Columbus artist Pheoris West remembered as teacher and storyteller

Ken Gordon
kgordon@dispatch.com
Pheoris West at home with his family (from left): daughter Pheannah, wife Michele and son Jahlani.

Of all the glowing words used to describe Columbus artist Pheoris West, three stand out: Teacher. Nurturer. Storyteller.

West, 70, died Saturday at his North Side home after going into cardiac arrest, said his wife, Michele. He had been bedridden since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2016.

West was one of the city’s leading Black artists, often focusing on imagery of Black women in his paintings. He also was an associate professor of art for 40 years at Ohio State University, touted by his students for his encouragement and unwavering support.

That support also was given to Michele and their four children.

“Everything about him was phenomenal, it’s hard to put into words,” she said. “He was such a giving person. When someone came to him for help he never turned anybody down.

“And he was an educator, always an educator.”

Born in Albany, New York, West first thought about going to law school, Michele said, before pursuing art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He then earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale University before moving to Columbus for the OSU position in 1976. There, he influenced two generations of aspiring artists while also building a portfolio that has been exhibited across the United States and overseas. 

“He made you feel like you were special, you were brilliant, and everything you did was fantastic,” said Columbus multimedia artist LaTosha Matthews, who had West as a student while at OSU from 2005-2011. She later helped run his studio.

“He was a storyteller, first of all,” Matthews said. “For me, his work was otherworldly, like he was painting from another dimension. There is a spiritual connection I feel that pulls me into his work, and that, coupled with the stories of why he made those pieces, added so much richness and intensity to his paintings.”

West’s paintings feature vibrant colors, movement and symbolism. On his website, it says that he chose to focus on Black women because "he considers her a symbol for Mother Earth, the creator of humanity."

His work has been shown in museums from Boston and Philadelphia to Palermo, Italy. His designs can be seen in stained-glass windows in the Ohio Union (OSU’s student center) and in the Mt. Vernon Avenue AME Church.

He also is among the prominent Black community members depicted on the Long Street Cultural Wall.

Bryan Moss, another Columbus artist influenced by West, met the artist through Matthews and got to know him by spending time in his studio.

“I was always a little insecure about my painting. I felt I was more of a student,” Moss said. “And Pheoris said, `Oh no, you’re a professional, you’re really good,’ and that gave me confidence.”

West is survived by Michele and three children: sons Jahlani, 41, and Adji, 37, and daughter, Pheannah West, 37. A son, Adwin (a triplet, with Adji and Pheannah), died in 2015. West also has five grandchildren.

“He was the coolest dad,” Jahlani said. “He didn’t try and kind of, `You need to be this or you need to be that.’ He just let me be who I needed to be to find my place in the world.”

Likewise, Pheannah said, “He wanted us to be who we are and everything to come from us authentically.”

Michele called West “a human encyclopedia” who slept only four hours a night and had an amazing memory and knowledge of many topics, particularly sports. West enjoyed playing tennis, basketball and golf.

The family also recalled his storytelling. At times, they would get together as a group, one person starting a story and then another picking up and adding on. All the while, West would be illustrating the tale. He also could draw on his extensive travels  —including some dangerous situations in Africa, Michele said — for stories.

Services for West have not been finalized, and are being handled by Diehl-Whittaker Funeral Service. He will be interred at Eastlawn Cemetery.