The Painter (and accidental muralist): Kim West
January 26, 2015
I came across Kim one morning when I was wandering the streets of downtown LA in search of my next GC subject.
Half asleep, I stumbled into Pie Hole for coffee and a breakfast pie (yum), and when I walked out… BAM! The sun was beaming onto a magnificent mural with the most stunning colors; a truly inspired piece of work. I immediately looked down for a signature and saw the name Kim West. “Yes!!”, I thought to myself with imaginary fist pump. Another woman doing something rad.
I knew I had to find this woman pronto, and when I did, I was even more inspired than when it was just a magnificent mural…
where are you from?
I grew up between Florida, Georgia, NJ & NY; I went to college in New England, and moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. This recent stretch in LA is the longest I’ve ever stayed put in one place.
what did you want to be when you were a kid?
One of my favorite books when I was little was Fyo Fujikawa’s ‘Oh What A Busy Day.’ The illustrations are sweet and magical, including the four pages depicting careers that one could have — race car driver to librarian, opera singer to veterinarian. I can recall being asked in kindergarten what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my answer was: “On Monday, a doctor. On Tuesday, a lawyer. On Wednesday, a teacher. On Thursday, a writer. On Friday, a ballerina. On Saturday, an artist. On Sunday, a nun.”
what do you do now?
Saturday for the win — I’m a painter.
did your family encourage you to follow your dreams?
Absolutely. I am very lucky to have parents who have always remained completely supportive and proud of my choices and aspirations. Just as importantly, they instilled by example and expectation the importance of a dogged work ethic.
what is your process?
When it’s good, my studio process is rooted in routine. Get to the studio. Read and/or write. Check notes I may have jotted in my phone the previous night and dawn. Sometimes, just look, and wait. Water the plants. Make tea, put on headphones — a metronome — and get to work. I typically approach work serially and specific to a theme. Sometimes I have several series going at once and occasionally there is overlap between them. Right now I am actively working on three separate series: “101 from the 101,” “Yosemite,” and “Buena Vista.” They all revolve around ideas of memory, loss, friendship, nostalgia, a little bit of automatism, the past perfect subjunctive, and the creation of a fractured version of reality.
By design I am accustomed to a solitary studio practice, so working on murals outside where unfinished work, potential missteps and unresolved decisions are exposed is unsettling. As a result, my process for making murals is really different than it is for making a traditional painting. I usually have a distinct sketch for most of the big decisions in the mural work, in which I’ll map out the composition while always trying to leave room for surprises and things to respond to in the moment. Scaling up from painting size to mural size is always a challenge for me as well. I have a cobbled together system that starts with a sketch that I project onto a giant piece of taped-together roofing paper in the studio. This allows me to work out proportion issues at my own pace. Once the to-scale sketches are ready, I bring them to the site, tape them in place on the installation wall, and spend some laborious hours cutting through the sketched lines with a utility knife and roughing out the intended line with a big sharpie through the knifed-slits. That type of preparation is antithetical to the way I approach most paintings. When painting in the studio, I don’t typically make visual sketches on paper for planning purposes. Lots of writing, lots of note taking, lots of painting in my head, but I like when the physicality of the work feels immediate and responsive.
what are the risks that come with non-commissioned installations?
I’ve only attempted a non-commissioned installation once. It was several years ago, and it did not go well! I intended to wheat paste a 90-minute studio drawing (from a series I started and never finished) on the side of a building that I incorrectly thought was a community wall.
For starters, the paste-up failed as a technical matter. I think the roofing paper I’d used for the drawing was too heavy, and the wheat paste recipe I’d Googled was wrong. But worse, mid-attempt in the midnight adventure, I was mistaken for a gang-affiliated tagger by a friend who couldn’t see it was me for my dark hoodie, and who therefore called the cops and neighborhood security team before there was recognition. After my friend realized who I was, he quickly ushered me away from the scene, hid me, and told the cops on bikes upon their ensuing arrival that the offending taggers had ran away. When the anti-graffiti guys showed up in their truck, lights flashing, I watched from hiding as they confiscated my ladder and favorite vintage flea-market basket that I’d used to roll my equipment around. The barely-clinging-to-the-wall soggy drawing was definitively removed, crumpled, and left as trash on the ground. The next morning I forced myself to call the impacted parties to explain and apologize for the fiasco. Mortifying!
what’s your dream project?
I’m still figuring this one out. When I put the idea out into the universe, I want to be sure I am clear.
what’s harder…being an artist or a mom?
When I finished college, my mom gave me half a dozen books on How To Be An Artist. In one of them, the author stated, “To be a great painter one must have a great wife.”
In one memorable critique at the end of my senior year, a beloved, eccentric painting department professor noted, “This is a perfect painting; the only thing more it requires is a frame.” Then, with a smile from beneath his elegant white mustache: “Enjoy this moment because before too long, you’ll be too busy barefoot and pregnant to make good work.”
Following graduation, I ignored some advice to go for an MFA. For several years I waited tables, painted at all other hours, and exhibited regularly. I also worked to start a non-profit gallery in a small town in Western Massachusetts. I met a woman there, a good painter with rainbow-tipped hair and colorful glasses. She was almost double my age, and a mom to four boys, aged about 10 to 22. We became friends while discussing painting and her advocacy of my gallery project. When my eventual pregnancy with my first child became apparent, she looked…pensive. She took a few moments and finally said, “You can still have a creative life. It won’t be impossible. But it will be difficult.”
Ten years after graduation, at a museum café over coffee, I met with another former painting professor. My eldest son had just hit kindergarten and I was considering going back to get the MFA. I was 31, and as we discussed different programs, she sighed, “Well, you do have a kid. And you are kind of old.”
As best as I can tell (aside from gender politics — which are of course at play, but that’s a topic for another time), much of this complicated answer boils down to an equation of money, time, and justifications. As a painter there is no guarantee of making a living off of making the work, and commodifying the work while trying to do the work is a whole other can of worms. To spend the kind of time required to make satisfying work at the expense of — or in addition to — time caring for children and/or guaranteed income-generating work is tricky, particularly when the kiddos are very young.
It might have been easier to have chosen a career with a more knowable path, with tangible markers of success and failure, and with predictable financial incentives. But it turns out that painting is my sanity; it is my vocation and without the ritual of its practice I am lost. Some days it’s hard to negotiate the business of being an artist. Some days it’s hard to be a good parent. On many days it is a struggle for me to feel that I’m doing both well. The routine of one always seems to eclipse the other, and it can be easy for me to get lost there, too. However, I know I am incredibly lucky that I find too much fun in the making, and too much joy in my family, to stay lost for long.
who are your favorite artists?
Alice Neel. Cy Twombley. I love to read essays by Ben Shan, and the letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother. Ingres’ “Grande Odalisque,” Botticelli’s “Primavera,” Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” and Anselm Kiefer’s “Bohemia Lies By The Sea” are 100% inspiring, as is almost everything Matisse ever made. And, for decades, I have been enthralled at dozens of recurring-dream dinner parties with Velasquez’s entire “Las Meniñas” crew.
what do you collect?
Light — lamps, candleholders, chandeliers. Mementos — rocks, shells, branches. Vintage costume jewlery and vintage handbags. Vintage dish ware and vintage table linens. Vintage landscape and botanical paintings. Love notes from my husband and the poems, drawings, assemblages and paintings our kids make. Would you believe my first instinct when answering this question was to reply, “I don’t really collect anything…”?