If you go

WHAT: John Westmark: Narratives

WHEN: April 4-July 13. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday, closed Mondays and national holidays.

WHERE: Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St.

COST: $9 adults; $7 seniors, students and military; $5 children 6-12; free for members and children under 6.

MORE INFO: www.gibbesmuseum.org or call 722-2706.

Painter John Westmark doesn't feel entirely comfortable calling himself a feminist. Not because he doesn't want to, but because he doesn't feel qualified.

"I don't think, in my opinion, that I could truly be a feminist or spokesperson (for feminism)," he said. "As male, I'm in this voyeuristic place."

And he doesn't really want his art categorized as feminist either, although he's glad when viewers recognize all the feminist themes.

"I'm worried that it will take on a level of scrutiny or invite the criticism of people who truly are far more invested in the feminist cause that I am."

He's a humble artist, the 2012 winner of the Elizabeth and Mallory Factor Prize for Southern Art, a $10,000 award administered by the Gibbes Museum.

Westmark is interested in understanding the experiences of his wife and two daughters and finding visual ways to express his support. For the past dozen years or so, he's been working with store-bought paper sewing patterns, templates with measurements and other markings used to make clothes.

He arranges the material into female figures, flying objects and other forms attached to canvas then applies acrylic or oil paint, creating large-scale, figurative, mixed-media images that might be described as a cross between Jean Francois Millet's "The Gleaners," a pastoral scene by Jonathan Green and Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," with a threat of violence or degree of palpable discontent thrown in for good measure.

Because of the application of sewing patterns - the folds and angles and lines that result - the pictures give the impression of intense motion, which might represent women's strength and rebellion, according to the artist.

"At end of the day, the work, I hope, conveys a compelling narrative," Westmark said. "If you aren't a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, you'll still engage in the narrative that's there."

That narrative will be on display at the Gibbes Museum of Art starting April 4. This will be Westmark's first museum exhibition, he said.

It is perhaps a natural follow-up to his Factor Prize win. (Going forward, the prize will be renamed the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art and administered by the Gibbes' young auxiliary group, Society 1858. For more info, see 1858prize.org.)

The judges were especially impressed with Westmark's emphasis on narrative, which is in line with Southern storytelling, according to museum director Angela Mack.

Gibbes renovation

The exhibition, Westmark's first museum show, could be the museum's last before it closes the building later this year for extensive renovations.

The renovation project is a $13.4 million effort that will transform the first floor, expand gallery space on the second and third floors and relocate offices. It is meant, in part, to restore the Gibbes' original mission as a community-focused institution that provides studio space for artists, organizes public events and offers extensive educational programming.

The Gibbes has secured a project manager, Nick Cameron, through a Request For Proposal process, Mack said. Cameron is former vice president of operations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A landscape architect, the firm Sanchez and Maddox of Palm Beach, Fla., also has been selected. The architecture firm on the project is Evans and Schmidt of Charleston.

Mack said nearly $9 million has been raised so far. The total goal includes replacement revenue that will help sustain operations during the renovations. A start date for the work likely will be announced at or shortly after the May 19 annual meeting, Mack said.

Even without use of its building, the museum will continue to organize many public events, including its Distinguished Lecture Series and art classes.

"There will be no shortage of ways to remain involved in the Gibbes," said Pam Wall, curator of exhibitions.

The museum's art collection will temporarily be stored at the Charleston Museum, the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and some of the work could be displayed in special exhibitions, Mack said.

Other partners include the Charleston Library Society and Circular Congregational Church, which will host Gibbes' programs and events.

"Hopefully, we'll be partnering with Spoleto (Festival USA) with a site-specific exhibition while we're closed," Mack added.

The entire renovation project, with its moving parts and complicated logistical requirements is a big undertaking, she said.

Finding a connection

But first comes Westmark and his women.

Wall said she wasn't familiar with the artist's work before he applied for the Factor prize, first in 2011, and again in 2012.

"He is fascinating, in part, for his process," she said.

His wife was trying to finish a piece of clothing when she went into labor and gave birth to their second child, Wall said. "(Westmark) couldn't get these patterns out of his mind." When they returned home from the hospital with their new baby, Westmark began a series of collage studies and started to delve into the cultural meaning of his work, "devouring feminist theory."

For the Gibbes show, he created 16 new works, Wall said. The smallest is 30x30 inches; the largest is 82x92 inches.

Westmark, 50, said he once was a devotee of abstract expressionism. Born in Alabama and raised in Florida, he attended the Kansas City Art Institute, then worked for years as a designer in the commercial art world, he said.

"It got to the point where all I wanted to do was paint." So he enrolled in the University of Florida and earned his master's degree in painting in 2002, then did some post-graduate work. He is still a resident of Gainesville.

"I was kind of a purist," he said. "I was a very aggressive abstract painter: large canvasses, strictly oils. ... I was kind of throwing everything at the canvas, very influenced by (Richard) Diebenkorn and the West Coast painters. But that was a dead end for me; there was not too much more I could contribute. That kind of prompted going back to graduate school, to be honest."

There, he began to forge a new way.

"My thesis year of grad school was really a search, kind of a desperate search to find a bridge into new way of working," he said.

He soon stumbled on the sewing material and started using fragments, "letting them suggest a level of abstraction that was distinct from pattern."

"I worked that way for three to four years after school, trying just to learn what the material was, what it offered," he said. "I knew from the first few pieces that this material was special. Then it became a quest to find the synergy between the material and my life."

Thus the husband and father of two girls, 14 and 11, immersed himself in feminist study.

"This material is the connection, it is the bridge to my daughters, and to this bigger arena of gender," Westmark said.

His show at the Gibbes will be paired with "Beyond the Darkroom: Photography in the 21st Century," a selection of innovative pieces from the museum's permanent collection, acquired over the past 10 years.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.