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    By Charles Wolford

    Victor Sweatt is teaching me how to sketch a landscape. “I come from this perspective of using the Masters, the Renaissance, how they divided up the scene into quadrants,” he says. “For this one, what I’m thinking about is combining realism and the abstract. Like I say, I’m just having fun with it.”

    We are in Shawnee Park in front of a still life of logs pitted with streaks of snow alongside mounds of wood chips. Dawn broke an hour ago, but clouds still cover the sun, and the branches of black February trees writhe upon the paper sky like strokes of calligraphy. Sweatt is in his mid-50s, taller than six feet, and he wears a camera looped around his neck. It falls on the chest of the coat he is bundled in against the frigid morning air. Whenever he smiles, his cheeks lift into a round fullness. He loves to laugh. “I spend a lot of time laughing at myself, so the rest of the world doesn’t stand a chance,” he says. Looking toward the wood chips, Sweatt lifts his hand. “I grew up in the West End, so I haven’t seen farmlands and streams and things like that. Just city blocks. So I started going to parks and learning to see things differently.”

    Sweatt is from the Park DuValle neighborhood in west Louisville. “The environment I was in, people weren’t used to doing art. I’m self-taught. When everyone else liked toys and things, I liked crayons. I had a box of 64 with a built-in pencil sharpener. I was big-time,” he says. Sweatt spent hours by himself coloring. He was so focused that his mother would yell, “Vic, are you in the house? You need to start making some noise sometime.” Even as a child, Sweatt would sharpen each crayon before he put them back in the box. When he got to middle and high school, he skipped class to go home and draw. He would be up all night and hear the school bus pull onto his street the next morning.

    To this day, Sweatt’s working hours remain all-consuming. Earlier in the week, I arranged to visit him at his studio at the Louisville Visual Art building in Portland, and Sweatt noted a reminder to himself in his schedule that he had to sleep so he could be awake for our interview. LVA is a warehouse, and Sweatt’s corner of it is between two plywood walls going back about 20 feet to a row of windows blurred with light. He works in oils, inks, acrylics, watercolors. He has painted murals, including in Park DuValle’s Southwick Community Center gymnasium and on a Russell neighborhood building at 16th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Sweatt’s  studio is a testament to his range of interests: wooden worktables, a fold-out chair slashed with paint, cans and glasses filled with pencils and brushes, a broom and a basketball and a stuffed toy orca, a cushioned bench large enough to stretch out on, and, arrayed everywhere on the walls, his many paintings.

    Sweatt has painted people as his subjects for much of his career, which has included exhibitions throughout town. But in the last few years, his interest has shifted to landscapes, to which he has dedicated a whole studio wall — paintings of a river bed, the underside of a viaduct, patches of greenery wrapping around a highway. One of the paintings resembles a close-up of ducks splashing in a stream, but Sweatt says he saw the ducks in a drainage ditch. “It’s not always about bringing attention to beautiful things,” Sweatt says. “It’s about bringing attention to ugly things as well.”

    Recently, Sweatt started painting in Shawnee Park, where he is showing me his method of capturing a landscape. He tries coming to the park every other day, usually about 8 a.m., armed with the sketchbook he balances upon one forearm, while his other hand holds a green crayon that skips and slashes across the page. He brings forth the angle of the path, the slant of the brush piles, the trees rising at a diagonal. “Triangles lead viewers into the picture. One triangle creates another triangle. See?” he says. “And there are certain branches I may accentuate to lead the viewer all through it, to make you dance.”

    Birds caw in the chilled distance. A line of geese swims overhead, a dark triangle heading south. “When I’m painting, I’ll stop thinking and it’s like someone else is painting for me,” he says. “I’m changing colors in my head to emphasize certain things.” For Sweatt, a painting doesn’t have to originate with a sketch — a facsimile to reference later for accuracy — but can instead come from how he was feeling as he worked. Tomorrow, he might come back and find the scene transformed. “And when I go back to the studio, I’m trying to remember how I felt about it, and it becomes harder,” he says. “I have all these philosophies I go by, and one I’m really big into is: ‘I don’t know.’” Sweatt laughs. He says it again: “I don’t know.”

    After Sweatt sketches across a few different pages, we stroll down some steps nearby, descending into a tunnel of woodland that, on a clear day, would have looked onto the Ohio River. Wisped in fog, the trees are spectral. “That’s how I approach things: ‘I don’t know.’ It’s just seeing, and simplifying things. That’s what makes life easy, when you stop adding complex things into it,” he says. He shoots a hand out of the coat pocket it had been nestled in and points to a flurry of crystalline flakes. Then he says, “Oh! A blue jay! You see it?”

    Looking west, toward Indiana, I mention that I can’t even see the difference between the sky and the river. Does he? Sweatt laughs. “Oh, yeah, definitely. I see the value changes. I can see the ripples in the water. It’s yellow and brown, the ground over there. And the sky is violet.” He nearly doubles over laughing at the way I’m looking at him. “It’s purple, white, violet — all mixed together,” he says. “Even when the sun goes down, it does the spectrum, and just before it closes at the horizon, it turns green. If you stood here for a while, something would move. It’s stuff you don’t see, animals and things. When I’m walking, I’ll see insects crossing. I’m just in tune with it, I guess. That’s why I say it’s fun.”

    For years, being an artist was not fun for Sweatt. He joined the Army out of high school, says he made sergeant. He didn’t think he would come back to Louisville, but he resettled here and dedicated himself to his art. Getting some momentum was tough. “I made the dive but there was no water in the pool,” he says. “I thought basic training was the hardest thing I’d go through. But nothing was working out for me. I mean nothing.” He says a turning point came two years ago, when he finally said, “I don’t know.” He unthreaded business from art and researched his clientele, the local art market, the probability of making money. “I just started being thankful for the experience. I think the coolest thing about it is being humbled by it, going without for so long, and losing — having really, really bad experiences. But the failure was the experience,” he says.

    We head back toward our cars. Sweatt entered the military in 1983. One night, when he was stationed at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, he was camped out in the woods and marveled at all the stars hanging in the sky. “I felt like I could reach out and touch them. And I had never noticed some of them are closer than the others, some of them are different colors. I was like, ‘Wow! When did we get this?’”

    Sweatt laughs. “I’m so old, I got a million stories. I have one foot in the grave and the other one on the banana peel. We’re all on the clock. I don’t have but a minute left, so I’m having fun with it.” He looks toward the slopes of Shawnee Park. The trees are brown, in focus, but I cannot see the cardinal Sweatt points to, zipping among the branches. “There’s just so much I see, all the time,” he says. “Everything’s art to me. I don’t know what not to paint. Sometimes it’s a beautiful mess. But I’m willing to clean it up. I tell people all the time, ‘Pay attention. It’s all around us.’”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Art of Not Knowing." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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    Photo by Jessica Ebelhar,

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