If you're looking for broad, long-winded conversations about symbolism or complex theory behind works of art, don't ask Mary Kay West.
West, a skilled classical realist painter, prefers to keep it simple when discussing her art.
"Honestly, I don't intellectually analyze my work," she said. "That's not the way I do it. I just love, appreciate, and am moved emotionally by the simple beauty of nature. That's why I paint. So that I can just be in the present."
From Sept. 15 to Nov. 12, West and fellow artists Dick Foslien, Sheryl Knight, Grace Schlesier, and Vic Riesaualong will participate in Artist's Choice, a new exhibit at the Judith Hale Gallery in Solvang. The show highlights work of the artists' own choosing, meaning there is no connected theme, but rather an opportunity to see what the artists are most proud of or personally favor. The images West selected provide a window into the soul of a longtime artist with an undying penchant for illuminating the beauty of nature around her.
West was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the daughter of famed watercolorist Elizabeth Phillips. She grew up painting alongside her mother, eventually becoming a successful painter in her own right. Looking to be closer to her granddaughter, West moved to Los Alamos several years ago. She now teaches painting classes in her home studio and shows her work at galleries along the California coastline. She has worked as a set and costume designer as well as a mural painter.
West is also an artist member of the California Art Club, and for the past three years she has been juried into the Gold Medal Show in Pasadena.
"That's probably one of the things I'm proudest of," she said. "I am so honored just to be part of something like that."
West is a proud classical realist, a painter versed in traditional methods of the masters of European and American art. The term classical realism finds its roots in the work of Richard Lack, a Minnesota artist who worked under R. H. Ives Gammell during the 1950s. Lack's study with Gammell traced its way back to Jean-Léon Gérôme, a French painter and sculptor known for his famous atelier, which refers to studying under a master. Lack was heavily influenced by Gérôme's school as well as Boston impressionists, eventually starting his own school and coining the term. The phrase expresses the merging of the drawing style of 19th century European painters and the signatory color styles of Boston impressionists.
Carrying on the classical realism tradition, West spent four years studying under painter Benjamin Long at the Fine Arts League of Asheville. Long is a famous painter hailed as an expert in classical realist painting and highly skilled in the traditional methods of the old masters. Long passed on his knowledge to a small handful of students at his atelier, including West, in the hopes of keep the style alive for generations to come.
West learned to use and make her own art materials in the same way the old masters did hundreds of years ago. She still uses those traditional methods while incorporating some modern paints for convenience.
Now, West proudly carries on the style in Long's honor.
"When I graduated from his tutelage, he made me promise to continue on and not let this tradition die," she said. "I'm continuing to do that, so when I paint, all of my paintings are on birch or mahogany panels, and I use the traditional pigments."
In the South, the traditional style Long heralded is extremely popular, and West found a natural home for her work. West's paintings are something more than the average landscape or still life. She hovers on the edge of hyper realism, with feet planted firmly in the traditions of painters who came hundreds of years before her.
"It is kind of a different style," she said. "I hope people connect with it and really get the feeling of what it represents."
Except for birds, which she uses photographs to recreate, West paints all of her images from real life. It's in nature where she finds her deepest inspiration, but more than that, West aims to honor the natural world with her work.
The exhibit at the Judith Hale Gallery will feature one painting that West is particularly proud of. The image depicts a branch of nectarines that fell from a neighbor's tree. She said the painting captures a simple moment of beauty during spring occuring right in her yard.
Those personal moments are what make people feel bonded to nature, West explained.
"That's when we feel like we are truly connected," she said. "When we realize there is a bigger meaning in life."
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose wants to fly fly away. Contact her at [email protected].