(Dec. 27. 1880-May 24, 1951). Known as the “mystery artist of Indianapolis,” John Zwara was born in Slovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having attended art schools in Prague and Berlin, he left Austria for the United States in 1900. Upon arrival, Zwara spoke little English and had trouble communicating with others. Before coming to Indianapolis in the 1930s, he lived as a vagabond and wandered across the country, with documents placing him in locations such as New York, Utah, Nebraska, and California throughout the early 1900s.

Zwara had no family and few friends in Indianapolis. Sleeping on the streets and subsisting on a diet of bread and coffee, he earned a living by selling his paintings to Lyman and Brothers and the H. Lieber Company in Indianapolis.

Alexander Vonnegut, who eventually befriended Zwara, recognized his remarkable talent with watercolors. However, Vonnegut also sensed his friend’s mental health struggles and had him admitted in 1936 to Central State Hospital. At the hospital, physicians diagnosed Zwara as schizophrenic but allowed him to paint. Zwara stayed only six months at the institution and then left. He died in 1951 at the Little Sisters Of The Poor.

Zwara was a prolific painter, reportedly producing ten paintings a week. He worked mainly in watercolors, painting landscapes, but occasionally produced an oil portrait or landscape. The Indiana Medical History Museum has one of the largest collections of his paintings.

Revised July 2021
Visual Arts

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