The internationally renowned, Columbus-based artist fights back a year after his severe stroke
In a room on the first floor of artist Pheoris West's North Side home hangs his unfinished painting of a black woman in a lilac dress who may or may not be carrying an unborn child. Her eyes are closed and her head is tilted back. Behind her are shadowy figures of people she may or may not know, and surrounding her are white, blue and gray streaks extending to the sky. Overall, the image conveys ascension.
But upright movement is a challenge for West these days, as the artist, 66, recovers from a stroke at his brain stem — which controls motor skills, speech, breathing and myriad other functions — that took place approximately a year ago, on March 5, 2016. He can move his head, lift one leg, breathe with the assistance of a ventilator and talk slowly and briefly using a tracheostomy speaking valve, but he is generally confined to the bed below the painting, which he started before the incident.
“It was horrific what he went through,” said West's wife, Michele, who joined her husband and two of their four children, Jahlani and Pheannah, in their home for an early April interview. The family said West's stroke was sudden and shocking, given West was an active and “vibrant” man who played golf every week. But he had high blood pressure, which was a contributing cause of the stroke.
And if matters weren't awful enough, the episode occurred a year after one of West and Michele's sons died.
“It was another major hit to our family,” Pheannah said.
Impressed by its work with stroke patients, Michele reached out to the Stanford University School of Medicine.
“They do stem cell research and they had trial studies,” said Michele, who filled out the application last summer but never heard back. The family isn't sure if it's too late for stem cell surgery but “we're hopeful to get in touch with [the university],” Jahlani said.
Still, West has made progress. With the exception of one temporary hospital visit, he's been home since Thanksgiving. He's also been working with a physical therapist and will soon begin occupational and speech therapy. It's a waiting game, according to Michele. Some stroke victims fully recover and others do not.
West admitted it's been difficult staying in good spirits.
“But he still has his sense of humor,” Michele said, and the family described occasions during which West joked with them. During the interview, West was alert and engaging, flashing his bright smile and correcting his family on important dates and details regarding his life and nearly 50-year career by nodding and shaking his head, mouthing words or occasionally speaking with his valve.
A native of Albany, New York, West said he was drawn to art from an early age but almost became a lawyer.
“He actually passed the bar [exam],” Michele said. “He did it just to see if he could do it.”
West earned a Master's of Fine Arts degree from Yale University, and met Michele, also an artist, at a national art show in Hartford, Connecticut.
“His work stood out more than anybody else's to me,” Michele said. “I said, ‘I've got to meet that guy because I want my art to be better.'”
The couple moved to Columbus in 1976 and West took a job as an associate professor at Ohio State University, where he continued to teach (with Emeritus status) until his stroke.
West is internationally renowned for his art, which often depicts African and African-American people, especially women, and is characterized by movement, color and dense symbolism. Beyond participating in countless local shows, West's work is built into the community: He designed the stained glass windows at Mount Vernon AME Church, built a sculpture for the Kwanzaa Playground in English Park and his art is featured on the Long Street Bridge, to name a few examples. He has traveled all over the world, citing his experience serving on the International Juror National Exhibition of Zimbabwe as one of his proudest moments.
“[West] made the world smaller,” said local artist Melvin “Melle Mel” Robinson, one of West's former students and collaborators. “[He] made it possible for me and other artists to say, ‘I can go overseas and do work and be accepted.'”
West described the Columbus art scene as “very much alive,” but said it's difficult for black artists to get recognition.
“It's hard to define black art,” he continued. “Our culture is very complex. … I want black artists to be more conscious of their background.”
Reflecting on his own experience as a black artist and a black man, West said, “I've had a difficult life.” Still, he “absolutely” encourages black people to pursue careers as artists.
The Columbus arts community and others have rallied around West during his time of need, sending well wishes and contributing money for medical bills. A GoFundMe campaign has generated over $10,000, and a fundraising exhibit at the William H. Thomas Gallery brought in about $3,500.
“I don't know how we would have gotten through this past year without all of that support,” Michele said. “We're very, very grateful.”
“The doctor said with a condition like his, he wasn't supposed to survive,” she continued.
But West is fighting back, one day at a time, in his room with the painting of the woman, which was created around a theme that couldn't be more fitting.
“The Rising Spirit,” West said.