This story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio.
San Antonio artist Gary Sweeney has spent some time away from the city to say goodbye to his childhood home. Oddly, even that turned into a very impressive work of art. Gary Sweeney was raised in a place and in a time that in a real sense, has long passed.
“I’m from Southern California, a place called Manhattan Beach…two blocks from the beach.”
60-something Sweeney was raised there in the surf-crazy 1960s, so he pretty much lived the Beach Boys lifestyle that people heard on the radio. Sweeney laughed to remember it.
“Yes I did, as a matter of fact! The Beach Boys were from the town just east of us–Hawthorne, California–we kinda thought they were less-than-authentic because we thought they were flatlanders,”
Early life for revolved around that beach and his humble home.
“My mother bought it in 1945 when my father was coming home from Guam from the Navy during WWII, and he became a policeman in Los Angeles and he was making $75 a month.”
The young family eked by, and they grew–Gary and his sister were born and their parents built on to the house accommodate.
“They turned a 1-story house into a 2-story house and created an apartment underneath for my grandmother and a garage for the car. That was the second stage. The third stage was my father popped out the back and built a darkroom for himself.”
Gary’s dad Mike would also serve on the Manhattan Beach city council and spend a lot of his spare time taking and developing pictures.
“My father was a very serious amateur photographer and photographed every aspect of our lives. Every event, every first day of school. Every little league game. Every Christmas. And so he had a cache of hundreds and hundreds of photographs inside of his dark room.”
In time, Gary and his sister moved far away and built their own lives and careers. After the rest of the family passed on, the house became rental property. Recently, Gary decided to sell. But he was torn.
“It occurred to me that I was selling our family legacy that was in our family for 70 years, and this is the house that my sister and I were brought home from the hospital to” he said. “My father actually died inside the house. My grandmother died inside her apartment downstairs. Every childhood memory is surrounded by this house.”
Sweeney had an artistic brainstorm involving the hundreds of family pictures he found in his father’s darkroom.
“I decided to enlarge these photographs and have them printed onto what is called an MDO board, and so I’ve covered the outside of the house with family photographs that sort of tell the Sweeney family story.”
Black-and-white and color family pictures from four to six feet in length paper the entire exterior of the house. From the ground to the eaves, everything but the windows and doors are covered. It’s a touching, artistic sight, and clearly a labor of love.
“This idea was just clear as a bell when I started thinking of it. I needed to give it a proper farewell, and I needed a tribute to my father’s photography. I wanted to pay homage to the house. And I wanted to tell a story about growing up in Manhattan Beach.”
I asked if any one picture tugged at his heartstrings.
“Well the one that seems to represent it best for me is I’m sitting on our wooden porch and I had a Davy Crockett outfit on with a coonskin hat. I’m guessing I was three years old. My mother said I wore that outfit night and day, and it could be the hottest day of the year and I would have that coonskin hat on my hat.”
Sweeney has been at the house much of January and February. And re-connecting with old friends. Many friends, and even strangers have stopped by to look, and to talk.
“I had a woman burst into tears and start sobbing. Somehow this struck a nerve with her. It is a very emotional experience. People are really affected by it.”
On Sunday the hundred and four pictures came down and March 1, the house – well, it will, too.
“The house just goes away, yes. I actually had someone ask me if I was going to be there when it was demolished” Sweeney laughed. “I said no of course not. I cry at card tricks; I’m not going to watch my childhood home being demolished!”
But what of all the pictures? They will be trucked back to San Antonio. And the artist’s ingenious way of paying homage to those who gave him life, and artistic direction will be gone.