ATLANTA - Over the past few decades, Robert West has built a name for himself with vibrant paintings depicting the excitement and glamour of railroads. But also captured in each of his works is the often-overlooked history of African-Americans and the role they played in building the rail industry.
Robert West is a Great Falls, Montana native who grew up listening to the stories of his grandfathers, including Allen Parrish, who rode the rails up and down the East Coast as a Pullman Porter. Pullman Porters were African-American men, initially ex-slaves, hired to serve passengers on sleeper cars beginning in roughly the late 1860s.
According to West, “Within the ‘colored’ community, you actually had several different types of prominent men. You had the preachers, you had the postal workers ... but on top of that whole echelon, you had the Pullman Porter. They were called traveling men with cosmopolitan sensibilities. They knew the proper social etiquette, they rubbed elbows with captains of industry, with royalty, kings, and queens that would come over and travel on the rails... So, the Pullman Porters actually was the highest echelon of the ‘colored’ community, but unfortunately, they were known as having the lowest job on board the train.”
West says when he began to seriously paint in the mid-1970s, he immediately began to channel his grandfather’s stories along with his own love for the intricacies of railroad design and physics.
“The very first painting that I ever went commercial with was my grandfather’s train, the West Coast Champion, tearing up the mainline between Waycross and Jacksonville,” he says.
Since then, he’s painted and sold hundreds of train scenes, which hang in homes and businesses across the country.
Of his unique position as a railroad artist, West says, “I am the world’s only Black full-time railroad technical illustrator, bar-none. I’ve been looking for others for 42 years, but, hey, I’m like a lone wolf howling at the moon, sounding like a train locomotive!”
Good Day Atlanta’s Paul Milliken recently spent some time with Robert West at Peachtree Station in Buckhead, where the artist often displays his work and learned more about the history and passion that drive West to keep bringing trains from the rail to the canvas.