STEPPING into Kathy West’s home in Wonthaggi is like stepping into a private art gallery. The walls are monochromatic white and the work displayed is vivid, eye catching and exclusively Kathy West. The house interior is minimalistic, inviting and seemingly purpose built for displaying her work.
How can this be? When Kathy chose the land and built the house 10 years ago, aged 75, she had not begun to paint seriously.
“Why Wonthaggi” I ask. She tells me she looked at Phillip Island during its quieter moments and, being bred in the Blue Mountain country of NSW, also considered the hills of Leongatha, but she kept coming back to Wonthaggi. “I was very much influenced by the friendliness of the people, and the town catered for all my current and future needs.”
Kathy had already planned the next stage of her life. She knew she wanted to paint and as soon as she settled in she joined the Bass Coast Arts Society. When the treasurer’s position became vacant she put up her hand. Being a newcomer, she saw it as a way to become more involved and get better acquainted with other artists.
Kathy West returned to art after a lifetime of working.
A Reflection of a New Passion: A retrospective exhibition of paintings by Kathy West, ArtSpace Wonthaggi Gallery, February 12-March 9.
It becomes clear that she is admirably qualified to carry out these duties. It was also apparent that her creative side was not something that came late into her life; her appreciation of form and colour was there from a very early age.
As we talk, her previous life in textiles and fashion design gradually unfolds. On leaving school, she pursued her love of art by enrolling in a dress designing course at the prestigious Sydney Technical College. The very same that Margaret Olley went to, she tells me with some pride at the distant connection.
When her husband was posted from Canberra to Malaysia, she began working there with a small company designing dresses from batik fabrics, which were exported to Harrods and New York outlets. Her husband’s career then took them to Melbourne, a move they made with considerable apprehension, but the family was quickly won over by their new city.
tWith typical enthusiasm, Kathy bought a factory in Little Bourke Street. She made dresses from fabric supplied by firms and produced garments of her own design as well as to patterns supplied by different companies. Putting her managerial skills to good use, her business grew to employ a staff of twenty.
On returning to Canberra, she continued her love of design and fashion after a stint in selling real estate. When she saw a sign in the window of a Maggie Shepherd dress shop looking for a cutter, she applied for the position. ”I often passed this shop and admired their excellent eye for colour and creativity but the dresses were badly finished. Another weakness with the business, I found, was they had no costing system. We were able to correct both.” Eventually Maggie Shepherd opened her chain of shops in capital cities throughout Australia and the US.Our conversation swings us back to Wonthaggi and this latest chapter of her life. On Sunday, her first exhibition of paintings will be launched at the Artspace Gallery.
Well-known local artist Dennis Leversha encouraged Kathy to train under Ken Griffiths. “I was Ken’s first pupil” she says. “He and his wife Karen were renovating the 100-year-old hotel at South Dudley where the classes were held. I studied with him for four years.”
While Ken encourages his students to develop their own style and technique, the learning environment shows up in many of her paintings. The old hotel is obviously very atmospheric. In some of her work you can see the influence of its interior and in others her past association with the theatre of fashion parades.
I am drawn to a painting showing a group of nuns seemingly floating and swaying above a cowering male figure. The interior of the pub forms the striking backdrop. I find myself wondering what crime this man has done. Does he deserve my sympathy?
A signature theme of her work to this stage could be referred to as reflections in a bubble. Distorted figures and scenes are mirrored back to the viewer carrying with them a third-dimensional sense of depth and movement.
I am filled with wonder at Kathy’s pursuit of colour and beauty and the way she fills her days with so much purpose. I have been talking to a remarkable woman.