Gay artist Scott Swoveland, who painted more than 500 infamous scenes on the front window of Mary’s bar from 1990 to 1999, recently passed away from health problems. A staple in Houston’s gay community, many are remembering Swoveland’s art and his impact on the city.
Swoveland, who moved to Houston in 1985, used art as a means of escape growing up. As a Navy brat, the artist moved a lot during his youth, and he would spend time drawing Snow White, Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, and other characters he found in his collection of Disney book-and-record sets.
“I attended seven different schools on the East Coast and then in Louisiana, before graduating from high school,” he told Outsmart in 2011. His art, he said, “was a great way for a shy kid to meet people at a new school. I would sit under a tree and start to draw, and soon more and more people would come up to see what I was doing.”
Scott Swoveland’s artwork gained popularity when he started working at Mary’s bar, then located at the intersection of Westheimer and Waugh Drive. He was first hired as a part-time barback, but as his artistic talents became known, Mary’s owners asked him to work full time. He painted the weekly windows, designed the ads for This Week in Texas and the Houston Voice, took on numerous creative projects, and barbacked when he could.
Swoveland’s window designs advertised events such as military parties, crawfish boils, and other social events held at Mary’s. He also coordinated window themes with the bar’s weekly advertisements.
While there were many other art projects, Swoveland’s most notable piece was the mural he painted on the east exterior wall of Mary’s bar as part of the 1997 Pride Month celebration. The scene featured two leather men, some regulars playing pool, others gathered near the bar, and Mr. Balls, Mary’s mascot cat. Swoveland says his intention was to create a real-life reflection of what might be going on inside Mary’s on any given day.
Local gay historian JD Doyle had an online friendship with Swoveland for years, with the artist even designing the cover of Doyle’s book, 1981: My Gay American Road Trip. Doyle says the artist was always kind and cared about Houston, even after he moved away.
“While we never met in person, I have very fond memories of Scott,” he says. “In our communications he was always very giving. He sent me a bunch of old photos from his time in Houston because he knew how much I cared about preserving Houston’s gay history.”
Swoveland’s art connected with people because it was an authentic representation of Houston’s gay scene.
“You could tell it was definitely us that Scott was drawing,” Doyle says. “People connected with that. They could see themselves in his works. Plus, his style was unique. His portrait pieces were really good, but it’s not what you would typically expect of a portrait artist. He had a certain style.”
In 2006, Swoveland’s mural was mostly painted over, leaving only Mr. Balls perched on his bar stool. In 2009, Mary’s permanently closed. Fast-forward to 2011, when local artist Cody Ledvina announced that he and local art collective The Joanna would be restoring the mural. A call was put out, and nearly 20 volunteers showed up to help with the task of recreating the mural.
Swoveland told Outsmart in 2011 that he was “touched, humbled, surprised, and honored” by the restoration of his mural and the community’s support.
“I am a big believer and supporter of preserving our gay heritage,” he said. “After all, if we have lived through the best and worst of times and don’t share our stories, then how will our young people who are starting their journey know where they came from, and the sacrifices of those who came before?”
After the 2011 reproduction disappeared, Eagle Houston owner Mark De Lange began an effort to recreate it again in 2014 when he purchased the former 611 Club and converted it into the Eagle. De Lange asked around and connected with Swoveland, who had since moved to Indianapolis.
By 2016, De Lange and Swoveland reached an agreement: the Mary’s mural would be recreated in its original form, and Swoveland would also be commissioned to paint several new pieces, including striking paintings of masculine men. The new works gave Swoveland the opportunity to showcase his maturing artistic style.
Today, you can check out Swoveland’s art in the Phoenix Room, upstairs at Eagle Houston.
“When we were bringing Eagle into the neighborhood, I wanted the bar to have a local feel,” De Lange says. “That’s why it was so important to have Scotty’s art featured at the Eagle. He really was a beacon of light and hope for our community. He was instrumental in unifying the Houston gay community with
For more info, visit facebook.com/gsswoveland.