The Person Behind the Paint
About a week ago I sat down with Francine West to discuss what she was working on for the upcoming Selfie exhibit, and how things were coming along. I was hoping to get to know her better and be able to answer a few questions I had jotted down in my notebook. I had a slight idea of where I thought our conversation would take us, but I never could have imagined where it would end up. I have known Francine all my life. She painted my first bedroom, and she has been a part of my Dad’s life since the time he was my age. All these years though, I never really knew this incredible woman. We had experienced countless introductions, as the words, “Francine, I’m sure you remember Sydney,'“ were uttered. I had seen her paint, I had seen some of her work, but I didn’t know her or her story.
As we were walking over to the couch to talk she mentioned how she might not be able to remember much about her past, but that she would certainly try. As we continued to talk though, I saw her face light up, as years of memories flooded her mind. It was instantly clear that painting was powerful. Francine told me it is like meditation to her, it is her escape. When I asked what the biggest challenge has been for her, she mentioned a project for a Rod Stewart European Tour, but said that she doesn’t really have one because painting is her happy place. It became clear how passionate she was about painting. I started by asking about the Selfie exhibit, and her work painting the dinosaurs. She told me that with this project, as well as others, “If you just keep doing something, something will happen. Keep going until it gets better”. Our conversation flowed, and I quickly realized I would not need my pre-planned questions. That was the beautiful thing. How one simple question led us into nearly an hour long conversation about her whole life. I learned about her beginnings in art as a young girl who drew an exceptional house, and knew she would be an artist. I learned about the art book she sold for fifty cents, the first thing she ever sold. I learned about how she got to put on jeans to paint and how she felt like that was where she belonged. I was amazed at her stories. Not only did she push her physical limits, working for twenty-three hours in a row, being a “working machine”, she pushed societal limits. A “punk kid” as she called herself, was making good money. Making more than her father, her brother, and rolling around in her 66 Mustang, it was clear her hard work was paying off. Francine hustled. She worked and worked, but she loved it. Painting is her life, her escape, her work, her passion, all in one. I admire how strong she is. I think she is an example to young girls, and everyone with a dream to do what has not been done. Francine told me, “I was the first woman to work in the MGM scenic shop. I tried to walk through doors that women hadn’t walked through before. I felt an obligation for all the other women that might want to do it to not mess up. I wanted to work really really hard and be good” To her, the work ethic is the biggest thing. Francine’s work ethic and determination opened many doors. She was creating change in an industry dominated by males. Constantly working hard, she proved she, along with other women, deserved their spot in the workplace. Francine told me how important it was to be valued at work saying, “If they don’t want you there, they can be so cruel that you become disabled when you’re trying to work there. Because no matter what you do it won’t be good enough”. Francine did it though, she was able to thrive and prove herself in situations women had never been in before. At the end of everything she told me how she had “Kinda done everything in scenic”. From museum sets, to ballets, opera, theatre, television, motion picture, Francine truly had a full career. She told me how she was around to see a lot of stuff, and that she learned a lot as she went. The conversation I had with Francine went above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. My simple questions turned into a life of stories, fond memories, wise words and jokes being shared with me. I was absolutely humbled to be with her. Francine is so special, and holds a special place in my heart. She says every job is her favorite job, and I think that ability to truly live in the moment is so unique. All this time I knew Francine, I knew only what I saw, I am so grateful to have bee able to talk with her and to be able to hear her story. All those years ago when my Dad sought her out at Sac State to help with a project, she entered our lives and I am so blessed she did.
You can check out some of Francine’s most recent work at Selfie Experience at the California State Fair this July. Once again, this has been Sydney Carlson, bringing you along on the journey.