to-do Biloxi, Mississippi, family. Her early inclination toward visual art was matched by an enthusiasm for drama, and she regularly involved neighborhood children in performances of her own plays. With her sights set on acting, she graduated from Blue Mountain College in northeastern Mississippi and then studied at the Lyceum Arts Conservatory in Chicago. While there, she won small roles, and friends gave her the nickname “Dusti” because she was always washing her face after traveling home from theaters through the city’s dirty streets.
She moved to New York in 1924 to further her career and appeared in musical comedies, vaudeville acts, and dramas. In 1928, she married Arch Bongé, and together with their son, the couple settled in Biloxi a few years later. Arch recognized Dusti’s talent and encouraged her to resume painting. Her early output included still lifes and local genre scenes rendered in both realist and Cubist modes. Following her husband’s tragic death in 1936, Dusti took solace in her work, painting in the studio Arch had built in their backyard.
Grief fueled Bongé’s production. By the end of the 1930s, she had mastered a Surrealist style and exhibited in New York. “As time passed,” she recalled, “I became more comfortable with my work and my pictures became more and more abstract.” An early association with Betty Parsons proved significant to Bongé’s aesthetic and advancement. Established in 1946, Parsons’ eponymous 57th Street gallery championed a group of progressive artists—known as the New York School—who spearheaded Abstract Expressionism. Using an abstract vocabulary, they produced large-scale images that radiated with pure emotion, spontaneity, and improvisation. Bongé’s friendships with other artists in Parsons’ stable—including Willem de Kooning, Kenzo Okada, Mark Rothko, and Theodoros Stamos—offered exposure to avant-garde philosophies and techniques that were slow to reach coastal Mississippi.
Bongé began experimenting with Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. In contrast to the rich, saturated hues of her initial investigations, Bongé’s palette darkened somewhat over the next decade, a change that attracted the notice of a New York Herald Tribune critic in 1960: “Dusti Bongé, artist of the deep south, appears at the Betty Parsons Gallery with forceful and determinedly non-objective paintings. Having her third show here, Miss Bongé is perhaps more dramatic at this moment than she has ever been. Her canvases are extremely vigorous, dark-keyed and spacious.”
Submitted by Holly Watters, Registrar, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Dusti Bonge (1903-1993) had a prolific artistic career that spanned over fifty-five years. Initially working in a modern style influenced by Cubism, Bonge experimented with Surrealism in the late 1930s and 1940s. By the mid-1950s, she was working fully in the vein of Abstract Expressionism. In 1946 the highly influential Betty Parsons Gallery opened in New York. Dusti forged a strong relationship with the prominent Abstract Expressionist dealer who would represent her for almost three decades, mounting several solo exhibitions of Bongé's work which were critically very well received.
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Dusti traveled often to New York and was active in the art scene which was centered around the Betty Parsons Gallery. Among the many prominent artists in this circle, some became close friends, such as Mark Rothko and Theodoros Stamos.
While the aforementioned artists are familiar names, Dusti Bonge has fallen into relative obscurity compared to her world famous AbEx counterparts. Located in Biloxi, MS, the Dusti Bongé Art Foundations has works of art by Mississippi's most accomplished abstract artist. In recent years, there have been regional exhibitions of Bongé's work at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, MS, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS and the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, AL.
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