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Westley G. Olmsted, artist whose work defied easy classification; April 29, 1934 -- March 12, 2011

Westley G. Olmsted's art, created over more than half a century, defied easy classification.

Perhaps his best-known painting, "The Temptations of St. Anthony," is a complex modern take on Matthias Grunewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece," whose center panel, depicting the horrors of World War II, is flanked by panels portraying the stories of Mahatma Gandhi and Mary. The gripping images take more than a few minutes to decipher.

But at a 2004 Burchfield-Penney Art Center exhibition of Mr. Olmsted's work, only a few steps away one also could find whimsical sculptures made of mechanical parts, with names like "Batman Falling," "Goddess of the Garden" and "Godot Pulling Oedipus to the Crossroads.

The body of work "was as diverse as Wes' world view -- things he felt were important to society and humanity," said William Baker, a longtime friend.

Mr. Olmsted, who was among a group of artists including Adele Cohen, Martha Visser't Hooft and Ben Perrone who developed careers in Buffalo in the late 20th century without attracting broad audiences, died unexpectedly Saturday in Erie County Medical Center. He was 76.

Born in Buffalo, he was a distant relative of Frederick Law Olmsted, America's great landscape architect. He graduated from Bennett High School and served in the Army in Germany during the Korean War. While there, he took time to visit museums across Europe and study images that later influenced his own work, including "The Temptations of St. Anthony."

After attending Albright Art School, Mr. Olmsted rented a studio on Allen Street with Perrone, his lifelong friend. In 1959 his abstract oil painting "L'Oiseau de Feu, (Fire Bird)" won second prize at the Albright Art Gallery's Western New York Show.

For many years, Mr. Olmsted, a devout Catholic whose paintings often reflected both his deep spirituality and an aversion to violence, had a studio in his Breckenridge Street home. Since 1997, he had worked from a farmhouse amid vineyards overlooking Lake Erie near Silver Creek.

"He had a kindness about him that you didn't see until you got to know him," said Judith Duggan, a friend.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, the former Gloria McCurdy; a daughter, Leonore Sullivan; and two sons, George and Matthew.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Joseph University Catholic Church, 3269 Main St.


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