Natchez artist trades computer for paintbrush

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ken Wesley’s portfolio has been viewed by millions across the globe. It would be hard to find anyone, anywhere that hasn’t seen his work.

Need an oasis to magically appear in the middle of a desert? How about a pirate ship sinking into the depths? Six months ago, Wesley would have been your man. The Mississippi native spent 25 years creating special effects for blockbusters such as “The Mummy,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Stars Wars.”

But after investing a lifetime of work into the technology behind today’s movies, he was tired of the computers, tired of the hours and tired of the stress. So Wesley decided to make a change. He moved back to Mississippi and started painting professionally — something he says he always knew would happen.

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“In the back of my mind, I always knew I would be a painter someday,” he said. “I knew I would eventually try the artist’s life on for size.”

Wesley opened his first studio in Bay St. Louis just a year before Katrina. After losing almost everything in the storm, he moved away.

“I wanted to get back to Mississippi, but Bay St. Louis was gone,” he said.

Two years later, Wesley found Natchez.

“Natchez had the right elements that fit with my idea of the kind of artist I wanted to be,” he said. “I decided this is where I wanted to get my new start.”

Wesley moved into a downtown cottage and converted the house into a studio. He covered the floors with protective plastic and filled the bare, white walls with his paintings. Wesley again found the artist’s life he wanted.

The 48-year-old said it didn’t take him long to discover something to paint in Natchez.

“There are a lot of surprising motifs here,” he said. “I really don’t have to hunt.”

Like most artists, Wesley struggled to describe his paintings. He simply said he hoped they looked like an original Ken Wesley. Most of his works are landscapes, which he said are his favorite subjects to paint.

Wesley prefers to work in the French plein air method, which means he arrives on location and paints directly from what he sees. For Wesley, this could be an antebellum home, a cemetery hillside, a winding river or a downtown garden.

“There’s such freshness to it,” he said. “There’s a direct response between you and what you’re trying to represent. There’s so much you can’t get just painting from a photo. The sun on your skin, the breeze blowing — all your senses come into play.”

For Wesley, there’s something almost transcendent about painting this way. He tries to convey this organic response with those who view his works. And after only a few short months in Natchez, several people have seen his vision and responded to his paintings. The artist has found more support here than he ever expected.

“I have been surprised how successful life here has been,” he said. “I already have a collector here that buys multiple paintings. That’s every artist’s dream.”

Wesley hopes to expand that dream later this month when he takes part in the Natchez Artists Studio Tour. More than 50 artists will have work on display at 29 locations throughout Natchez. The Nov. 24 event is designed to give people an opportunity to visit with the artists in their studios and galleries. Painters, photographers, sculptors and potters will display their work on the tour.

For tour information, call or e-mail the Natchez Downtown Development Association.