Dusti Bongé had childhood dreams of becoming an actress and an artist, aspirations she successfully realized on the stage and on canvas. Later in life, vivid dreams would lead her to create dynamic non-representational paintings and become the first artist in Mississippi to fully embrace modernism.
Bongé was born Eunice Lyle Swetman, the youngest of three children in a well-to-do Biloxi, Mississippi, family. Her early inclination toward visual art was matched by an enthusiasm for drama, and she regularly involved neighborhood children in performances of her own plays. With her sights set on acting, she graduated from Blue Mountain College in northeastern Mississippi and then studied at the Lyceum Arts Conservatory in Chicago. While there, she won small roles, and friends gave her the nickname “Dusti” because she was always washing her face after traveling home from theaters through the city’s dirty streets. She moved to New York in 1924 to further her career and appeared in musical comedies, vaudeville acts, and dramas. In 1928, she married Arch Bongé, and together with their son, the couple settled in Biloxi a few years later. Arch recognized Dusti’s talent and encouraged her to resume painting. Her early output included still lifes and local genre scenes rendered in both realist and Cubist modes. Following her husband’s tragic death in 1936, Dusti took solace in her work, painting in the studio Arch had built in their backyard.
Grief fueled Bongé’s production. By the end of the 1930s, she had mastered a Surrealist style and exhibited in New York. “As time passed,” she recalled, “I became more comfortable with my work and my pictures became more and more abstract.” An early association with Betty Parsons proved significant to Bongé’s aesthetic and advancement. Established in 1946, Parsons’ eponymous 57th Street gallery championed a group of progressive artists—known as the New York School—who spearheaded Abstract Expressionism. Using an abstract vocabulary, they produced large-scale images that radiated with pure emotion, spontaneity, and improvisation. Bongé’s friendships with other artists in Parsons’ stable—including Willem de Kooning, Kenzo Okada, Mark Rothko, and Theodoros Stamos—offered exposure to avant-garde philosophies and techniques that were slow to reach coastal Mississippi.
Bongé began experimenting with Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. In contrast to the rich, saturated hues of her initial investigations, Bongé’s palette darkened somewhat over the next decade, a change that attracted the notice of a New York Herald Tribune critic in 1960: “Dusti Bongé, artist of the deep south, appears at the Betty Parsons Gallery with forceful and determinedly non-objective paintings. Having her third show here, Miss Bongé is perhaps more dramatic at this moment than she has ever been. Her canvases are extremely vigorous, dark-keyed and spacious.”