By Kristen Early
C-N news office
JEFFERSON CITY — Called to the pulpit more than 60 years ago, pastor William L. “Dub” Swafford, 91, has served in nearly a dozen Baptist churches throughout Middle and East Tennessee. During much of that time, he used art to process the often demanding role of pastoring.
“I’ve always drawn, from the time I was just small,” he said. “It interested me. I started painting as kind of a relaxation. I wasn’t an artist. I was always a pastor. When I was painting, I could study through problems, study through sermons.”
His creative meditation technique extended from painting to pen and ink, calligraphy, and woodcarving as well. The fruit of his art included nearly 10,000 sermons and devotions that inspired generations of believers over his 62 years of shepherding.
“When I would go to a church, I’d say, ‘I hope that I can earn from you the title of pastor,’ ” he recalled. “I always thought of myself as a pastor, as the church shepherd.”
Carson-Newman University’s Appalachian Cultural Center is hosting a collection of Swafford’s works, titled “A Life in Art,” that offers glimpses into his experiences, faith and work shepherding thousands across Tennessee.
On Aug. 10, a small gathering of pastors from the Jefferson County Baptist Association, led by pastor John Pinkston, joined Swafford for a private showing.
“Dub is an insightful, very compassionate person, totally dedicated to preaching and pastoring,” said Leon Shoemaker, a longtime friend of Swafford’s who retired from Carson-Newman in 2004 as the director of Counseling Services. “Dub is a pleasing, gentle person. Very open and friendly and easy to talk with and joke with.”
Shoemaker described Swafford’s art as high quality — what you would expect from someone formally trained, who had dedicated his full-time attention to the work.
“It’s very expressive,” Shoemaker said. “I just marvel at the technique that he’s used and the very precise kind of representation that he has of the people he’s displaying.”
His work encapsulates his life, displaying scenes of aged farmhouses and barns, fields under the plow, church buildings with tall steeples, children and animals at play, and a biblical depiction of Daniel sleeping peacefully in the lions’ den.
Born in Lawrence County in 1928, Swafford served from 1948-1950 in the United States Navy, just shortly after the Cold War began.
After returning home, Swafford attended Belmont University, then a college, where in 1955 he was in the first class to graduate under the new institution, which was formerly Ward-Belmont College. He received a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Bible and even had enough credits from Latin and Greek courses to have earned a second degree in classics had it been offered.
Full-time coursework did not keep Swafford from answering his immediate call to the pulpit, however. He was ordained and surrendered to the ministry in 1951.
In his freshman year at Belmont, he worked in the dining hall and pastored three half-time Baptist churches.
After that first year, he served as the full-time pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Culleoka until he graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
In 1958, he became pastor of Summertown Baptist Church, Summertown. He later held pastorates at First Baptist Church, Hohenwald, First Baptist Church, Lawrenceburg and Tusculum Hills Baptist Church, Nashville.
One of his longest tenures began in 1969 at First Baptist Church, Elizabethton, where he served for more than 18 years. It was during this time that he began painting.
His late wife, Yvonne, served at his side at each of these churches, bringing music to the sanctuary as her own creative offering to their church families.
“She was a very accomplished musician,” Swafford recalled of his wife, who passed away in 2014. “She had a beautiful voice and what they call perfect pitch. She was very active in the music program at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City.”
Inside the C-N Appalachian Cultural Center, which sits just across the street from FBC in Jefferson City, Swafford’s collection of works lacks one major element from his life story.
“I never tried to paint Yvonne,” he said. “I thought she was so beautiful I could never do her justice, so I never painted her.”
The Swaffords were blessed with two children, Jeff and Patrice, four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and several foster great-grandchildren.
The “Up Close with Pastor William L. ‘Dub’ Swafford: A Life in Art” exhibit and video tour will be open through Sept. 25. Hours are from noon-1 and 2-3 p.m. Mondays; noon-1, 2-3 and 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays; and noon-1 and 3-4:30 p.m. Fridays. B&R