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Artist paints his grandfather's history

  • Story Highlights
  • Robert West was inspired by family history to paint trains
  • Artist's grandfather was a Pullman train porter
  • "Visual historian" does a lot of research before painting
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By Katherine Dorsett
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Artist Robert West is proud of his connection to the Pullman Company. His grandfather, Allen Parrish, was a Pullman Porter and helped inspire some of his train paintings.

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Robert West paints his latest project in his Atlanta, Georgia, studio.

"When I was growing up, we would often take grandfather to work at the train station. I became impressed and mesmerized with trains through this experience. This passion ultimately led me to become a full-time railroad illustrator," West said.

The Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of African-Americans in the 1920s and '30s. It hired them as porters in railroad sleeping cars to assist railroad passengers and make up beds.

These jobs were once highly regarded in the black community because they offered the opportunity to travel and better pay and security than most jobs open to blacks at the time.

West says trains have an important place in African-American history -- from symbolism in Negro spirituals to a real conveyance for the mass migration of blacks moving to the North in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"Trains have so long symbolized hope, freedom and power -- what better metaphor could there be to represent our struggle and our assimilation into mainstream American life," West said.

Many of West's paintings depict historical scenes with the now defunct Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, because that's where his grandfather worked for many years. Video Watch award-winning artist on trains and history »

West paints other trains, including the Steam, Gas turbine, Electric, as well as first through sixth Generation Diesel Electric Locomotives. He wears a conductor's hat as he works.

"I think it's important that all the cultures in the United States look back at our history by way of the railroads," West said. "It was through our contributions to the railroads, that also pushed us forward as a nation and as a human race."

West has been drawing and painting trains since the age of 2. In 1973, he decided to make railroad illustrating a profession. Through the years his work has won several awards in shows of national and regional scope.

"I'm probably more of a visual historian more than anything else, because I conduct weeks, months, sometimes years of research prior to doing a painting," he said.

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West has painted more than 500 original works, which have sold across the United States and around the world. Train enthusiasts are his largest market.

"When one looks at my paintings, I like for them to not only feel a sense of joy, but to feel good about times when times were happier, kinder, and gentler," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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