Painting a New Life

“Pool Chair”

Beacon artist finds solace in the familiar

Anna West paints daily, except for the 10 or so days each year when she’s in transit to somewhere with water. She paints the same subject matter, over and over. Her series range from impressions of noir movies to trains, chairs, flowers and Crete. She doesn’t consider them an act of repetition. 

Anna West(Photo by Dean Horning)

Anna West (Photo by Dean Horning)

“You can never answer the question I’m trying to answer,” says the Beacon-based artist. “I don’t even know what the question is. It’s fun to keep painting the same thing, but not exactly the same thing, because it’s always new and you can always find new in the old. You could paint the same chair 10 times, and even if you try to do something the same, you can’t. It’s over, it’s a new life.”

For her upcoming solo show at the Garrison Art Center, Blue Edge, which opens with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 18, West painted swimming pools, a subject she was drawn to by intently looking at ocean waves, and then at people in the waves. 

“I found them mesmerizing,” she recalls. “Then I began looking at pools, because many were open during the pandemic. It’s the color of the water as much as anything. I shifted to painting swimmers. Swimming pools are ideal for presenting people in motion with a limited but bright palette of multiple shades of blues.

“For a while I was into food coloring on icicles, but I’m too old to keep marching in 2 feet of snow. So, this fall I’ll be painting surfers, for sure.”

West was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, which she describes as being “between Amish country and the coal regions.” Her father worked for the railway, and as a teenager she took trains to Atlantic City and Philadelphia, courtesy of his pass, and “mingled with nearby Pennsylvania Dutch. I lost that Amish innocence. 

“Being on the trains, I pretended to take pictures. Even now, I try to keep a little childhood cheerfulness in there.”

As a young adult, she became a nurse. “In those days, you’d have to work odd shifts. I liked nursing, but I wanted some weekends to myself. I got into photography at that time, but knew I couldn’t instantly go back to school.”

In 1980, West left Reading in a big way, moving to San Francisco. She stayed for nearly five years, cobbling together a living as a waitress and playing in and photographing punk bands. 

In 1984, she moved again, to New York City, where she worked in photo labs while photographing the East Village and the Williamsburg art and music scenes. Her shots sometimes appeared in Brooklyn newspapers and at the galleries that had begun to sprout up. It was around that time West took up painting; she began working with oils on canvas in 1999.

“When digital came along, I could see that everyone was going to have a camera,” she says. “I was already painting on photographs, adding dots and lines to achieve a three-dimensional effect, so it wasn’t a huge transition. I tried canvas and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is fun!’ 

“Painter friends [in Williamsburg] gave me free lessons and paint, as well as a solid education,” she recalls. “Nobody blinked; they said, ‘Do you need help?’ That’s what happens in a real art community — which sometimes Beacon is and sometimes it isn’t.” 

West speaks from experience, as she made the move to Beacon in 2004. “When I first came, the city was rough around the edges and the art was a bit riskier. Galleries come and go but now most feature ‘known’ people.”

West tends to have her work shown by Newburgh galleries, and she sells online, largely through Instagram. “It’s no pressure; you just post. It’s like a store.”

In Beacon, West says she found the time and space to maintain a daily painting practice, which she sticks to even when she travels, sometimes painting on old book covers or scraps of canvas. It is that daily practice that prompted her to submit her work to the Garrison Art Center.

“I had a dream of a room full of just the blue paintings,” she says. “The walls were white, but the paintings were hung close together, creating a blue line at eye level. All the paintings together would create a pool-like line around the room while, if you came close, each painting would be its own swimming pool.”

She says her outlook has changed since March 2021, when her car was hit by a dump truck in New Jersey and rolled three times. “Since the accident, I have destroyed at least 50 old paintings and stop and start over fairly often,” she says. “It is no longer ‘close enough’ but exactly or very, very close to what I am trying to do. Sometimes it is hard to declare something finished because there is a tiny bit of white that is not right. It’s about being exact but staying loose.

“I’m thankful every day that I’m alive. When I saw the truck coming, I thought, ‘It’s OK if I die; I’ve had a good life.’ Then I heard people nearby saying, ‘She’s alive!’ I heard people cheering. I’m very thankful and I’ll never lose that.

“For a while after the accident, I couldn’t paint ‘big’ and flowers were the only thing in the yard I could see. Now I’m over it. The paintings are happier now. I like to think they are because I am.”

The Garrison Art Center, at 23 Garrison’s Landing, is open daily except Monday. Blue Edge continues through March 19. On Feb. 25, West will teach a workshop at the art center on painting on old book covers. See garrisonartcenter.org.

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