When Gary Sweeney used to get off of work from his 4 a.m. to 12 p.m. shift at the San Antonio International Airport as a baggage handler, he would strap on a S.C.U.B.A tank, sink to the bottom of his backyard pool, and just lay there for hours staring upward into nothing but water and a blurry resemblance of outward reality.
“It feels like you just took four martini tranquilizers,” he said.
Even if you haven’t met Sweeney, you are probably familiar with his work. He’s one of the city’s most well-known public artists with installations splayed all over town (including The Monterey and the San Antonio Museum of Art). Sweeney has somehow found the time to travel all around the world, create and install amazing art, and hold down the same job for 35 years. But something drastic has changed in his life, Sweeney is now retired from his day job, the baggage handler job.
Sweeney grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, home of great surf and the dawn of skateboarding. He received his first skateboard in 1960 when he was just eight-years old, a blue board with metal wheels that his father crafted. It’s been years since Sweeney picked up a skateboard, but a recent trip to Montana to see his friend Jeff Ament, who happens to be the bass player for Pearl Jam. Ament, a vintage skateboard collector who has an indoor and outdoor skatepark, gave the “skating bug” back to Sweeney when he stepped onto a board during his visit.
“When I got home, sitting on our doorstep was a big cardboard box with a really nice skateboard in it, much to my wife’s delight,” Sweeney said.
He said he felt obligated to learn how to skate again in Ament’s honor.
“I actually told him it would take me a month to get in shape again and that’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said,” Sweeney said. “I mean we’re talking about a year before I get any good at all.”
So Sweeney picked up his board and hit the Lady Bird Johnson skate park.
“I’m going to help you write this here. You’re going to say, ‘Well what’s the hardest part of skating at your age?’ and I’m going to say, ‘The concrete.’ The second hardest part is that your body doesn’t respond the way it used to. You would get to the top of the wall and you would quickly turn around and go back down again. In this day and age you get to the top and your body’s going, ‘Not so fast sonny, we’re going to take our time with this one.’ It’s really frustrating that your body doesn’t react the way it used to.’”
“A lot of people ask me ‘Don’t most people your age play golf?’” he said. “I’m having a blast, it’s really a lot of fun and, unlike golf, it’s free.”
The reception to Sweeney’s arrival at the local skatepark has been a mixed bag, some people completely ignore him and others are welcoming to Sweeney and his old-school style.
“This one kid looked at me and he just had the most blank look on his face and he said ‘My grandfather’s 63 and we don’t even let him use the remote.’”
“When I fall down I get a ‘Mister are you okay?’ as I’m writhing in pain,” he said.
As I – a 28-year-old able-bodied man – stumbles out of bed at 8 a.m. complaining of aches and pains, Sweeney, 63, is carving the steep edges of a concrete bowl with a grin on his face. Gary, you’re an inspiration. Hang 10, old man.
Featured/Top Image: Gary Sweeney holds his skateboard for a portrait after a skate session. Photo by Scott Ball.