For many artists the act of creation is inspired not by the need for intellectual exercise or profound exploration as much as the need to scratch an itch that simply won’t quit.
Cate West Zahl, whose work appears alongside her father’s in the “Father/Daughter Art Show” presented by New City Arts, explained self-expression this way: “I’ve been avoiding calling myself a painter for a while, but that’s what I am. I try to run away from it, but I wind up painting no matter what. My dad has always painted, and I always have as well.”
She said that if Tom West, her father, who graduated with a degree in art and architecture from Princeton University in 1979, had been able to support the family as a painter he would have. Instead “he works in finance and never stops painting. He does commissions here and there, but mostly his work is just piling up in the basement [of the family home in Washington, D.C.].”
Zahl followed in her father’s footsteps, first studying art under Lee Newman at the Holton-Arms all-girls school in D.C. “Newman had a huge emphatic insistence on learning fundamental art,” she said. “After school, I’d do figure drawing as part of my fundamental learning. I was painting nudes in 6th and 7th grade.”
After evolving her study of studio art with landscapes and still lifes at Hamilton College, Zahl opted to pursue a more lucrative career. “I moved to New York and became an editor for a decorating magazine. I was always painting, but not in an official capacity.”
She wrote for The Scout Guide and C-VILLE’s Abode magazine after her move to Charlottesville, and if it weren’t for a trip to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2012, the West family paintings might still be languishing in their respective basements.
During her pregnancy, Zahl went to see “The Ocean Park Series” by Richard Diebenkorn, an American abstract painter whose large-scale canvases are filled with blocks of fluid color and gentle geometric shapes.
“I spent four hours at the exhibit and thought, ‘This is it. This is everything,’” she said. “I spent so much time with these paintings, and then I made a decision. I could do this. Why am I fighting what I’ve been trained to do?”
Zahl’s current paintings are entirely abstract, showing Diebenkorn’s influence more strongly than the literal figurative training of her youth. They also incorporate her years as an interior design writer. “I’m not painting feelings, I’m not painting life. I’m painting them in terms of what will look good in the space,” she said. “I edit my paintings in the same way I edit articles. I start with a lot of color, gesture and pattern. I use a ruler to help me make straight lines, and then I eliminate until whatever is left is completely necessary.”
Zahl’s shift to the abstract may also have genetic roots. Tom West worked closely with American abstract expressionist Sean Scully, and his 30-plus years of studio work followed this influence. His color-driven pieces have evolved from very large works on paper to painting on cigar boxes.
In his artist’s statement, West wrote that he adopted his new medium completely by chance. “I bought a small painting of a family friend’s daughter. When hanging the piece, I looked at the back and realized that it was on a cigar box.” West took up the challenge on his own boxes. “My goal is to use the shapes of the boxes as a compositional tool and the labels as subtle design elements,” he said.
“I thought his works were all so silly,” Zahl said. “It’s interesting that as I’ve grown in my taste for art, I can appreciate how ahead of his time my dad was.”
The “Father/Daughter Art Show,” is on display at The WVTF and Radio IQ Gallery through the middle of December. Make an appointment to view it through Maureen at newcityarts.org.