Back when Buffalo was a multinewspaper town, during the Great Depression and between the two world wars, William E. West was sketching.
He'd grab issues of The Buffalo Evening News, the Courier-Express and the Buffalo Times and set to copying panels of "Tarzan," "Tailspin Tommy" and "Buzz Taylor." As an only child growing up in the Main and Utica streets apartment building where his father worked as a janitor, drawing became West's favorite method of entertainment and escape.
Today, the 85-year-old artist still finds time to sketch, though health concerns have lately limited his output. And after a long career as an unsung hero of Western New York's art scene, West will be honored tonight by the African-American Cultural Arts Collective in the first of what's meant to be a ceremony to celebrate important artists in Buffalo's black community.
"It seems that they picked me out as their poster boy," said West, who counts artists Charles Burchfield and Robert Blair among his closest mentors. His work over the decades has remained largely out of the public spotlight, showing up now and again in small exhibitions, and, in 1987, at a major show celebrating 125 years of art on the Niagara Frontier at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
His work, though there isn't a whole lot of it, is beloved by many in the community. But recognition was never what West was after.
"How shall we put it? I wasn't painting to make shows," West said. "But people would tell me, 'Bill, you've got something worthwhile. You're entitled to a show.' I can never say I'm entitled to anything. They can tell me I'm entitled to it, and that's nice."
West's modesty is genuine. In reflecting on his life as an oil painter, watercolorist and sketch artist, West avoids the grandiose language many artists employ in describing their work. Instead, he speaks of his craft both with a childlike excitement and as if it were just another run-of-the-mill hobby.
"With me, art was not something I was trying to make a living at. I had a job at the post office, and in those days, there wasn't much that I saw as an opportunity to make a living at art," West said.
West's cruise took him to the Buffalo Art Institute, where he worked with Blair and Burchfield to develop his technique. He was impressed, he said, with Burchfield's disregard for the rules of traditional painting and says that his influence -- as well as that of Blair -- made him see that experimentation was often better than tradition.
West said a story about Blair had a big influence on the way he looked at his own art.
"[Blair] had a watercolor that overnight he'd left outside, in the winter, so the ice could form on it, and when it dried, it had the pattern of the crystals on it," West said. "I guess I learned to be creative and never pay attention to rules, so that's the way I was."
As for West's own artist trajectory? It often has to do with the images and memories that linger in his mind.
"I've got some different sketches," West said, in a characteristic understatement. "I'll go back to the old kitchen I grew up in or the old buses that used to grind going up hills, things like that. The streetcars that used to come down the street with the doggone brushes that were as high as the streetcar almost and you ran to get out of the way of all the pellets it threw away," West said.
WHAT: African-American Cultural Arts Collective Honors William E. West
WHEN: 6 tonight
WHERE: George Urban Mansion, 280 Pine Ridge Road, Cheektowaga
TICKETS: $40 per person or $75 per couple