Reverend Johnnie S. Swearingen is one of Texas's best-known Folk Artists. His paintings depict common scenes of rural life in East Texas, but are, in fact, anything but common, utilizing a great variety of unusual colors of oil paint, generally thickly applied in a schematic manner in which each element of a given composition is a solid block of color, often outlined by a thick border of dark paint. This schematic aspect of Swearingen's work gives the impression of many separate planes, yet, at the same time, the compositional unity of each work imparts an overriding narrative. The final result is a highly unified, self-consistent and original body of work.
Swearingen was born in 1908 in rural Washington County, East Texas. His parents, Eula and Lemuel Swearingen, were sharecroppers. The younger Swearingen became known for his sermonizing early in life, but was not actually ordained a minister until 1962, when he completed correspondence Bible school. In 1926, after a failed marriage and the loss of an infant child, Swearingen moved to California and became a longshoreman. In 1948, upon receiving word that his father was ill, he returned to Texas, where he remained until his death in 1993 at the age of 84. He married for a second time, to Murray Lee Williams, resumed farming and eventually began to paint. Swearingen first sold his paintings from his truck and from a roadside stand in front of his house. His work was first formally exhibited in 1980 in Eyes of Texas: An Exhibition of Living Texas Folk Artists, University of Houston. His business card proclaimed: "One of the best and oldest true primitive FOLK ARTISTS around today. All my paintings are subjects or scenes from everyday life and are treated realistically." In Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth-Century, Lynne Adele wrote, "Swearingen left a body of work that established him as one of Texas' most recognized, and certainly one of its finest, self-taught artists."