By Charles W. Waring III
Painting the Southern Coast: The Art of West Fraser
With introductory essays by Jean Stern and Martha R. Severens
Hardcover 272 pp, 264 color, illus., $49.99
(The University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2016)
Just as savvy travel and foodie writers describe our Lowcountry hospitality, history and various attractions in glowing superlatives, West Fraser wears the region’s crown of artistic accomplishment. Be certain this mythical adornment comes without a hint of faux anything and goes well beyond our borders; after all, he is a national treasure on a Southern stage. In the world of West, one might envision this crown on a native chief standing near the surf on St. Catherine’s Island and sporting feathers and beads that glow in a late afternoon glow that only the Indian summers of autumn can offer. A powerful imagination is built upon experience, reading and love of the land — those elements have long been at king tide with West. In reality, this artist’s regular cover is a well-worn manly hunting hat or a casual baseball-style cap.
He appreciates the kind and deserved accolades, but many days he would prefer to talk fishing and hunting or remind you of a special place that “you just have to see.” This is a son of the South —coastal Georgia, Florida and South Carolina — who knows his mission well and rides the horse like no other, garnering the financial success of which he will not speak but that we know comes with the red dots that mark sold works. Good for West — and good for the Lowcountry.
Now, we celebrate West’s long run of loving what he calls “his country” through a handsome coffee-table book from the University of South Carolina Press. Dozens and dozens of images follow enlightening essays from Jean Stern and Martha Severens; however, other than the much-admired images, the key part of the book is the section entitled “My Story” by West who describes the elements of what developed his painting and made it tick. We learn of various artists who were his early mentors and note how charming childhood interactions with his family planted seeds of artistic confidence. We see time in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and New York City, pointing the artist to the best inspiration possible via painting in plein air in Andrew Wyeth country or making the right connections in Manhattan. By the time, he decided to move back to “his country” about 32 years ago, he saw that he had the artistic gift, the inspiration and the confidence to move here and begin painting our Lowcountry in a fresh way.
From a base in Charleston, West began to travel, often by boat, to remote areas and explore the canvas with oil, a new medium for him. New England nautical painting experience was another essential part of what he brought home, giving the artist extra fuel needed to capture the changing lifestyles of those who make their living from the nearby fertile estuaries and ocean. The places to process oysters, the old homes of crabbers or shrimpers, shrimp boats and docks are just some of the points of inspiration. Many solo shows and museum exhibits later, the work of West Fraser is an essential strand of the fabric that is the tapestry describing the thinking-person’s real Lowcountry — the parts that you only discuss with the most special friends or readers of this paper (some may recall words to the wise about going to Bear Island to see the tundra swans in February).
To view the book and have lived here during the artist’s same creative time period, this reviewer cannot help but see how many significant changes are evident; study the paintings and recall what was and what remains — and wait for your jaw to drop. West avoids the platitudes that color some of those removed from business cycles and reality; rather, he notes that he has “respect for the insight and pioneering approach my father and his brother created as a development model.” The artist also declares that he is “fearful of the irreparable damage that has been made to these coastal ecosystems” and hopes that his art might “outlast my time here.”
West is not afraid to paint what disturbs him, as he chronicles a changing citizenry or the remains of what once was … fill in the blank. In a handful of pieces, he showcases citizens participating in city commerce, long away from our natural coastal treasures, but he primarily paints what raises our collective spirits. West naturally embraces those monster live oaks, such as the one in “Wash House,” 2004, from Cumberland Island, Ga. We see that a simple building’s dignity is nothing without its natural anchor. In “Best Buds,” 2010, West gives us a snapshot of why best friends fish together. The actual boat and fishermen are a small part of a greater perspective on the wonders of vast expanses of marsh mixed with live oaks — the gems that hold the attention of the friends as they cast to the feisty trout and channel bass.
The book has a nifty surprise in the seven maps the artist has painted to show readers exactly where he produced each piece of this glorious collection. Before closing the book, West gives us “Lincolnville,” 2014, a colorful streetscape from St. Augustine, Fl. On the opposite page, he advises of the importance of “building a strong conservation culture” that will “strike a balance between environmental and economic goals that is both necessary and attainable.” The paintings in this volume are certainly the needed inspiration to carry the conservation spirit into a new generation fortunate to see strong elements remaining of what we know and remember as “our country.” No Lowcountry library can be complete unless this volume is handy and close to those other beloved books that describe our lifestyle in terms we respect and appreciate, carrying the verisimilitude that West Fraser would simply call “this place I love.”