Dr. Sweet: Dentist Sculpture

Who dated George McGovern’s daughter, met Louis Armstrong, had a father who owned a radio station, is a detailed sculptor, and knows that if it weren’t for lips, the tongue would push the teeth out of the mouth? He lived in Iowa, South Dakota, and Illinois; he had homes on farms, in small towns and big cities. He dabbled in politics and aspired to be an artist. Who is creating a bust of President Abraham Lincoln, capturing his character and his Illinoisan visage, in a labor of love?

Who has so many intelligent thoughts begging to be set free that they sometimes tumble over his tongue, and lodge momentarily between his teeth? It’s Marengo, Illinois’s long-time dentist, Dr. Jim Sweet.

I got a chance to meet this interesting fellow, and my-oh-my, am I glad I did.  He’s not only interesting, but he’s one heck of a nice guy.

DrSweetSweet became a Michigan Avenue dentist immediately after graduation from Northwestern University. He visited Marengo as a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. He soon came to love the small town and countryside. In 1968 he moved his practice and his young family and began calling Marengo home. He and his wife raised a daughter and two sons in Marengo.

Many people fail to understand the connection between dentistry and sculpting. That’s because they have dentists that can shape a filling or crown to fit perfectly with its neighbors. “It’s more than just filling a hole,” says Sweet. It takes skill and precision. Anyone who’s had an ill-fitting crown or filling knows exactly what he means.

Sweet takes the same care in creating his sculptures. Oscar Howe, premier Native American artist, became Sweet’s mentor. Howe was brutal in his criticism and never praised. He told Sweet, that he sculpts faces and figures better than any student he had, but “it’s all you can do.” Once Sweet asked for ways to improve a more subjective piece. Howe replied, “I don’t think anything you can do will hurt it.”

A picture of Dr. Sweet’s Lincoln sculpture

Sweet has been working on the bust of President Lincoln for over three years. The hair gives him fits, and the base must be wider, but the most important part for Sweet is to capture the Lincoln that is familiar to the people of Illinois. The Lincoln before the beard. “Anyone can put a beard on a banana and make it look like Lincoln,” Sweet chuckles.

Many people are unaware that when Lincoln was a child, a horse kicked him in the left forehead, causing nerve damage that affected the appearance of his left eye. Depending on the angle the photographer took; Lincoln’s appearance is quite different. Lincoln’s hairstyles ranged from pompadour to down right scruffy looking. Capturing the essence of President Lincoln is a huge challenge. Sometimes, Lincoln looks decidedly like the comedian, Bill Murray; sometimes he looks more like Edward Scissorhands. (A Google search for “pictures of President Lincoln” demonstrates Sweet’s challenge.)

Sweet is quick to point out that his passion is to create an image of Lincoln representing the man. For that reason, his creation not only captures what Lincoln looks like, but it captures the passion and the pain of his life. In other words, Sweet hopes to capture “…Lincoln as he was when he came to grips with the colossal challenges that he alone faced in mid-1860.”

Because I got a chance to talk to Dr. Sweet, I learned a lot about Lincoln, sculpting, dentistry, and the long-term value of growing up where everyone knows your name.  Plus, I met a new friend.  Who could ask for more?