Justin West stands before a green screen in the Media Arts Center's black box theater.

Justin  West

Seeing the light -- and studying it

Justin West can see the light, and that's why he's compelled to study it.

The more he learns, the more he wants to know, and the more he wants to tell others about the amazing ways that light impacts the world.

West, a painter, videographer and the founder and longtime professor of the Electronic Media Arts program at HCC, took a sabbatical in fall 2012 to research light. His work and travels took him to Scotland, Morocco and Southeast Asia, where he compared the light in each climate and interviewed a scholar, a geographer, a philosopher, a photographer, a painter and a printmaker. With each interview, the scope of his project expanded.

In fall 2013, West will unveil a one-hour documentary that will focus on light in five different dimensions: in physics, in the visual arts of painting and photography, in literature, as a geographical concept and as a metaphor.

"The purpose is to expose and encourage people to think about light in a different way," West said. "Every single thing in your physical environment is made up of light. It changes our perception of objects. Light is just incredibly important to how we experience the world. I'd like them to realize light is something we take for granted and what an important impact it has on our understanding of things."

West earned a bachelor's in art from Hampshire College in 1977, then painted in Italy for three years before returning to the area to earn his master's in Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the early 80s.

During the master's program, West discovered that he preferred to focus on video because painting isn't erasable, or malleable, and video is. Afterward, West taught video at five area colleges, including Smith and UMass. He finally realized -- "kicking and screaming" -- that his true calling was in teaching.
He joined HCC shortly thereafter and has been here over 20 years.

West's sabbatical began in Scotland, where he interviewed Professor Harald Haas at the University of Edinburgh, who studies the use of LED light for short-range data transmission. With Haas, West studied the science of light.

Traveling to Morocco with his wife, Eileen, he studied the light of the climate and also had one of the "Aha moments" of the project. He and a Swiss banker were dining at a hotel, when the banker pointed out that the agricultural system in the United States is based on light but in Bali, it is based on rainfall as the light is the same all year round.

Joined by his 23-year-old son, Beryl, West continued on to Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, where he studied the equatorial light in a humid climate.

Closer to home, West interviewed and filmed Abelardo Morell, an acclaimed photographer in the Boston area and a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art; Richard Wilkie, professor emeritus in the Department of Geosciences at UMass; Dr. Kenyon Bradt, a philosopher; John Gibson of Northampton, a painter; and Mary Teichman, a printmaker from Easthampton.

As each talked about light as it relates to their work, a new door opened in West's work.

"I didn't realize it was going to be this huge of a thing," he said of his project.

Grateful for the sabbatical and the chance to conduct research, West said it is critical for community college professors to be given that opportunity "if we're going to remain vital and stay current."

"We want to grow and be inspired and keep pace with students and their learning and curiosity," he added.

-- Janice Beetle

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