Though Jerry Bywaters enjoyed a long and multifaceted career as an artist, writer, critic, teacher, arts administrator, and museum director, he is best remembered today for his participation in the Dallas Nine, an enterprising group of young painters active in the 1930s who helped establish a regional artistic identity for Texas art. Like Oil Field Girls, Bywaters’s most popular work, their paintings portray local conditions in expressive detail even as they acknowledge a wide range of sophisticated painterly influences gained from the artists’ studies in New York, Mexico City, and Europe.
In Oil Field Girls, Bywaters used a somber palette to describe the bleak and thinly populated west Texas landscape. With its economically depressed vistas, the town (if it can be called that) is clearly godforsaken. By contrast, the women poised to hitch a ride out of those sad environs are vivid and forceful; although they are most likely working as prostitutes, Bywaters made no apparent judgment of them, instead vesting them with a vitality, even ambition, that offers the picture’s only hope. A canny mixture of reportage and editorial commentary, Oil Field Girls is a history painting that captures a surprisingly humane narrative of a specific time and place.