I recently heard of the death of Tim West, an outsider (though educated) artist I had known in the late sixties. Toward the end of his life, West and his work found partisans, and he had a few shows; some comment, as well as samples of his paintings, is available online. In my experience, though, West was primarily a real-life performance artist, and his few late videos indicate that the show lasted as long as its star. West had an authentic Ozarks accent, and he was taped shortly before his death discussing his work in a shirtless crouch with what looks like a large piece of bark stuffed into his pants. In the video he ascribes the motive for art to “the hunting instinct.” saying, “The artist don’t want to kill it, he wants to record it, and that feels better, because he hasn’t had to kill anything. Like if I make a picture of a woman, I possess that woman, or at least her image.”
When Patricia and I moved to Carbondale in southern Illinois in the spring of 1968, we brought a few references, names and telephone numbers to connect with the local hip scene. One of these, given to us by a gifted young writer, a paranoid bisexual redneck with a fondness for chains and painted china who had once quietly reclined on his Chicago sofa after setting his apartment on fire, provided contact information for Tim West. Eager to enter a new scene, I gave West a call and was answered by a rhythmic, swinging Southern voice, speaking sometimes in rhyme. “Come on over . . . you got nothing to lose, nothing to lose, ‘cept maybe your shoes.”
He lived with his mother who taught English at Southern Illinois University in an odd courtyard of identical twenties bungalows that looked like it had somehow strayed from southern California. The West place, though, was easily distinguished from its neighbors. It was filled with junk, though among the heaps useful objects could be discerned here and there. West himself was unwashed and unshaven and completely at home. He had to swing over to his high hammock with the aid of a rope fixed to the ceiling. His mother’s territory was scarcely tidier and she spoke in the same hermetic coded rhythms. Cold winds entered through holes in the walls. West had been considered something of an artistic prodigy in his youth – the Museum of Modern Art purchased a piece of his when he was eighteen -- but after graduating from university he found he had neither aptitude nor interest in making a living.
I recall his muttering a good deal about his relationship with his mother, lamenting his capture by “petticoat government,” in his phrase. He escaped what might sometimes have felt like her sporadic supervision and ran with a group of Harley-driving amphetamine aficionados with a weakness for a variety of other mostly petty crimes. Their coterie had a strong homoerotic element that struck me then as incongruous but now seems altogether natural. A number of these guys worked at a small fireworks factory where few other locals would work. Many were sure it would blow up at any minute. The odds of an explosion were certainly increased by the employees.
West consistently produced art – often representational, sometimes almost conventional – while becoming known as a local character, a danger in the eyes of some, a no-good at best, occasionally being arrested for one thing or another. He always looked as though he had just emerged from one of the area’s long-defunct coal mines. I recall that he had been banned from the local doughnut shop, doubtless for being generally disreputable. He turned up the next day and stood for hours in front of the store’s doorway, holding a lactating cat and sucking her tits, letting cat milk stream down his filthy beard. Had I been the proprietor, I would have been glad to give him a doughnut or two to leave.
In the video he notes that, after a few second chances and a further scrape with the law, he was told to simply get out of town. He had always spoken of property his father owned in the Arkansas Ozarks, and he decided now was the time to make his move, to leave his circle of “outlaw bikers,” and “pillheads.” “Down here [in Arkansas] I behaved myself, because I knew I’d have to live here the rest of my life.” West became a recluse, probably a lifestyle to which he was well suited. He continued to make art.
Tim West persisted in following his genius and somehow made it to a ripe age and had some sympathetic attention and even admiration toward the end. He never tried to be practical or prudent. In 1968 I had invited him to our place, a few miles from Carbondale, in the neighboring town of Murphysboro, the county seat of Jackson County, a town with a fine African-American hickory pit ribs place, but where in the year of our Lord 1968, the local tavern continued to keep barrels out back to accommodate its black patrons. After West had left, I realized that he had swiped a cloth cap to which I was more attached than I was to most of my clothes. I knew I would never wear it again, but I am timid enough to be satisfied to contribute the cap and to maintain some distance from the wild imaginative turbulence of Tim West.