West Fraser | Portraits of Places

By Mark Mussari

There was no movie theater on Hilton Head Island when West Fraser was a teenager, and maybe that was a good thing. Whereas most teens would have been bored, Fraser was fascinated by the scenery that surrounded him, and he has spent a lifetime recreating it on canvas. Known for his evocative paintings of coastal landscapes and small towns, the Southern painter continues to capture the vistas that defined his formative years.

Born in Savannah, GA, Fraser spent his early childhood in nearby Hinesville. “My paternal grandmother had a lot of art around the house,” he recalls, “and she would provide paper, pencils, and crayons for me when I was a child.” Unlike many professional painters, Fraser was not bitten by the art bug early in life. “I was mostly just playing in the woods, hunting and fishing,” he says. “I grew up on horseback, on a small farm. It was idyllic.”

Painting on Broad, oil, 36 x 36.

His family moved to Hilton Head when Fraser was 11, and the nature-loving youth was floored by the beauty of his new surroundings. “The Sea Islands were quite spectacular,” he observes. “It’s some of the most unique scenery in the world, a huge estuary and breeding grounds for marine life. It looks like a jungle.” As time went on, however, Fraser watched civilization and development encroaching slowly on his beloved views. “That change had a profound effect on me, to see the place where I once had a tree fort turning into a condominium project,” he explains. “I was very attached to the land—and I still am.”

At the age of 13, Fraser began to make watercolor sketches, and throughout his teen years he became increasingly aware of environmental issues. Today he puts it this way: “My interest in biology merged with my natural inclination to make images,” he says. By the time he turned 14, his artistic talent had become clear to his family. Fate intervened when accomplished illustrator Coby Whitmore moved to Hilton Head. “His son was a friend of mine,” remembers Fraser. “My mother showed Coby a watercolor I did and asked him if he thought I needed lessons. But he advised against it.” Instead, Whitmore told her to buy the teenager any materials he wanted and to “let him find his own way.” Fraser’s mother followed the advice.

After high school, Fraser attended the University of Georgia, graduating with a bachelor’s of fine art in illustration and graphic design. He had avoided taking any fine-art classes, however, because he did not like the thrust of the department, which he defines in retrospect as “do whatever you want.” Fraser wanted a more disciplined foundation. Following graduation he took jobs in illustration while continuing to paint on the side.

Early influences on Fraser’s art included Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, and especially N.C. and Andrew Wyeth. “I loved the illustrators and the amazing way they could craft an image,” he notes. The luminosity inherent in the early 20th-century illustrations of artists like N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle would later become an essential element in Fraser’s own paintings.

Martin Houses, oil, 30 x 40.

At first, Fraser painted almost solely in watercolors. “But by 1989 I was getting tired of watercolors,” he observes. “I was out taking photographs and then working at my easel in the studio. I started thinking that there had to be a better way.” He also realized that painting with watercolors on location was burdensome. “It was too humid, and often the paper wouldn’t dry. Sometimes I would hold it over a fire to dry it out! By 1990, I realized that oil was a better medium for me, and I really started painting exclusively outdoors.” The marshes, forests, and coastlines—the glorious scenes that had surrounded him in his youth—were calling out to him.

“Today, I call myself a painter, not a plein-air painter,” says Fraser, who now lives in Charleston, SC. “My art is naturalistic, although my use of color might take me out of the naturalist realm. On that front I’m more of an American impressionist,” he explains, nodding to the approach of the Old Lyme and California schools. “I don’t try to copy nature’s colors. I try to create imagery that triggers a response.”

Asked to define his process, he says that “composition comes first. The elements have to be there.” Unlike some plein-air painters, Fraser does not change the scenery to create his compositions. “I don’t take a tree and move it somewhere else,” he points out. “I compose from the elements I have in front of me. My perspective is as if you’re walking into that space.” And what spaces he captures: Viewers might find themselves staring at a distant sailboat on the glittering water, watching the sunset from a deserted cove, or wading deep into marshland bathed in golden afternoon light. “I almost always employ a foreground that leads you into the picture,” observes Fraser, who refers to his compositional approach as “a portrait of a place.”

His lighting, in particular, imparts an atmospheric quality to his canvases. “Light is really the only subject I paint,” he affirms. “Light and atmosphere help me create the illusion that I want people to take away as reality—a sense of this place. I look for aspects that create a statement about the essence of a place,” says Fraser, who often spends as much time scouting his locale as he does painting it. One place he’s certain to find inspiration is an island his family once owned that is now preserved as part of the South Carolina Heritage Trust. He goes there often to paint.

Support American Fisherman, oil, 30 x 36.

His painting SUPPORT AMERICAN FISHERMEN reflects his affection for those who make their living along the coast. Fraser saw the painting’s title written on a wall on the retail side of a shrimp dock. “I have always been interested in the working waterfronts found worldwide, though they are diminishing in number everywhere,” he says. “They’re transition zones in the landscape, places that bind the dynamic of water and land.” Fraser also used the title for a series of 12 paintings he exhibited in 2007, donating a portion of the  proceeds to the South Carolina Seafood Alliance, which benefits the marketing of locally caught, wild seafood.

Fraser maintains a studio separate from his home, which he shares with his wife and children. “My studio is located in a building called the Confederate Home for Widows and Orphans,” he notes. “I’ve never really had houses I could paint in, so I’ve worked outside the home most of my life.” His wife, Helena Fox, is his business manager and the owner of Helena Fox Fine Art in the historic French Quarter of Charleston. Says Fraser, “I work hard to balance my personal life and my life as an artist, which is a full-time pursuit and can become all-consuming.”

Fraser’s résumé is as impressive as his art. Six years ago he was appointed to the South Carolina Arts Commission. An elected member of the prestigious Salmagundi Club in New York City, he is also a fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists and a signature member of the Plein-Air Painters of America. His art hangs in permanent collections in museums across the United States and also at the White House Historical Association.

Asked to explain the broad attraction of his art, Fraser responds, “I’m trying to paint good pictures that will hold people’s attention. I’m creating journeys for people.” Looking at his brilliant canvases of the landscape he loves, we are more than happy to travel with him.

Helena Fox Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Palmetto Bluff Gallery, Bluffton, SC; Irene Morrah Fine Art, Greenville, SC; Claudia Heath Fine Art, Charlotte, NC; Clark Gallery, Banner Elk, NC; James J. Rieser Fine Art, Carmel, CA; www.westfraserstudio.com.
Upcoming show
Solo show, Spartanburg Art Museum, Spartanburg, SC, early 2011.

Featured in December 2010