Artist Interview: James Westwater

James WestwaterJames Westwater, Ph.D., is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Artist-in-Residence and a National Science Foundation Artist-in-the-Antarctic. More information about his career, photography, and performances can be found at JamesWestwater.us or VisionoftheWest.com. His art show will be on display in the Children’s Wing September 7–October 27.

When did you decide to become an artist? What struggles did you encounter along the way? 

I decided to pursue a career in the arts after graduating from college in 1972. I earned a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in Educational Development with an emphasis on creating and utilizing multi-image, multi-media photographic presentations. Educational Development was my last major—in a sequence of five. My ten years in college and summer employment, including two summers doing glaciological research in Alaska, were a journey of self discovery. I found that being a generalist enabled me to develop a unique speciality: creating multi-screen, multi-image, photographic essays set to existing classical music scores which I then would perform live with symphony and chamber orchestras both in the US and abroad. I did this for over forty years before turning my career over to my son-in-law and daughter who now continue performing my pieces and their own newly created works. I’m currently focused on making
and sharing photographic images of Utah and the West, a selection of which are included in this exhibit. In addition to photography, in my own little way I’m trying to help humankind (including myself, of course) become a better, more responsible steward of Creation.

As any new field of endeavor, there were challenges along the way. Before 1973, no one in classical music or symphony orchestras had heard of symphonic photochoreography. That’s because I invented the term and was, I believe, the first person to perform multi-image, multi-screen projection to classical music performed by a live symphony—The Columbus Symphony Orchestra (Ohio). It was slow and difficult to break through the barriers to innovation in classical music performance. Symphony orchestras were (and many still are) opposed to incorporating non-traditional (especially visual) elements into their live performances. But gradually inroads were made and an increasing number of orchestras began inviting me to join with them in performing my pieces. In my career performing photography, I performed many hundreds of concerts with well over 150 orchestras.

Tell us about a piece that is especially important to you.

One of my proudest accomplishments was creating and performing, along with my son-in-law, an eighty-minute, six-movement work of symphonic photochoreography we photographed in the Czech Republic and which was performed multiple times in Britain and Canada by two commissioning orchestras— the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and The Toronto Symphony. The name of the piece is Má vlast: A Visual Journey.

Which artists are you inspired by? 

While doing research as a graduate student at The Ohio State University, I saw an art exhibit of macro nature photography at a site along the northern California coast. I had been an art history graduate student at OSU for a couple of years before deciding art history did not satisfy the creative urge that was present and growing inside me. I had studied many of the great paintings, sculpture and architecture of western and eastern civilizations. But found myself more deeply moved by this exhibit of nature photography than the art history to which I had been exposed. That was a pivotal moment for me. The photographer whose work was on display was Paul Caponigro. His work was the principle impetus for my “conversion” to nature photography. Among the other photographic artists who have inspired my work were Elliot Porter and David Muench.

Tell us a little about your process for creating a work of art. 

My creative process has several components: inspiration, rendering (making the exposure), post-processing and display. For inspiration, I moved from the lackluster flatlands of central Ohio to one of the most strikingly beautiful natural areas in the world—Utah and its neighboring states. I find great beauty and wonder in this fantastic collection of the Creator’s creations. My challenge is to seek out particulars vision of these creations, render them and ultimately share them—hopefully in turn to inspire others with the beauty of nature and a desire to appreciate, respect, protect and preserve nature for its own sake and for the sake of present and future generations of appreciators and stewards. For rendering, I currently use a Canon 60D system, mainly because of its portability and extremely useful articulating screen. For post-processing I use Lightroom, Photomatix (for HDR) and Photoshop software to achieve desired results.

What questions do you hope people ask themselves as they look at your art?

Among the questions people may ask themselves when viewing my work are—what is my reaction to the work, why do I feel this way, what about the piece is affecting me, would I want to live with the piece… to view it on a regular basis, what in particular attracted the artist to render this image, was he successful, what could or would I have done differently with this subject matter, would I like to experience the subject myself in person?

Whats your advice for how to interact with and appreciate art? 

In my view, there’s no one “correct way” to interact with, appreciate and evaluate art. The more one knows about what one perceives and its context, the broader and deeper that experience can be. But that deeper knowledge of the context is not a “must.” Each of us has a unique set of “nature, nurture” and experiences that we bring to whatever we encounter. Every experience of art is valid. I like the notion of being quite inside and letting the piece “speak” to the perceiver on whatever level she or he is at, at that moment. Certainly if one has been to and seen all or some of the wonderful places and subjects represented in this exhibit, one may apply to the appreciation of a work one’s notions of that place and subject. For example, I’m partial to bristlecone pine trees because they as so unique, rugged, long lived (some live over 5,000 years!) and can have such striking shapes and forms. Also, bristlecones are often found in harsh environments that experience severe weather. They are one tough species. I’m in awe of bristlecones and respect them for what they are and will be long after we’re gone. Again, I believe there is no one right formula for interacting with art.

What advice do you have for people who are just getting started as artists? 

My advice would include discover who you really are, what is your creative passion and what are your talents and gifts. (We all have talents and gifts—as well as limitations.) Then do what you can to develop those talents, gifts and passions. Work hard to express them. Appreciate and be inspired by the work of other artists, but then follow your own leading. Strive for ever higher standards in your work. Don’t be satisfied with were you are. Share your joy and passion. In my view, art should be about honoring the good in people and the beauty in the world around us; about lifting people’s spirits; about helping us all appreciate, care for and nurture the good that’s in them, and in you, and in everyone. If you can find a good mentor, that can be very helpful, but your real growth must come from within. Don’t strive to become rich and famous. Focus on serving Life through your work. Earthly rewards may come, but again, they may not. The most important thing is to strive to serve Life, hopefully at the highest level you can.

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