Whenever I pass by the Public Safety building, I always take a long moment to stop and watch the scenery around me. I look at the humble, grey stone house with the words “PUBLIC SAFETY, VISITOR INFORMATION,” proudly printed on its entryway. I listen to the wind that sneaks through the remaining leaves on the surrounding magnolia trees, their unrestrained knots creeping through the humidity. The grass and the mulch soften the sharpness of the stony edifice and the angular trees as the ground beneath gently slopes upward to Willets Hall.
I stop and read the black metal sign next to the house, which proclaims, “NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORICAL PLACES,” and goes on to describe the life of painter Benjamin West, who was born in that very house. Every time I make my pilgrimage to the Public Safety building, I find myself in a deep state of peace with the world around me. I smile to myself as I gaze at my serene surroundings and think, “Wow. When Benjamin West lived here, he would have really fucking hated it.”
In 1738, Pennsylvania and the other twelve colonies were devoid of any man-made beauty. While self-taught American portraitists such as William Jennys and Joseph Badger certainly put oil to canvas, their twisted, disproportionate figures hardly induce any other emotion than confusion and disgust. Although unfortunate, given the predominantly Quaker and Puritan roots of the territory, there was no means for non-utilitarian art to have entered mainstream Anglo-American culture in any capacity. It was in this artistic (or unartistic) climate that Benjamin West had no choice but to live for the next twenty-two years, teaching himself to paint little by little.
West was twenty-two when William Smith, the first provost of the university now known as UPenn, discovered his artistic ability and decided to become his patron. During the same year, he travelled to Italy for a tour, and then to England three years later. He did intend, at some point, to return to the colonies; the artistic potential in England, however, was simply too great for West to willingly sacrifice his opportunity to lead a fruitful career in history painting. Needless to say, he never returned. The man born in the drab stone house in what was then Springfield, Pennsylvania went on to be known as the “American Raphael” and become a mentor to the next, significantly robust generation of American painters. West died in London in 1820, having twice served as the President of the Royal Academy.
Now, the house in which West gulped his first breath of air stands as Swarthmore’s Public Safety building. Although it is shrouded in thick drapes of foliage, I can make out the outline of the house from my dorm room on Willets-First, and every time that I glance out of my window, seeing the humble building always succeeds in adding radiance to my day-to-day life. Colonial American art has been a significant interest of mine for four years now because I believe that it embodies the spirit of creation and that of bettering one’s society in any way one can.
While Colonial American art is best-known for being drab and more often than not concerning wealthy white landowners as their subject matter, it does possess its relative merits. What differentiates Colonial American art from European art at the time is that as opposed to England’s Joshua Reynolds and France’s Jacques-Louis David, no such person exists as the archetypal Colonial artist. Every painter in the thirteen colonies had to find their own means to produce art in such an utterly bleak and artless society. Although this lack of artistic uniformity resulted in a myriad of deeply-flawed paintings and portraits, to me, this inconsistency represents the merits of the period. The flaws stand to show that artists in the thirteen colonies and in the United States upon independence were people who endeavored to introduce beauty into their lives and the lives of those around them, even if many of them did not have the opportunity to see any quality artwork until after they had already become recognized for their work.
It’s difficult for me to believe that Benjamin West, the forefather of an era-defining generation of painters in the United States and in England, was born only feet away from where I currently live. It’s difficult for me to believe Native Americans taught him how to mix paint by combining grease and mud, and at an incredibly early age, he took that knowledge and hit the ground running. From being born in the boxy gray Public Safety building in Springfield, Pennsylvania, West became the personal historical painter for King George III by following his own initiative across the Atlantic Ocean.
Seeing the Public Safety building brings me joy every day because it serves to me as a symbol of self-empowerment and of the power that comes in creation. Sure, it’s the Public Safety building, but for me to live so close to the house in which one of my absolute favorite painters was born is incredibly meaningful and constantly reminds me to strive for excellence. After all, who, if not Benjamin West, continues to serve as a human manifestation of the merits of self-empowerment and accomplishment in this capacity? And who, if not Benjamin West, can make it any less unpleasant to live right next to Public Safety?
Featured Image courtesy of Karin Nakano for The Phoenix