Dusti Bongé (Eunice Lyle Swetman) was born and raised in Biloxi MS. She attended college and subsequently, with her parents’ blessings, moved to Chicago to study theater in 1921. Here she met her future husband, Archie Bongé, a realist painter and cowboy from Nebraska. She also acquired the nickname “Dusti”. They both eventually moved from Chicago to New York, where she started her acting career on the stage and in early “Talkies”. They got married in 1928 and had their wedding in Biloxi. The famed naturalist painter Walter Anderson of Ocean Springs served as best man at their wedding.
In 1934 Dusti and Archie returned to Dusti’s hometown of Biloxi to settle down and raise their young son Lyle and allow Archie more time for painting. Dusti started to take an interest in painting and modern art. Unfortunately, Archie became seriously ill and died unexpectedly in 1936. He had encouraged her early artistic work and taken her on excursions to paint local scenes & buildings. After Archie’s death, Dusti found solace in his studio and began painting and drawing seriously. She was 33. She wound up painting for the rest of her life.
Dusti Bongé’s prolific art career spanned more than 55 years. Her work went through several stylistic evolutions, quickly growing more and more abstract. What follows is a brief narrative of her stylistic and artistic development. It offers insight into the depth and breadth of her oeuvre and the varied works in the collection of the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation.
EARLY WORK 1936-1945
Bongé seriously began her painting career in the mid-1930s. Initially, she depicted scenes of her native Biloxi, partly inspired by Archie’s depictions of the waterfront and cityscape. These included scenes at the Back Bay of Biloxi depicting seafood factories, shrimp boats, and fishing camps, as well as certain quintessentially local scenes of cemeteries, gazebos, lighthouses, and the shoofly. She also worked on still life compositions of everyday objects, seashells, fruit, vegetables, and local flowers. Although these early works are representational in nature, they already exhibit her innate ability to move from a realist to a much more modernist style. She played with geometry and color, creating brightly colored Cubist-inspired, yet still objective, realist works.
Following this early period Bongé entered a period of subjective, Surrealist experimentation. In fact, as early as 1938, Bongé had begun to experiment with Surrealism and eventually worked in that style for over a decade. She fully explored the highly individual and dream-like juxtapositions of unrelated elements that sprang from the irrational, subconscious mind, and played with recurring motifs in her compositions.
She created a whole series of works inspired by the Circus, which, with its inherently surreal qualities, offered very rich subject matter. Throughout the early 1950s, her Surrealist style continued to evolve as she began her depictions of what she uniquely called “Keyhole People.” Eventually this work became totally abstract.
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM 1955-1980
The years from 1953-1956 marked a crucial transitional period in her work as she moved from her Surrealist explorations into fully abstract work. All representational traces disappeared and were replaced with bold colors, broad strokes, strong gestures, and richly textured paint surfaces.
By 1955 she had embraced the color-field, gestural, expressionist painting that dominated American art of the period. Her work exhibited the quintessential spontaneous and improvisational hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism (AbEx), with its rich array of colors, use of large brushes and sweeping gestural marks. Indeed, Abstract Expressionism ultimately became the artistic style in which she found her greatest satisfaction.
Dusti Bongé forged a relationship with Betty Parsons, the AbEx dealer In New York, who would represent her for many years. Parsons gave Bongé her first solo exhibition in April 1956. Her association with the Betty Parsons Gallery lasted from 1946 to 1975.
Bongé continued to work in her Abstract Expressionist style throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. During these years she experimented with a somewhat darker palette, with three-dimensional paintings, and with “pictures for windows” created with fiberglass.
LATER WORK 1980-1991
Throughout the 1980s, Bongé continued to create a very strong body of abstract work, including some monumental oil paintings. In contrast to some of these large works, during the late 1980s she began a series of delicate jewel-like small abstract watercolors. The intimacy of these little watercolor paintings appealed to her, and they became her preferred medium. Many of these works were on small “Joss” papers, sheets of bamboo or rice paper centered with a small square of gold and/or silver leaf, which were available at the local Asian markets.
1903 August 9: Dusti Bongé (Eunice Lyle Swetman) is born in Biloxi, Mississippi.
1919 Dusti attends Blue Mountain College. She completes her studies there in two years.
1921 Dusti moves to Chicago to attend the Lyceum Arts Conservatory to study drama. She meets Archie Bongé, a cowboy and artist, from Nebraska. She acquires the nickname “Dusty”.
1923 Dusti moves to New York to continue her acting career. Archie Bongé is already in New York, and they date.
1928 Dusti marries Archie in Biloxi. Walter Anderson is best man at their wedding. She works at Astoria Studios (Queens NY) acting in early “Talkies.”
Dusti has an argument with Archie and makes him a picture to apologize, which she leaves on his easel. Archie likes her work and encourages her to continue.
1929 Dusti is offered a part in a play. She declines the offer, as she is pregnant. On November 5, Lyle Bongé is born at her parents’ house in Biloxi. The young family continues to live in New York.
1934 Dusti, Archie and Lyle move to Biloxi. Dusti shows serious interest in painting and abstract art. She spends more time in the studio with Archie, who inspires her to paint but discourages her from attending art school.
1936 Archie dies of a nervous system disorder (from ALS, or an experimental vaccine). Dusti never marries again.
Dusti begins painting full-time at age 33. To support herself and Lyle, she works for shrimp companies collecting rent from the factory workers’ camps. She starts to paint and draw local scenes.
1939 First New York show, Contemporary Arts Gallery, 57th Street.
1946 The Betty Parsons Gallery in New York opens. The gallery represents many AbEx painters, including Dusti.
1952 Dusti makes her first of many trips to Mexico. This first trip is to visit Lyle who is studying in Mexico City.
1956 First solo show in Betty Parsons Gallery.
Dusti continues painting and exploring new techniques.
1975 Last solo exhibition in Betty Parsons Gallery.
Experiments with fiberglass windows installations.
1991 Dusti paints her last watercolor.
1993 Dusti passes away at her home in Biloxi.
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY
Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MS
Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS
Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, AL
Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA
Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington , DC
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, LA
Radford University Art Museum, Radford, VA
St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Saint Mary City, MD
The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, LA
University of Southern Mississippi Art Museum, Hattiesburg, MS
Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, MS
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