By way of the land: Salisbury Studios painter Anita West
An interview with Samantha Groenestyn
Blueberry Ash © Anita West
Anita West has a very practical and grounded outlook as an artist. She brings a no-fuss, earthy and steady presence to the Atelier, a living example that making art can be a sensible and steady job—that with a little perseverance, a bit of application and time, one can find one’s place in the art world. Until recently taking a studio with Salisbury Studios, Anita worked alone, and her story is a fascinating one of independently developing her work and establishing a career without a community of artists around her. Anita ‘worked out her own salvation,’ taking chances, thinking on her feet and growing as a painter through these choices.
Anita came to art by way of the land. Her paintings—large and lively, with strong but lush colours, and layers of rippling textures raining down through native Australian trees—have their genesis in the hours she spent, blissfully alone, riding horses through the bush. These long and private meditations are echoed in her endlessly varied representations of the landscape. As a younger woman she worked as a Jillaroo and a strapper on sheep and cattle stations, and these firm ties to the land might account for her pragmatic attitude. ‘I live an ordinary life,’ Anita says simply.
Eucalypt Mist © Anita West
This self-awareness is fundamental to her success. Currently represented by Trevor Victor Harvey in Sydney’s well-to-do northern suburbs, Anita explains that she is aware of where her work sits in the market. People connect easily to her work, because her paintings are true to her self-proclaimed ordinary life. ‘People don’t buy what you do,’ she explains: ‘they buy why you do it. They want to be a part of that.’ Anita’s work is an honest, simple appreciation of her environment, a quiet celebration of her place in the world, and her market are those who are attracted to this genuine and comforting expression of life. But ever broad-minded, she assures me that she loves many different kinds of art: indeed, the Atelier coffee-table is ever freshly restocked with all manner of art magazine courtesy of Anita, keeping us all up to date with current happenings in the art world. She appreciates the different roles of art and relishes the extremities. She believes we need both public galleries with challenging and unsettling modern art and more accessible art to adorn our private spaces and speak to us more gently and express our own experiences. Knowing her own place in this schema allows her to direct her energies productively and profitably, without denying the merit of other types of work.
Having studied at an art college in Townsville, Anita’s trial-by-fire training came unexpectedly a number of years later. She found a small ad in the newspaper: an architectural and interior design firm on the Gold Coast was seeking original paintings for their properties. Anita describes the twinge she felt—as innocuous as the ad sounded, she was certain it could take her somewhere. But life, as it is wont to do, anti-climactically planted countless tiny obstacles in her path. The contact was never available to take her calls, and she was advised to call back again and again. Full of resolve, Anita continued to ask squarely whether the firm really did want to see her work, but the calls went nowhere. This back-and-forth went on for two months.
Unperturbed, Anita took to the road. One Saturday, she loaded a few paintings in the back of her car in Brisbane, drove to the Gold Coast, and by pure chance caught the woman she had been chasing just she was leaving the office. The lady inspected her wares in the boot of her car, nodded approvingly, and said, ‘Perfect. Make them bigger. Three times the size. Bring me two next week.’ On the wave of this momentum, Anita worked frantically all week—faster than she’d ever worked, on an entirely new scale, without time to plan—and met her unexpected deadline. Robertsons Design purchased the paintings immediately, and signed Anita up for a contract to paint them twenty to thirty paintings per year.
Sheraton Commission 2 © Anita West
Twenty to thirty paintings a year! That’s one every two weeks! The next seven years were a period of immense growth through doing. Her new schedule forced her to adapt: She had to think quickly, plan less, and make most decisions during the painting process. Her life became a steady stream of paintings in progress, as she worked on several canvases at once and had to give them away quickly. She became serious about committing to the work itself, to the doing, and not fretting over the result of that work. There would always be more paintings, and more opportunities to puzzle over a problem, another chance to resolve it differently, another experiment. The refinement of her methods took place across countless paintings, rather than being slowly and painstakingly developed in a precious few.
Mistletoe © Anita West
Anita now works in our midst, and her Salisbury studio has given her the space to adopt a new mindset. Being in and around the Atelier has invited Anita to slow down, to work more contemplatively, and to sit and look and reflect more deeply on a given painting. Confident in her methods and comfortable in her subject matter, Anita is permitted the luxury of savouring each painting and deliberating on it. And, alongside this change of pace, she finds herself enveloped in a community that thrives on ideas as much as practice. She recalls the ‘shock of Salisbury’ when she first moved in: all the impassioned discussion. Emerging from the bubble of pure practice, she initially found this cloud of ideas confronting but has come to relish the communion of minds. And we appreciate being able to learn from her humble and pragmatic wisdom.