Large-scale tales: Blawnox-based sculptor tells a story with each piece
James West is a local artist who most Pittsburghers only know through his most celebrated work, "Point of View," a bronze sculpture of George Washington making peace with Seneca leader Guyasuta.
With the city of Pittsburgh as its dramatic backdrop, it's a popular tourist attraction located at the head of Grandview Scenic Byways Park, opposite the corner of Grandview Avenue and Sweetbriar Street on Mt. Washington.
At 61, West shows no signs of slowing down since creating and installing the artwork in 2006. He just completed another large-scale commission, this time in Philadelphia.
Entitled "The Bond," it is again a historically themed work featuring George Washington, this time shaking hands with Benjamin Franklin.
With the help of Philadelphia-area riggers and engineers, West installed the piece at the entrance to the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania, directly across from Philadelphia City Hall. The 9-foot-tall piece was commissioned by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania four years ago.
"Everything I do is about the story or the narrative," West explains. "I like the back story. So, this piece is about the bond between two countries and three men."
The story begins when Benjamin Franklin went to France as a diplomat and was influential in negotiating the involvement with the French in the American War of Independence.
During this time, George Washington was commander in chief of the Continental Army of the American Revolution. When the French Alliance sent their troops, they were led by the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer. Lafayette gifted George Washington a Masonic apron, which is on display inside the museum.
This large statue depicts Washington presenting that apron to Benjamin Franklin. The apron, says West, is what inspired his sculpture.
"One of the original masons who ran the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was Ben Franklin. So, I thought there's the story," he says. "You have the diplomat in Ben Frankiln, who went to France and negotiated their involvement. You have the first general of the continental army, George Washington. And then, without the French involvement, we'd lose. So the story represents three countries. But it is also about a bigger story. It's about America. It's about that reach and that friendship."
West began working on the piece four years ago, but in the interim he was asked to create another piece for the interior of the museum, "Benjamin Franklin In The East," which was placed a year ago.
"That's the clay of him," says West, pointing to a massive clay figure of Benjamin Franklin mounted halfway up a 22-foot wall inside an old barn that comprises West's Blawnox studio.
West found the old barn in Washington County nine years ago and purchased it. He moved it to a site along the Allegheny River, just south of the Allegheny Boat Docks in Verona.
The 13-foot-tall clay effigy of Franklin is a rather unusual sight. Most sculptors who work in this figurative way don't hold onto the clay master used in the casting process. But then again, West is anything but usual.
In his studio are chunks of the old Hulton Bridge that once stood upriver, demolished a year and half ago. To him, the twisted wreckage, in various states of rust and decay, represents the "cycle of life."
West's professional life has had its own twists. The Fox Chapel native began his career as a laborer in the construction division of his family's business, Deerfield Construction. There he learned the real estate industry from the ground up, ultimately becoming a successful real estate developer.
But at the age of 38, he decided he wanted to pursue a career as a sculptor. And as it turns out, his experience working in development has paid off.
"Each project involves numerous meetings," West says, "from consulting with historians through to foundries and rigging."
To mount the nearly 2 ton bronze cast of "Benjamin Franklin In The East," West had to work with structural engineers to devise a pedestal that was secured via steel struts that are mounted in the floor beneath the marble pedestal that serves as the sculpture's base.
At 17 feet, including pedestal, West says, "He's the biggest thing I've ever done. There were all kinds of logistics, but we got him in."
There's a compelling narrative to discover in each of James West's sculptures.
"When I first meet a client I ask who do you want to read it? I want to look at that narrative and know who is reading it. I think when artists really get it right, it can be read at multiple levels."
That same approach is what led to another project close to home. From the back of West's studio, one can clearly see the southern tip of Sycamore Island. That is where his latest work, "Our Path," will be inaugurated on Sept. 22.
Currently in production, the piece will be a steel canopy 4 feet wide, arching 13 feet high over a walking path. Commissioned by the Allegheny Land Trust, it will feature cut out shapes resembling plant life indigenous to the island. The island hosts a unique floodplain hardwood forest that is among the most rare plant community types globally.
"The laser cutouts represent the flora of this protected island. Natural light will go through the negative space of the cutouts and form positively on the earth, so it comes out as an arch on the ground as the seasons change," West says
He likes the local connection the piece will have, and its back story as it relates to the plant life on the island.
Looking back on his first public sculpture, "Point of View," West is quick to point out the story that inspired it as well.
"That story is not just about two historic figures," he says. "It's about how these two people fought on opposite sides in the French and Indian War, and how they put down their weapons and had conversation at council fire. It's an incredible story. This was a time of war, when men had been killed on each side and they put their differences aside."
About the unique eye-to-eye placement of these figures, West says, "They are encroaching on each other's space. There's a little bit of tension there. If you look at it really close, George Washington's hand is on the outside of his sword. Not the inside. With Guyasuta's tomahawk, the peace side is up, and the warhead is down. So, there's a little bit of that going on, and that speaks to today. Maybe we have a disagreement, but maybe we can have a little dialogue.
"In my art, I don't have answers, but I have a lot of questions," West adds. "I hope when people look at it they see this dialogue."
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.