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Derek West's Artistic Labor of Love

Feb 23, 2017 12:15PM ● By Jordan Venema

Making a Scene

March 2017
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos: Kelli Avila

Derek West, 37, happened to be in the room when he overheard somebody talking about one of his paintings hanging on the wall: “Man, this reminds me of being a kid.” For West, it was one of the best compliments he could have received.

“It was rad,” he recalls, “because that’s what I go for all the time.”

There is something nostalgic about his oil paintings: the simple chromatic colors and pop culture references. Many of West’s paintings involve subject matter from the ‘50s and ‘60s, classic RVs and rotary telephones, but he also complements landscapes with quirkier pop culture references: jackalopes and Bigfoot and flying saucers.

Imagine a collaboration between Norman Rockwell and Ansel Adams directed by Wes Anderson, and you’ll have a loose idea of West’s style. His complementing but sometimes contradicting images, humorously transposed over serene landscapes, lend West’s paintings a collage-like quality, as though some images had been taken from one painting and placed
over another. 

While West has been painting for almost two decades, he didn’t develop his style overnight, and had previously focused on landscapes “and impressionist-type stuff.”

“It got quirkier and more simple and brighter and more graphic. I began referencing a lot of travel posters and postcards, and I’ll sneak in a Bigfoot or flying saucer. It’s the kind of art that I love, and like the artists that I’m most interested in – ‘60s pop art,” explains West.

As an only child, West spent much of his childhood sketching and imitating the style of old skateboard decks, but it wasn’t until he was 19 that he took his first painting class under College of the Sequoias instructor Richard Peterson. He ended up taking the class four times.

Painting, admits West, was never easy, but Peterson encouraged him anyway – “not because I was naturally talented but because I liked it so much. I loved painting, I loved to draw, but I labor over it more than most.”

His habits at least confirm what most would interpret as labor, though West says it’s one of love. Since he began taking on more commissions, West can rotate between as many as 40 paintings at a time, working up to 60 hours a week. 

“It’s what I love spending my time doing, whether it’s doing a commission of a buddy’s dog or of the Fox Theater for the Chamber of Commerce. I just love it.”

Though West has always loved painting, he never expected the hobby to become his full-time occupation. Hoping to become a special education teacher, West was working at a group home helping adults with mental disabilities when his legs began to go numb.

“I ended up in the hospital for a while,” explains West, whose daughter was only nine months old at the time. As doctors sought a diagnosis, West’s employers could no longer extend medical leave, and were forced to lay him off. Within three months, he was diagnosed with “full-blown” multiple sclerosis.

It was a painful irony for West, who was prevented from helping others because he himself needed care, and now unemployed, he began putting more energy into
his paintings.

“I’m not good with down time, and if I have it, I’m either writing music or working on a painting. And the days that it keeps me down, I still paint,” says West, who sometimes paints alongside his now 5-year-old daughter. While his condition hasn’t kept him from painting yet, West is aware that it might in the future.

“I had a neurologist tell me that I’d be lucky if I were painting in 10 years,” he says, “but that was probably four years ago.” 

Four years into his diagnosis, and West isn’t only painting, he’s also turned his passion into a means of sustenance. He’s grateful to make a living creating something that others can enjoy. 

“This is what I do and this is what I love and hopefully others think it’s fun. I don’t charge all this money for the time I pour into it because I want people to have it, I want it accessible,” says West, who says many of his paintings sell for less than $100. But that is the heart of pop art, to create something that isn’t pretentious or too precious to be held and appreciated.

“I think it’s a mistake when people create something that they’re too emotionally connected to,” agrees West. “I’m painting it for my friends – not just for some older dude with a lot of money that doesn’t get the joke.”

West wants people to be in on the joke, but more than a punchline, his paintings are elevating eccentric subject matter to the level of art. It’s not unlike those famous road stops along highways like Route 66, those collections of oddities, homes to the world’s largest rocking chair or ball of twine, those slices of Americana that possess their own gravitational pull. Similarly able to demand our attention, West’s paintings are a nostalgic window into the heart of America and, weirdly enough, into our own quirky souls, if we’re lucky enough to get the joke. •

Derek West Art •

Follow on Instagram @derekwestart