Interview: Jerry West

Jerry West in his studio, south of Santa Fe off Highway 14. West built the studio on his piece of the old family land that his father bought in 1943. Photograph by Meridel Rubenstein.
In Dreams I Could Fly and See Things

with Joseph Traugott


As a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art for many years, Joseph Traugott worked closely with New Mexico painter Jerry West, shepherding his Japanese Internment Camp into the museum’s collection. He included West’s work in his exhibitions and books — Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art, and New Mexico Art through Time: Prehistory to the Present. This spring, the Museum of New Mexico Press publishes Jerry West: The Alchemy of Memory, a comprehensive book on West’s art, and Traugott sat down with West to talk about his life and work.

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Traugott: Jerry, you’re really a storyteller. How did that start?

West: I was probably a better storyteller than I was a writer or politician or anything else. But I was also the bashful kid in the family initially. Terribly frightened about having to answer a teacher. My dad was a great guy who liked people and liked stories, as well as my mother, perhaps. There is an oral tradition in the family.

Traugott: Did you try writing stories?

West: I’m not a very good writer. But storytelling became very difficult in the art world. When I made the decision to get out of teaching biology and become a printmaker with Elmer Schooley [at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico], it was a very different thing. He and I got along famously well, because I loved his heroes, my heroes, the Rembrandts and the Goyas of the world. But I was going to school in a period when a guy like Elmer Schooley wanted everybody to be contemporary and modern, and to get rid of any kind of didacticism or any shade of storytelling. He worked really hard on me. My inclination was to always start with an idea or a storyline I was attracted to. Those were the kinds of emotional connections I had with the subject matter. Mr. Schooley tried valiantly to get me away from what he called illustration or storytelling. It took me years to get past graduate school and do something other than just a few forms or two dimensionality. It wasn’t until I was spending a lot of time in New York making prints, and I was also dreaming a great deal. My dreaming always had to do with my past history and past storytelling, my complex family, and relationships with people. These intense dreams always referred me back to some kind of family situation: brothers and father, the death of my father.

Traugott: Your father, Harold — Hal — West, was both a printmaker and a painter.

West: Yes, he was.

Traugott: In many ways, you seem to be following and evolving from where he left off.

West: There’s no doubt about that. Maybe he was a good teacher, but he never, in all of his life, suggested that I do anything artistically. I just grew up around it and drew from the time I was very little. I was the only one in the family who drew a lot. I was not very verbal, but I made my way in the early days of school because I could draw. The teachers would pick me out to do the chalk drawing on the board at Christmas or Easter.

Hal was a pretty remarkable painter, but he never fit in with the Santa Fe crowd very well. He had good friends amongst them, like [Will] Shuster. But he was never accepted as an important painter.

Traugott: Is that because he was also a rancher and made a living in other ways?

West: Yeah, and he was kind of a maverick. He had a chip on his shoulder about elitists. Even in early Santa Fe, there was this group of people who, for some reason, he didn’t like very much. He came from a pretty poor background, a working class background. I think Hal had a lot of good friends, but they were more around the edges of the prominent Taos / Santa Fe art scene. He did a few aspen paintings and things like that, but he always went back to what he would call a memory painting. I admired that as I got older, admired the fact that he could do things so well from memory. He had an incredibly visual memory.

Traugott: How did you get interested in biology?

West: Biology happened because there was tension in the family. Hal, being an oldtimer, was not interested in college and, in fact, discouraged me from even going to college. My mother was from a whole other tradition. Her father was a very confident scholar. He had been a principal at a serious high school in Ohio. My mother’s youngest brother was a PhD in biology, in zoology. He took his first serious job at Colorado State and wanted my sister and me to go up there. I got a scholarship, not because of my scholarship, but because of my activities in high school and being class president. I went up to Colorado State to study history. My uncle said, “You don’t want history. You are a biologist.”

I was basically growing up in the country and milking cows. Ever since childhood I played with reptiles and all sorts of things. It was natural for me to go into that area. I finished four years of college up there and went to University of New Mexico graduate school in zoology, and was encouraged to go on for a PhD, but I had the urge to go back to Santa Fe, where I had really liked being in high school. I came back to Santa Fe and taught New Mexico history and biology and was a pretty successful teacher. I loved my students. I had a good time and was happy.

When I got back to Santa Fe I began to get back into what you might call the art mode. I started to sketch and started showing in small places. I got reacquainted with my dad. By that time he had left the family. In 1953, he moved to Canyon Road, started his little studio, and opened it as a gallery for walk-in visitors. He was part of a post-war resurgence of painters on Canyon Road, along with Alfred Morang, Olive Rush, James Morris, Chuzo Tamotzu, and Janet Lippincott. He was frail, but in those last sixteen years of his life on Canyon Road, he did a lot of very good paintings. I set up a little frame shop in the back of his studio. That connected me more to the art community. In 1964 I had a choice: to take summer requirements to go further into biochemistry and physics and stay on course in teaching, or go with my father-in-law to Alaska and pan gold.

Traugott: That was a pan-acea.

West: Yeah, panacea. I had already gone over to talk to Elmer Schooley, and he accepted me even though I had no formal art education. He had a great graduate program geared at teachers coming back to get an advanced degree. I, after two summers, was qualified to teach art. I moved from biology to teaching art.

Traugott: In your paintings often there are ravens and birds. Are those a reflection of your interest in biology?

West: Sure. My interest in biology is because I grew up around animals, and an older brother and I would hike the country. There were some mentors in my growing up, too. There was an old guy that Hal had brought into the family at Puye who was an ex-farmer. He was a self-made naturalist who taught my brother and me about astronomy and geology and birds. I grew up loving animals and plants and feeling an affinity to the coyotes and the animals around me.

Traugott: Those flying things in your paintings — birds and airplanes — do those hearken back to dreams that you had of New Mexico when you were living elsewhere?

West: As a child I was a dreamer who dreamt repeatedly I could fly — as a really little kid who lived in a very isolated area out toward La Cienega. We made our own things, our little caves and brush huts. Jumping off tall arroyo banks in the sand was something that was so classic for us. In my dreams I would run and jump off an arroyo bank which is still there (although there has been so much development in that area that it doesn’t look the same). In my childhood dream world, jumping off that bank would allow me to launch myself, and I would take off and fly. Here I was, a four-, five-, six-year-old kid, dreaming about going to distant places. In dreams I could fly and see things that in reality I had never experienced. I have no idea where those images came from, because in those days we weren’t exposed to a lot of pictures; we had no TV. I guess I had an archetypal memory of something I had never seen.

I could fly into cities and look down and see people and things like that. I remember this strong dream flying over a giant field of large spiders. I could just go down. It was very frightening, because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get my altitude again and get off there. Here I was flying, almost being touched by these giant spiders. I even had end-of-earth, end-of-life dreams which came more in times of sickness. I could see the world it its final stages — this was before atomic blasts — these giant fires and explosions. I knew it was the end.

Traugott: As a flyer, that becomes the perspective that you incorporate into so many landscape paintings. Is that all part of the same idea?

West: I think so. A couple people have asked me how I knew it. I was a pretty good builder and had a certain innate sense of perspective. But also there was some antecedence for doing aerial views. Hal did a few really interesting aerials looking down, not a lot, but he did enough of them to intrigue me. Then I started having these strange dreams, especially in New York and whenever I was away from New Mexico, around the world — Mexico, Crete — where I was flying and I would look down. One of the more prominent ones was my brother Archie and me being towed. Here was Hal West towing us with an old car, like getting a glider off the ground. Then we’re flying with glider-like wings. I wasn’t aware of all the preparation for that flight, but I remember now flying and looking back over my shoulder and there was Archie flying behind me. I made an etching of that dream while in New York.

Later on, when I returned to Santa Fe, I made a series in which I begin to see things down below. I made the painting Flight over Juárez with my brother Archie and me flying. As an artist, you have to invent things. I invented wings that look like reed weavings — I remembered a lithograph by the great Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, of a politician who had flown high, and fallen, as so many politicians do. He was lying on the ground with crumpled up wings, and my paintings of wings are based on Posada’s inventions. I put in Frida Kahlo’s house because by that time I had been to Frida’s house in Coyoacán [in Mexico] — of course her house is not in Juárez, but this is a dream. I remembered a backstreet of old Juárez where a man who was kind of crazy sat and seemed to play on a blue chair as if it were a musical instrument, blowing on it all night. The band let him do that and didn’t miss a single note, and I put him into my painting. I’ve always been fascinated by Mexican houses with a courtyard and so much life going on inside, and I included one of those. I like looking down and seeing all the activity in the area around me.

Traugott: Did you work with photography, envisioning some of this material?

West: Never did photography. I got involved with a photographer, with Meridel [Rubenstein], who certainly was influential in so many ways and who really encouraged me to get serious about my art and direction. Meridel encouraged me to explore the philosophical and psychological direction of my paintings — no one else had ever done that, and none of that came out of anything I was pushed to do in graduate school; I had to come on that on my own.

Traugott: Oftentimes you have tornadoes or whirlwinds or dust devils in those paintings. What do those symbolize?

West: I think they symbolize my own uneasiness about the world. There’s such rapid change all over the world and so much chaos. Somehow it’s just around the corner most of our lives, some kind of chaos, some kind of change. I began to use storms as a metaphor for the great changes that were happening around me. I grew up as a kid who had hiked that country of Puye and Los Alamos. Then suddenly in 1943 we began to see that whole area being destroyed by tons and tons of earth being moved and big trucks going up those hills and so forth. Although that was very, very secret, we knew something. … Then by 1945 and the bomb, all those things had a great psychological effect on me and those around us, so I’ve been really interested in that forever. That’s why I’m always trying to infuse my paintings with that kind of world which is a little bit unstable, a world filled with great tragedy and violent destruction, juxtaposed with peace and love and justice.

Traugott: One of the things that you do to counterbalance is incorporate western ironic humor. Is that one of the ways that there’s balance in your pictures?

West: Sure. Even in that whole dream suite that I did of twenty or thirty paintings in acrylic, I always had the counterbalance, and that was done kind of purposefully.

Traugott: Let me ask you about a couple paintings that I think people know fairly well. There’s Prairie Winter with Approaching Cosmic Storm. Why don’t you talk about it?

West: Anything that is an approaching storm is the approaching potential destruction, whether we’re talking about ISIS, or we’re talking about Syrian rebel groups, or whatever. We’re a very vulnerable country, and of course, we, as a great imperial force in the world, are always pretty paranoid about the potential of destruction of our own way of life and our own great democracy. The approaching storm idea—it’s a metaphor for the potential of things that can happen, whether it’s a scare of cancer in the family or whatever. It is approaching, the uneasiness of life, and we just have to learn to, in a sense, nestle down in that little homestead on the prairie or whatever and weather those storms in a very decent way, continue our life. That’s about all. You never know when you’re going to be … As of yesterday, there was a really close neighbor that came up to me and said, “Jerry, I have really bad news. I’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer,” and we stood. We’re looking at each other and hugging each other. The approaching storm is a metaphor for the potential of what goes on, and how the great majority of us human beings continue to survive the onslaught of the rebel group coming in and ravaging our village or our inner tranquility.

Traugott: The other painting at the Museum of Art is the Japanese Internment Camp, the old CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp that was transformed during World War II into a detention camp. Talk about the painting and your father, who worked there.

West: The Japanese internment camp in Santa Fe started in ’42, almost three months after Pearl Harbor. It happened that fast. My dad went right into the work. It was a conflicting period, but the Japanese internment camp was the place where he worked, and he, being an artist, would be up in those towers, and he did a lot of sketches. Never got really well acquainted with the Japanese, but he had a sense of humor about it, realized how incredibly ridiculous some of this was, to be guarding people that he knew instinctively were decent, wonderful people. Most of those people were leaders of a community. They were noncitizens, and many men who had never been allowed to get citizenship even though many of them wanted it. They were educators. There were Buddhist priests. There were Presbyterian ministers. Hal never talked about it very much. He would joke, and make a lot of cartoon drawings about how relaxed the guards were. They could be sleeping, because why would they be guarding these guys who were just peaceful human beings, who were gardeners, and very artistic, and writing poetry and all that sort of thing? I took Hal’s drawing and made a painting from it.

Traugott: What do you want visitors to take away from those two paintings?

West: I’m very interested that we don’t forget all of the world around us and how we’ve come up and through it all. I think there’s a tendency to not only forget but to vastly edit out the dark sides of our history. We forget the underbelly of what went on in a place like New Mexico or the prairie world or wherever. I believe, as much as possible, in bringing out a sense of reality, the way it might have been, whether it was our abuse of fellow citizens, which went on for a long, long time and still does. I like to bring attention to it so we don’t totally forget. I think it’s important to carry in our psyche some sense of our deeply conflicted past.

Traugott: Jerry, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. You are a storyteller!

West: I hope it helps a little bit.


Joseph Traugott, PhD, is an independent curator living in Santa Fe. He recently curated Visualizing Albuquerque, with a catalogue, for the Albuquerque Museum as part of the citywide project On the Map. He is working on a book about optical illusions in Ancestral Pueblo pottery for the Museum of New Mexico Press.