Curating a Texas legend

Neighborhood residents relive moments shared with artist Jerry  Bywaters

Sam Ratcliffe and Ellen Buie Niewyk knew Jerry Bywaters, and they curated the Jerry Bywaters exhibit, ongoing at the Meadows Museum at SMU. Photo by Amber Plumley

Self portrait by Jerry Bywaters

Lone star legend Jerry Bywaters opens the door to his office, wearing his usual coat and tie along with his checkered, houndstooth hat, reminiscent of the one former University of Alabama head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant wore on the sidelines in the early 1970s.

Bywaters peeks around the corner and sees two newly-hired Southern Methodist University professors, Sam Ratcliffe and Ellen Buie Niewyk, sorting through his papers, which include correspondence from American artists Thomas Lea, Thomas Hart Benton and Alexandre Hogue, as well as photographs by Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera’s official photographer in the 1920s and 1930s.

“I’m afraid to come in,” Bywaters tells Ratcliffe and Niewyk, who are removing old papers from file folders for deacidification, or treatment, by a conservator.

“Why?” Niewyk says.

“I’m afraid you might deacidify me,” Bywaters says jokingly.

Bywaters, who died in 1989 at the age of 82, produced a significant body of landscape, still-life and portrait paintings, as well as lithographic prints and public murals. The Paris, Texas, native was widely considered one of the greatest interpreters of the Southwest.

More than 20 years after Bywaters’s passing, Ratcliffe and Niewyk — both neighborhood residents — remember the artist as a man with a sense of humor. They also remember him as a generous man willing to give his time and share his thoughts with like-minded individuals interested in the art of the Southwest and Texas.

Ratcliffe is now the head of the Bywaters special collection at SMU’s Meadows Museum, and Niewyk is the collection’s curator. Ratcliffe worked with Bywaters for nearly three years before his passing, and came to know this member of the legendary Dallas Nine artists as something more than a creative mind.

“I got to appreciate him not only as an artist, but as this beloved figure in Dallas and sort of a legend here on campus,” Ratcliffe says.

What’s more, both Ratcliffe and Niewyk laud Bywaters as a mentor.

Niewyk says Bywaters taught young people, like herself, to really look at their environment — the arts, music, theater and architecture.

“He influenced me greatly in what I did back in those years,” Niewyk says. “Being a native Texan, he made me look at my own state in a different way.”

“My dad used to say, ‘Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.’”

Ratcliffe recalls. “And Bywaters was like that.”


The Collection of Calloway & Jerry Bywaters Cochran: In Honor of a Lone Star Legend

The Meadows Museum has added more than 40 works by Jerry Bywaters to its collections, courtesy of his daughter, Jerry Bywaters Cochran. These works are part of the current Bywaters exhibit, and can be seen at SMU’s Meadows Museum, at 5900 Bishop Blvd., through Aug. 19. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $4 for students and free for museum members. From 5-9 p.m. Thursdays, admission is free.

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