Artist, icon and character is how those who knew and admired him remembered Delbert “Sleepy” Read who passed away Thursday at the age of 96.
To Stylle and Martin Read he was both a father and an inspiration. Both went on to become artists in their own right, though Martin Read first detoured through the corporate world. Both sons credit their penchant for art to osmosis and proximity.
“No matter where dad was he always created a place to paint,” Martin Read said. “He was kind of a carefree person, not in an irresponsible way but he enjoyed life and never met a stranger. He wasn’t exactly an outgoing person but he was easy to communicate with if that makes sense. Once he started talking it was like you’d always known him. He wasn’t standoffish or anything.”
His father, Stylle Read said, never lacked ambition.
“Dad was a worker,” Stylle Read said. “He got up every morning to go and had the ambition and drive to work on his painting nearly every day. He took off Sabbath but Monday through Friday he was at it.”
Martin Read concurred.
“He was always busy and cherished his independence.
Though he largely ignored TV, Stylle Read said his father enjoyed the Turner Classic Movie channel.
“He remembered seeing a lot of those old movies the first time around because he used to run the projector at a movie theater in Lufkin in the ‘50s,” Stylle Read said. “He also liked to look at them nostalgically because of the old cars in them.”
Sleepy, both said, had a love of old cars.
“He had a driveway full of old cars,” Martin Read said. “Most didn’t run but they were there.”
Stylle Read joked that, unfortunately, he and his brother both inherited their father’s “car disease.”
From travelling up and down the east coast during summers attending art sales to serving as artist in residence at Southwestern Adventist University and teaching art in Johnson County schools, Sleepy Read was a man of many talents and passions, his sons said.
“Dad painted more bluebonnet scenes than anything because that’s what sold and what people wanted,” Martin Read said. “But I remember one lady being impressed by the things he did, everything from spin art to collage stuff. He was just all over the map artistically.”
Stylle Read agreed.
“Plus dad did sculpture because of having worked in a sheet metal plant,” Stylle Read said. “He made furniture, ‘50s style stuff and other things, just a lot of funky stuff made from scrap iron and other stuff. He just had an eye for creating.”
Inspiration came from anywhere and everywhere, Martin Read said.
“When he was running the projector he’d see things in those old films on the set and say, ‘I can do that,’ and he would,” Martin Read said. “And even when he ran the projectors back then he’d be up there in the projector booth painting. I remember back when I was about 14 he’d have me running the projector while he’d be painting.”
Others in the community considered Sleepy Read a friend, mentor or both.
“I was so sad to hear that,” said Brian Peterson, owner of Heroes Cafe in Wright Plaza. “Always loved visiting with Sleepy. He’d come down and eat here almost every day. Usually got a bowl of soup and loved his crackers with it.”
Sleepy Read’s Art Gallery, also in Wright Plaza, sits several doors down from Heroes Cafe.
“He was an anchor at Wright Plaza and everyone loved him,” Peterson said. “I’m laughing cause I remember one time he asked me if we had fried green tomatoes. We didn’t but I went to Cotton Patch and got him some. Must have been 12 in there but he ate the whole order and I’ve never seen him smile like that.
“But boy he could paint and he loved art and life. Any time I’d walk by his door he’d be, ‘Come on in here,’ and we’d visit about life, painting and whatever. He’s going to be missed.”
Born in Lufkin, Read worked as a sheet metal worker after high school and around that same time began painting in oils and creating metal sculptures on the side.
On a whim Read later traveled to San Antonio where he set up outside a Hilton Hotel and began painting. Positive public reaction sent his life in a new direction.
“People liked my work,” Read told Larue Barnes in a 2007 Times-Review article. “I found I could make a lot more money painting pictures that I could at my old job.”
Read went on to see his work shown nationwide and many of his paintings and sculptures found homes in public buildings, private homes and galleries across America and Europe including several locations in his town of Keene and throughout Johnson County.
“We have a Sleepy Read painting in nearly every building on Southwestern Adventist University’s campus including two large commissioned pieces in our Hopps Museum and in the cafeteria,” said Dale Hainey, director of SWAU’s physical plant. “He and his son Martin also did the Three Angels sculpture on the side of our Findley administration Building. He has paintings in most of the schools in the area, so you can see his influence all over our community. I counted his as a good friend for many years. He will be very missed.”
SWAU Department of Music Chairman Devon Howard said Read’s love of art inspired many.
“Sleepy Read was very supportive of the arts in general, and the campus of SWAU specifically,” Howard said. “Several of his paintings remain on display in the fine arts center to this day.”
Past American Legion Auxiliary President Marty Peters attended SWAU and worked at the Keene Bank after.
“Sleepy was an icon, someone you always saw around,” Peters said. “I remember he would set up in the bank sometimes and paint bluebonnet scenes. I always enjoyed watching him work. Years later I bought one of his paintings, a cotton ball with a horse in the background.”
Keene Mayor Gary Heinrich praised Read’s community spirit.
“I remember for the Fourth of July he always donated one of his pictures to be auctioned,” Heinrich said. “He was just a great guy, great artist, fun guy to be around.”
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain agreed.
“Sleepy was undoubtedly our county’s most famous artist and quite a character,” Cain said. “We’re going to miss him but, through his art, he leaves a legacy of inspiration and enjoyment for decades of future generations.”
Cleburne sculptor Jeff Gottfried created a bust of Read in 2007, which he unveiled at an art show and reception in Read’s honor held that same year in Cleburne.
“Sleepy was just a super nice guy and a local celebrity,” Gottfried said. “When I was growing up in Keene he inspired me. I remember one year it snowed during Easter and we had our booths set up next to each other displaying our work and I just remember us running around because Sleepy’s paintings were blowing all over.”
Former Cleburne ISD Marti Elementary School Principal Sharon Urban said Read encouraged her to brush up on her talents and revive her passion for art.
“Sleepy saw everything in color,” Urban said. “He saw the potential in everything and everybody. I remember when he was in his 70s, he said to me, ‘Every morning I get up there is something I look forward to doing.’
“That really impressed me. He was always walking around with a paint brush or a hammer or something in his hand to be used in a task. Sleepy was unique. People like him don’t come around too often. He sold lots of paintings, but gave away a lot as well. He was a true artist from the heels of his boots to the top of his head.”
Urban, while she was principal of CISD’s J.N. Long Kindergarten Campus, asked Sleepy to paint a mural in the school’s main hallway.
“He allowed every student to help with each contributing a brush stroke to what he was creating,” Urban said. “He was so patient to let 5-year-olds help with that mural. He was a very kind person, as well as very talented.”
Read painted murals in CISD’s former Irving Elementary School, that building having been sold and re-opened as Kauffman Leadership Academy.
“In between the time CISD was here and we came in the building was empty and someone vandalized the murals,” said Theresa Kauffman, superintendant of KLA. “Sleepy came back and touched them up adding a second castle to one of the murals and painting a new mural in our kitchen area.
“I remember him on the scaffolding working that summer in the heat because we didn’t have air conditioning at that point and I remember he liked to pretend he couldn’t hear you even though he heard everything you said. He was a character for sure but a great guy. He came back several times and interacted with our students during lunch talking about art and everything and they all loved him of course.
“His son Martin is our art teacher here and it’s obvious that he has his dad’s talent. But yes, Sleepy meant a lot to us and we’re going to miss him.”
Read’s visitation is 4-6 p.m. Sunday at Crosier-Pearson Cleburne Funeral Home, 512 N. Ridgeway Drive. His memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at Keene Seventh-day Adventist Church, 114 S. Fairview St.