Nov. 2, 1922 – April 14, 2014
William Eddy West, a prolific artist, community organizer and postal worker whose paintings chronicled Buffalo’s changing landscape over more than half a century, died Monday after a long illness. He was 91.
The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Sharon West.
Mr. West began his career as an artist at age 6, when his adoptive mother drew a picture for him, handed him a pen and encouraged him to follow suit.
“She did a drawing of a man in a suit and told me as a single child I was going to have to entertain myself, so I spent years drawing from such things as comics in The Times, The Courier and The News,” Mr. West recalled in a 2012 interview for the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Living Legacy Project. “Art just continued to be something I pursued without an ambition to be a commercial artist or to make money at it. I just wanted to learn how to paint.”
Mr. West was born in Pittsburgh to Samuel A. and Loretta Jennings, the youngest of seven siblings. He was adopted a year later by his aunt, Mary Jane West, and her husband, Prince Albert. He moved with his adoptive parents to Buffalo in 1926 and graduated from Fosdick Masten Park High School in 1941.
Mr. West, whose great-grandfather escaped slavery and settled in Ridgeway, Ont. in 1840, was proud of his status as a fourth-generation member of the region’s black community.
Mr. West officially began his art career in 1946, when he returned to Buffalo after serving with the Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during World Word War II. With many years of copying Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Tailspin Tom and Buzz Sawyer from the Sunday funnies under his belt, he enrolled in the University of Buffalo on the G.I. Bill. He later transferred to the Albright Art School and finally to the Art Institute of Buffalo, where he developed close relationships with the painters Robert Blair, David Foster Pratt and Charles Burchfield. He attended art classes in the mornings and worked afternoons and evenings as a post office clerk, a career he held from 1946 until his retirement in 1978.
The formal approach of the art programs at UB and the Albright Art School was not to Mr. West’s liking, but he found a welcoming home for his creativity at the Art Institute, where his teachers encouraged experimentation with oil and watercolors.
“They just added to my passion for drawing at that time. I just carried it on. I’d do it at night or days off,” Mr. West said. “Sometimes the family would be sitting playing cards and I would draw the family members playing cards.”
Over a career that spanned more than seven decades, Mr. West’s subject matter ranged widely, from scenes of Buffalo buildings under construction and others in the process of being demolished to a series inspired by the women in his family who were expert dressmakers. His Buffalo landscapes serve as tributes to the architectural past of the city, and especially of the East Side, where he lived for most of his life.
One 1954 painting, “Urban Renewal,” shows a building that had been set aflame to make way for new development.
“I wanted to capture the spirit of the properties being burned down as a cheap way of breaking them down for urban renewal. At the same time, I wanted to get that feeling of the fire and the smoke, and I put the furniture in the front to give it a relationship to human habitation,” he said.
Though he viewed his art more as an intense hobby than a full-blown career, he credited his interest in painting with opening up experiences he may not have had otherwise.
“This is another strange thing with art for me: It opened up many doors that I never expected to be privileged with. I never painted for a purpose other than my own enjoyment, yet it has put me in touch with people, such as Mr. Burchfield,” Mr. West said in the Burchfield Penney interview.
In a journal entry from 1957, Burchfield wrote about a visit he received from Mr. West, then one of his students at the Art Institute of Buffalo, at Burchfield’s home and studio in West Seneca.
“His work shows a distinct advance over last year. His humility towards his own work is very genuine and touching,” Burchfield wrote. “Bill is one of the finest people we know — a true gentleman .”
Burchfield Penney Chief Curator Scott Propeak recalled Mr. West as a committed painter who was welcomed with open arms into the upper echelon of Buffalo’s art world – a rarity for an African American artist then and now.
“He once told me a story of going for lunch to what became the Elmwood Lounge in the late 1940s or early 1950s with Charles Burchfield and a group of the artists from the Art Institute of Buffalo. The owner told him that they would not serve him, and Burchfield stood up and said if he cannot eat then they would all leave. Realizing that six people would walk out, the owner apologized and said that they would accommodate them.”
In addition to his professional and artistic career, Mr. West founded and helped to run the Eastside Community Cooperative food market the East Side between 1968 and 1975 and also served on the board of the Wider Horizons Reading Program.
Mr. West’s work is in the collections of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Bethel AME Church, M&T Bank and the Buffalo Urban League. He was included in the landmark 1987 exhibition “The Wayward Muse” in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a survey of important Western New York artists since the mid-19th century.
For his part, Mr. West never considered himself a painter in some grand artistic tradition, preferring to call his works “studies” rather than finished paintings. To hear him tell it, he simply followed his own fascinations around the city in his free time, capturing a casual mixture of what he saw and how he felt about it.
“I had no particular subject that I favored, city or country. It was all the same,” Mr. West said. “I wasn’t painting for somebody else, I was painting for me. If somebody liked it, OK. If they didn’t like it, I didn’t care. It was what I wanted to say at that time.”
West is survived by his children Sharon West, Yvonne Gist, Khadijah LaRue and William E. West Jr., six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 48 years, Geraldine Summers, and his seven siblings.
The family will have a private interment. A memorial Service will be held at 6 p.m. May 3 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.