Darrell K. Sweet, illustrator for science fiction writers


An Old Friend
“Demons at Rainbow Bridge,” acrylic on board, 1989; book by Jack Chalker, Ace Hardcover Edition. (Courtesy photos)

Wyoming artist illustrates sci-fi book jackets

For the next six weeks, science fiction fans can view the artwork of some of their favorite series. The Dahl Arts Center has tapped into the talent of Darrell K. Sweet, illustrator for science fiction writers Piers Anthony, L.D. Modesitt Jr. and Stephen R. Donaldson, to name just a few.

The exhibit, “Sci-Fi & Fantasy: The Cover Art of Darrell K. Sweet,” went on the walls of the Bruce H. Lien Cultural Cafe & Gallery on March 21 and will be displayed until May 3. The 23 acrylic pieces are only a fraction of the artwork Sweet has generated in 30 years as an illustrator.

Curator Mary Maxon of the Dahl heard about the Sweet exhibit from the curator of a museum in Cheyenne, Wyo.

“They did a version of Darrell’s show that she was telling me about. It was a great idea for us. Rapid City would love that,” Maxon said of the show.

Maxon said that while she wasn’t sure of the science fiction or fantasy fan base in the Black Hills — not being a fan of science fiction — she was aware of the names of the authors whose books Sweet has illustrated.

“It brings in another aspect of the appeal of the artist’s work,” she said.

At 73, Sweet has retired to Cody, Wyo., where he continues to create artwork for jacket covers of science fiction authors. He has done 2,000 so far; 75 have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

“Art in a sense is self-explanatory. People who like this stuff are involved with science fiction and read it,” Sweet said of his work.

At the height of his career, Sweet was illustrating 30 book covers a year, working 80 hours a week in his home studio in New Jersey to keep up with the 10 to 12 publishing houses demanding art.

“The work was there, and I wasn’t giving it up,” he said.

In the early 1970s, Sweet was in the right place at the right time. Judy-Lynn Del Rey and her husband, Lester Del Rey, who came from publications owned by Isaac Asimov, had arrived at Random House to revamp the science fiction branch of Ballantine Books. They found Sweet and put him to work.

“It was cool. I was having a ball,” he said.

Because of the amount of work that he had to do, Sweet established a

criteria to keep his artwork flowing. Edits and corrections were worked out in preliminary sketches and the final project became a perfect work of art.

“I insisted on reading the manuscript before I started. … It started for me as a research project, getting the color and the feel of the book. I much preferred getting it right in the first place,” he said.

Long before the Internet, Sweet also began collecting books for a private reference library to use for his fantasy and science fiction illustrations. He said his bookcases of materials and books are as complete as his local library’s. Reference materials detailing German, European and Asian swords were needed for his work. Even the materials he read in the manuscripts helped him create images of fantasy and science fiction.

“In a sense, you’re reading the manuscript and deciphering all the information, coming up with the sketches. The next thing you’re doing is painting while fresh in the morning. As each painting moved out of the shop, the more manuscripts there were that came into the shop,” he said.

Sweet and his wife moved from New Jersey about eight years ago. A fan of fishing, hunting, shooting and rendezvous, Sweet found that he could easily bring his hobbies with him to Cody. He has cut back on his work, but is still driven to do art.

“Artists always have ideas coming out of their heads. You begin a project, the phone rings, the project goes into the corner. You’d be amazed at the stack of projects in my corner,” he said.

Their introduction to Wyoming came through his son, who went to college in Laramie. “We drove him out in the truck every year then wandered off into the boondocks looking for property,” he said.

His son, now a sculptor, and his daughter-in-law, a photographer from Gillette, live nearby. He continues to paint, expanding into Western art as well as photography.

“Everything I like to do, you can do here,” he said.

If you go

What: “Sci-Fi & Fantasy: The Cover Art of Darrell K. Sweet” exhibit and artist’s reception

When: Reception will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, April 4; Sweet will speak and participate in a question-and-answer session beginning at 6 p.m. The exhibit is up now through May 3.

Where: Bruce H. Lien Cultural Cafe & Gallery in Dahl Arts Center’s Education Complex, 713 Kansas City St.

Admission is free.

Sweet also plans to take part in the Dahl’s Art Adventures from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 5. The free family event offers children a hands-on art experience.

Contact Jomay Steen at 394-8418 or jomay.steen@rapidcityjournal.com.

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