West Fraser is a plein air painter who wants to be in the elements so that he might capture some of the magic of nature.
He possesses the landscape painter’s greatest gift: an ability to represent light and get it to help him tell the story. He paints marsh and creek scenes, cityscapes, harbor views and more.
His career largely has been spent documenting the Southeast. A new book, “Painting the Southern Coast: The Art of West Fraser,” now is available from the University of South Carolina Press. It’s a big book, beautifully produced, featuring essays by Jean Stern and Martha Severens. He’s represented by Helena Fox Fine Art.
On the occasion of its publication, The Post and Courier asked Fraser about his work.
Q: You are often referred to as a contemporary impressionist, but it seems to me that lots of your work could be categorized as “realism.” What’s more, your paintings strike me as a form of documentation, you consciously making a record of the landscape from the Georgetown County border to northern Florida you know and love. What motivates you?
A: The impressionism in my work is (derived from) that of the New Hope Art Colony (of Pennsylvania) and Old Lyme art colony painters (of Connecticut). Also turn-of-the-20th-century California Impressionists, as well as ... (people like) Gari Melchers, who helped the Telfair Museum in Savannah build a great collection. ...
America’s Impressionists were more naturalistic in color and form in their style, but still creating work in a rapid-painting approach on location, striving to capture certain atmospheric and light conditions. Many artists that I admire from this era were capturing vanishing cultures, lifestyles and places, so I agree that my work has naturally taken on a specificity of place, or documentation angle.
Yet I do approach my work foremost as fine art painting, (ensuring that) the principles of design, composition, drawing/shapes and handling of the light and atmosphere are truthful, and the subject painted is secondary to the piece as art. ... I will not paint a specific subject for its history or importance to culture, unless first I can make a good painting.
Q: This landscape is threatened in myriad ways, from development, pollution, climate change, etc. What can art do, if anything, to mitigate those threats?
A: I have produced a book, “Painting the Southern Coast,” and in the book have expressed thoughts and concerns about the vanishing landscape, degradation of the environment, loss of habitat, climate change, etc. Though subtle, there are messages and seeds for thought that will hopefully prompt investigation of the extremely important coastal zone featured in the book.
I think the journey the viewer can take in the book, with maps and anecdotes on ecology, history and culture, might lead the people I reach on a “journey of discovery” of this region, learning the importance of this place for the global health of the oceans and our region.
On my new website, westfraserstudio.com, which expands the concept of a journey, I have created interactive maps whereby anyone can literally venture into the region and find the places I have painted, hopefully generating a new appreciation for the ecology and environment that so many people have been working so hard to protect. So with a book of paintings I am attracting an audience that perhaps is new to environmental advocacy and understanding.
Q: You moved to Charleston in 1984 and strengthened your original artistic voice. You had been painting watercolors in the Northeast. How did the medium of watercolor, and your experiences up north, prepare you for your long Southern adventure in oil?
A: My wife at the time (Mary Edna Fraser) and mother of my children moved back South after a short stint living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the New Hope School then and more about American Impressionists. My paintings in watercolor, which require careful drawing, prepared me for outdoor painting. To paint “my country,” I developed a unique perspective and approach to composition and painting the flat land. I paint a landscape by enveloping the space in my sight and creating a welcoming composition for the viewer, painted as if the viewer can walk into the space.
Q: Paintings of people are rare among your works. Why?
A: In the beginning, I made a conscious decision to concentrate on the coastal zone, worldwide. I have worked hard to develop a sustainable business in the arts. My landscape painting is what I am most satisfied with and it still brings me great joy. I have never followed nor emulated any art movement or style, I am naturally comfortable in the open air and environment of a variety of landscapes. I am forever curious of my surroundings and I love to travel.
When I paint people, they are usually a part of my environment, family, etc. I have painted some portraits, but do not want to make that a big part of my business. I prefer to paint what I want, on speculation, you might say in business.
Q: What would you like to tackle artistically that you haven’t yet attempted?
A: I have just completed a studio in Costa Rica, which I intend to be my refuge for greater paintings. I want to travel more and paint new places, starting with the Americas. I want to paint more large pictures of the culture that seems to be disappearing in the maritime zone, the working waterfront and fishermen.
I also do want to paint some large interiors/portraits. That will be before I abandon all good sense of a sustainable art business and start producing non-objective paintings as a challenge and for reckless abandon.