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Artist Kim West’s Unusual Journey to Professional Painting

I often find myself hanging out in downtown Los Angeles. One of my favorite bookstores, The Last Bookstore, is there, and of course many of LA’s best restaurants are there too. And I’ve come to notice that you can’t walk very far in the Art’s District without seeing one of Kim West’s gorgeous murals. They have been seen on television shows, in commercials and film productions. If you ever visit downtown LA, chances are you’ll be one of the thousands of tourists taking selfies in front of her art. Kim graciously accepted my request to particitpate in this charitable campaign for Children’s Hospital. I know you’ll enjoy reading about her journey.

Em: “Why, to you, is art and creativity essential?”

Kim:  “Art and creativity are tools I use to get though the day. They are lenses for problem solving and for life, and I am grateful that they have always been there for me.”

Em:  “Describe your own, unique process for creating art.”

Kim:  “When making paintings, I like working right into the surface without a lot of physical planning or sketching. I also like making work that involves being surprised by the medium or having process accidents, as often happens when making certain kinds of mono-prints. It all sort of informs itself, borrowing one technique from another. I am always happy when part of a painting feels like a drawing, when a drawing feels like a painting, or when a print feels painterly, and so on.  By design I am accustomed to a solitary studio practice, so working on murals outside where unfinished work, potential missteps and unresolved decisions are exposed is unsettling. As a result, my process for making murals is really different than it is for making a traditional painting.  I usually have a distinct sketch for most of the big decisions in the mural work, in which I’ll map out the composition while always trying to leave room for surprises and things to respond to in the moment.  Scaling up from painting size to mural size is always a challenge for me as well. I have a cobbled together system that starts with a sketch that I project onto a giant piece of taped-together roofing paper in the studio. This allows me to work out proportion issues at my own pace. Once the to-scale sketches are ready, I bring them to the site, tape them in place on the installation wall, and spend some laborious hours cutting through the sketched lines with a utility knife and roughing out the intended line with a big sharpie through the knifed-slits. That type of preparation is antithetical to the way I approach most paintings. When painting in the studio, I don’t typically make visual sketches on paper for planning purposes. Lots of writing, lots of note taking, lots of painting in my head, but I like when the physicality of the work feels immediate and responsive.

Em: “Do you have a moment of struggle or triumph in producing your art that stands out in your mind?”

Kim:  “Not exactly. Struggles and triumphs within the studio trade places every day, throughout the day, as if on repeat. If something is not working, I paint it out and keep going until it does. If that doesn’t eventually work, I rip it up. The triumphs are the work that survives this process.

Having said that, I always struggle specifically with the physicality of making murals that require serious construction lift equipment. When I work I am usually completely focused, and I am not really paying attention to my physical surroundings. In the studio this can mean backing up into a bucket of water, or stepping on a tube of paint, and there is no real negative outcome beyond a little mess. Backing up off the side of a scissor lift that has been extended 30 feet into the air, on the other hand, is something I do worry about. Each time I bring a lift down to ground level and I am still physically intact, I do feel fairly triumphant.”

Em: “What first inspired you to become an artist?”

Kim:  “Student loans!  I have always drawn and painted. I started taking art classes as far back as I can remember. I was was one of a couple of kids under the age of 50 at life drawing classes in 7th grade. In high school, I volunteered at museums for fun and supplemented my school art classes with art courses at local colleges. I also remember sitting in a humanities class in high school, listening to the teacher, Sr. Mary Glavin, discuss the topic of nature versus nurture. From the podium, she posed the question to me, “Are you an artist by nature or nurture?” And I replied, “I’m not an artist! I draw and paint by nurture. My mom taught me, and I’ve taken a lot of classes.” She was baffled and surprised by my answer, and insistently argued that I was wrong.

My mother is an amazing art teacher and I suppose she agreed with Sr. Mary Glavin’s nature assessment, because she literally dragged me to art school tours on college trips when I was only interested in looking at the pre-law schedules of liberal arts colleges. Growing up, I didn’t know any artists and I didn’t understand the idea of ‘painter’ as a profession. I knew a lot of art teachers, but the ones I knew didn’t call themselves artists, rather they referred to themselves as ‘art teachers.’ I didn’t think I would make a good teacher. Alternately, I really liked to read, write, and research, and I enjoyed being on the high school debate team. I figured I should be a lawyer — it had a seemingly knowable path, and the definitions of success seemed clear.

I had a quintessential first year at a classic New England college complete with wonderful professors and interesting classes. An ideal experience, really. But by the end of the year I was spending all of my time and energy in the art studios, occasionally skipping what I should have considered important classes to instead finish and start paintings. The deep shift in my interest from government and history classes to the studio was rapid and transformative. I wanted to be a better painter. I wanted to be in the studio all the time, and I wanted to be around other people who did, too. It dawned on me that if I was going to be paying some hefty student loans come graduation, I might as well pay for something that I very much wanted. I transferred to an art college to study painting full time. (The irony of choosing to pursue a degree in painting over a law degree in the context of paying off student loans does not escape me.)

It clearly took me a while to accept that being a painter — being an artist — is my nature, and that it always has been.
Em:  “Is there a life lesson you could share with a young person struggling to reach their dream?”

Kim:  “Work is the first and biggest answer — everything circles back to it. Work a lot, work hard, and then make it better and work harder. If you are stuck, take a walk. Go see a show. Read a book. But, above all be tenacious with your work. Don’t give up. Try to respect the voice of your gut instinct, not your self doubt.

Em:  “What has most sustained your creativity?”

Kim:  “Caffeine.”

Em:  “Lastly, is there an “art secret” you would be willing to share? For charity? Of course I realize it will no longer be your secret, but fans would love it.”

Kim:  “Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” This means you have to show up and do the work, even if you are not necessarily feeling like it. You do this regular work to get through the bad stuff, and even the regular stuff, so that when inspirations do show up, you are prepared and ready to go. There are many times that this idea — showing up and doing the work irregardless of inspiration — is easier said than done. So, find a personal metronome. Something that will tell your brain it’s time to get to it, and use it until you respond like Pavlov’s dog. For me: headphones!”

To find out more about Kim West go


Emerson Tenney

Emerson Tenney

Emerson is a junior in high school. She loves literature and is passionate about writing, poetry in particular. When she is not playing the drums, participating in school musical theater, or training for marathons, you can find her with her friends checking out vintage records and used book stores in Hollywood.

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