Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 by Rachel Walther
It's been more than 50 years since Rima West (Painting 1960) studied painting in the studios of CCA's Oakland campus. And not a day has gone by since that she hasn't relied on her craft for solace and community. She settled in Carmel after leaving CCA and developed a strong support base in the area, which continues today. She maintains a regular studio practice of painting and drawing, and she teaches dance at the Carmel Foundation.
West was born in the Bronx during the Great Depression, and during her childhood her father had a commercial art studio on Broadway in Manhattan. "Art was always in the house," she remembers. An opportunity to do medical illustration for the National Institute of Health took the family from New York to the Washington DC area, and eventually to California. West's father worked up and down the West Coast, designing exhibits for the state's visitor centers. When West was old enough, she started utilizing her painting and drawing skills to assist on these projects, including designs for a visitor center at Yosemite National Park.
Applying to CCA
West decided to apply to CCA to further her art studies, and she still recalls the day -- she was working at a bookstore in Portland after high school -- that she received her acceptance letter. She packed light for her new life in Oakland. "I got on a train with my portfolio, and off I went!"
West spent her first year at CCA in the women's dorms and remembers having "a great, understanding den mother. There were not too many restrictions." The bohemian atmosphere of California College of Arts & Crafts was in full swing. "The men were up in our dorms a lot," she admits. “"We felt so free! There'd be people skating up and down the hallways, sometimes completely naked."
Mentorship from Nathan Oliviera
The atmosphere of possibility extended to the classroom and to her artwork. West was encouraged by many of her professors, including the renowned painter and sculptor Nathan Oliveira. One day, she says, "I began crying in the classroom, and ran out into the hallway. Nathan followed me out and asked what was wrong. 'Everyone's doing gorgeous work except me!' I cried. He said, 'Don't pay attention to what the others are doing. You've got what it takes!'"
West's large, expressive figures dominate any canvas or drawing she creates. It's an aesthetic she honed while studying at CCA, a very modern approach for the time. "I started by painting exclusively female figures. Then, I started working with female figures interacting with male figures. I've always had a bright, bold palette -- it gives an impression of femininity but it's not feminine looking. People have said my work has a womanly feeling to it, but I was never much affected by that."
Marriage, and Settling in Carmel
During her second year of school, West discovered she was expecting a child and decided to leave CCA and raise a family. "My mother insisted I get married. It was what you did in those days." Leaving behind a grant-funded scholarship and a desire to become a teacher of the arts was not a decision she made lightly. Her love of the classroom is something she comes back to as often as possible. "I got a lot out of my semesters at CCA. I loved it! I still do a lot of things with young people whenever I can."
West and her husband settled in Carmel, where the latter planned to pursue a landscaping career, and those first years after college were tough. "We were pretty poor. I didn't have a car or a driver's license to get around, and I felt isolated. While I focused on raising my daughter I continued to paint, and made dolls that I sold in local shops. I kept up my studio work and applied to gallery shows." West's husband became increasingly involved with Civil Rights activism and the Peace and Freedom movement, meeting with other Carmel locals such as Joan Baez.
Back to the East Bay
West describes her situation during the mid-1960s as a "crazy, hectic life. We were living in this funky cottage in downtown Carmel, and people were in my house all the time." West stopped sharing her husband's pursuits when he became increasingly involved with drugs. She divorced him and moved back to the East Bay during the heyday of the Summer of Love. To support her three children she worked in a vintage clothing shop on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue that catered to local musicians like Janis Joplin.
When West and her children were forced to leave their apartment in Berkeley due to local construction, they lived in various parts of Northern California for several years before returning to Carmel. In the ensuing years a second marriage ended in divorce, and West supported herself and her family working at several natural grocery stores in the area.
Still Making Art
Shortly after she retired from Whole Foods in 2000, West was diagnosed with cancer. "The Cornucopia Natural Food Center in Carmel put on a fair to help me raise some money for my treatment." Thirteen years later, she is still healthy, in remission, and keeping active.
"Now my youngest daughter, who's 37, has breast cancer. She was with me while I was getting treatment, and now I'm there for her. During her chemotherapy the doctors keep pointing to me as an example of our family's tough genes!" West lost her son to suicide after he suffered a long battle with drugs and mental illness in the 1990s. Her eldest daughter, now 51, maintains an art studio in her apartment, just like her mother does.
Throughout her life, West credits her success at maintaining an arts practice to her friends. "They helped me find a balance between my home life and my painting. We would keep our work together, and plan parties together." The Carmel Foundation helped place her in a new apartment during her recovery from cancer, and between her duties teaching Dance Jam classes at the Carmel Foundation and working in her home studio, West's life is as busy as ever.
"This is the time of my life when I’m completely free! I dye my hair, wear my daughters' clothes, and forget about my age. I don't act old, and I don’t feel old."