SANTA FE, N.M. — Jerry R. West has an iridescent love of life. As his art shows, he is unendingly fascinated with people, their actions, the land around them and the dreams they inspire.
“Most often I call myself a storyteller/poet/artist,” West said in a prepared statement he read over the telephone in an interview. “My thrust as an artist is to attempt to inhabit the world around me. My art act becomes a meditation on objects, plants, animals and people – their histories, their disappearance, as well as the ghosts and the myths around them. I draw on a myriad of cultural and family stories, experiences and dreams. My paintings tend to become psychological, allegorical landscapes.”
West greatly enjoys being an artist, which he came to as a mature adult, and which he seems to regard as a way of connecting with communities of people. He frequently calls his art “an extension,” by which he means an entrée, an introduction, a connection.
Nearly a year ago, at age 79, the lifelong Santa Fean took off for Roswell for an artist’s residency sponsored by the Roswell Museum of Art. Now 80, West is exhibiting paintings that resulted from that residency – and a few more recent ones – in a show opening today at Phil Space on Second Street.
His year in Roswell (about six months, actually) started in December 2012, but he’d been dropping in on the oil-and-alien town a few days a month for some time: preparing the ground, so to speak. “They created a special position for me, that of ‘centennial artist.’ It was just like their regular residency,” West said on the telephone. “It was a wonderful residency that (local businessman) Donald Anderson gave them. I got a studio and a place to live and a stipend. It was a pretty wonderful year. I did nothing but paint, and I got acquainted with the other residents and the people down there.
“The summer before, I was doing construction,” he explained. “I also took three days a month to go down to Roswell. By chance I got acquainted with a Mexican man and his wife, Arturo and Lucy Gonzales, who own a small Mexican restaurant there at the corner of Main and Alameda Streets called Mi Casita. Just by chance, I met them and got to talking with Arturo because of his great interest in art and history. His father was of the breed that followed Pancho Villa. So I made a deal with him. I traded enchiladas for a mural of his heroes in Mexican history. It was a great extension into the community. I finished it in November 2012. In January, we had a wonderful opening at the restaurant. It was a way to have Mi Casita get a little publicity in town.”
(P.S. West, not surprisingly, has good taste in New Mexican/Mexican food: Mi Casita lists five stars on Trip Advisor and four stars on Yelp!, both websites featuring customers’ glowing reviews.)
“I met a few other people, residents of the neighborhood,” West said. “I met a man, Lupe Perez, one of 12 kids who had followed their father and mother from field to field around the West as migrant workers. His father had been a professional Mexican boxer and taught all his sons. When Lupe was in the U.S. Navy, he fought for the Navy. He came back to the Roswell area with his wife and children, got an old warehouse and started gathering equipment, and he now has a very primitive but wonderful gym. I went in there and interviewed a lot of the boxers. I would paint them; maybe did half a dozen portraits. It was another nice extension of what I was doing.
“I started doing portraits of all my fellow artists in residence. They were all a lot younger than I was, so it was a nice way to get acquainted with them. Those little portraits were in my final show. I’m a painter who basically paints from nature and experiences. So I had a wonderful time.”
Roswell’s museum has a history of sponsoring resident artists, who are each required to display a show of their work before leaving. To West’s chagrin, many of those paintings sold, leaving him a bit short for the planned exhibition at Phil Space.
“For that year, 2012, my focus was on Roswell. I love the country south of I-40. I spent time in Lincoln and the Hondo Valley as well,” he said. “Basically, I will have about six paintings from my Roswell residency and about 15 more I have painted since then.”
Phil Space is the exhibit space that photographer and teacher James Hart created within the Second Street location of his photography studio and office. “When I started doing shows in the mid-’90s, I called it The James Hart Photography Exhibition Space and all the listings got it wrong; it was just too long a name,” Hart said. “After my father died in 2000, I re-named it after him: Phil Space. It’s worked fine.”
West is a veteran gallery artist at Phil Space, having most recently earned kudos for his show “Dust and Stars: An Alchemy of Memory” there in 2009. “I love showing at Phil Space,” West added. “Jamie (Hart) is such a supportive guy, and it’s such an off-the-beat gallery. He’s more connected to the local scene than to the Dallas crowd.”
At the time of his 2009 show, West talked about his childhood in Santa Fe and adult history. West was born July 13, 1933, at his maternal grandfather’s farm in Ohio, during the one year in the Great Depression when his folks had retreated back east. He was back in northern New Mexico before he was a year old, though, and has stayed here most of the time since.
“Dad (his father, Harold E. “Hal” West, also was an artist) came here in the 1920s,” West told the Journal. “He was hitchhiking through Ohio with a friend when he met my mother, Mildred. They came back and lived in Santa Fe, except for the one year when they went back to Ohio and I was born. We came back here and rented a place on Canyon Road for a while and then lived way out on Cerrillos Road, about where Zafarano Avenue is now, and then even further out, near where they put the airport later. My dad was a WPA painter, and he’d find these little out-of-the-way houses and fix them up.”
Jerry West went to Wood-Gormley Elementary School, Harrington Junior High and Santa Fe High School. At Santa Fe High, he fell under the spell of Joseph Bakos, one of Los Cinco Pintores from the City Different’s early art colony. Bakos was a mentor to West, who became a kind of after-school apprentice to the old man.
In his childhood, West said, 1941 was “the one great year of our life,” when the family was sent by the Museum of New Mexico to man the tourist café and station maintained by the museum and Fred Harvey at Puye Cliffs in a three-way agreement with Santa Clara Pueblo.
Then war broke out and the family retreated to Canyon Road. Hal was hired as a guard at the Japanese-American Internment Camp located on the Alameda where Casa Solana is now. Jerry’s uncle Gene West was a perimeter-riding horseback guard.
“It was an amazing camp,” he remembered. “They were all men: doctors, lawyers, Presbyterian ministers, Buddhist priests, leaders of the communities, which meant the government decided they were potential troublemakers.”
One of his memory paintings commemorated a moment when a decorated Nisei war veteran returned to the camp to talk to his father through the bars and the gate.
West earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Colorado State University and did graduate work at the University of New Mexico. He had been creating art since doing the chalkboard drawings for the teachers at holidays in grade school, and learning different techniques and media at Bakos’ side. Elmer Schooley, who was building a renowned art program at New Mexico Highlands, had offered him a scholarship. But West resisted art as a profession, he said, mostly out of fear of the poverty the family had known.
He taught biology and history at Santa Fe High School, and finally did enroll in a summer graduate program for art teachers over at NMHU. Schooley was delighted. He personally tutored West in the leveling courses he needed. In three years, West earned a master’s of fine art and he taught at Santa Fe Prep during its early years.
Having learned a lot of design and construction techniques during odd jobs over the years, he started Blue Raven Construction with a friend. For 20 years, they designed and built custom homes in Santa Fe and its neighboring communities. In the ’80s, he was married to the photography artist Meridel Rubenstein and, he said, “followed her around for a while” to Colorado and San Francisco. “I kind of came and went.”
West became Santa Fe’s first artist-in-the-schools. He also taught at the State Penitentiary; the Youth Diagnostic Detention Center; a program for Navajo children at Cuba; the Springer Boys School; and a prison program in San Francisco.
In 1986, he began painting his hyper-realistic but fantastic “dream paintings.” It was a reaction, he said, to all the kitsch that was coming out of Santa Fe. “I wanted to get at the psychological underbelly of Santa Fe,” he said. “Santa Fe is beautiful, yes, but it has more depth than most people see.”
Now he’s done the same for Roswell: prairies, local boxers, Mexican heroes and all. So if you’re going to Roswell, drop in at Mi Casita for some enchiladas or chiles rellenos. Tell Arturo and Lucy Jerry West said hello.