the artist’s work of life found in a hop

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For a short time last week, artist George Westren’s entire works were left in one hop, heading to the dump. A few hours later, however, they were going viral on social media, with people all over the world marveling at their technique and asking how they could purchase some of the late artist’s work.

None of this would have been possible had it not been for the actions of “nosy neighbor” Alan Warburton. Warburton was saddened during confinement by the news that Westren, his shy six-year-old upstairs neighbor, had died alone in his apartment. Last week, after hearing removal men emptying the place, he was horrified to see hundreds of Westren’s drawings and paintings packed up and heading to the dumpster.

“I couldn’t save everything,” he says from his Spitalfields apartment, where Westren’s collected works currently reside. “The removal men were in a hurry to get the job done. But I saw George’s portfolio in the dumpster and managed to get it. There were over 150 drawings there.”

And what designs. Warburton is an artist, working in video and animation, and he couldn’t believe the quality of Westren’s pieces. They were mostly op-art drawings and paintings, geometric shapes heavily influenced by British artist Bridget Riley. “Seeing the precision, knowing how difficult it is to do what he did, I was really impressed,” says Warbuton. “It was an incredible job, of professional quality. I can imagine him up there, working on it for weeks, being his whole life.”

Even so, he didn’t expect the huge response that followed when he took to Twitter to post a picture of his shipping with the words, “The release company arrived this morning and was about to throw away hundreds of beautiful op-art drawings.” ”. Celebrities like tennis star Martina Navratilova helped spread the word (“Amazing art… definitely must be saved!” she said), while others who knew Westren reached out to help Warburton piece together the life story of the neighbor he barely knew. It soon became clear that Westren had had a troubled life, marked by periods of homelessness and alcoholism. Yet art had been his salvation. He appears to have started drawing after a stint in rehab in 1999, and is believed to have added color to his work after finally overcoming his addiction. “Some of the titles are so beautiful,” notes Warburton. “My favorite is called Star Of Hope.”

Westren was a true outside artist – his chosen medium was felt-tip pen, presumably because it was accessible. But some of the compositions are intricate and adventurous, involving intricate designs of stars and diagonals. Was Westren trained in mathematics or engineering? Was, as some Twitter users suggested, his proximity to African fabrics in the Petticoat Lane market an influence on his color schemes? Warburton is still filling in many gaps.

Kim Noble, artist and leader of the Islington arts collective of which Westren was a part, says: “Art saved George’s life. When he was homeless, he once took shelter from the rain at an art gallery and it happened to be a Bridget Riley exhibit. Something about these works inspired George to pick up a pen and try to replicate these images.”

Noble remembers his student as a soft-spoken gentleman with a keen sense of humor. “But he didn’t need or want to teach. He just wanted to draw these geometric patterns over and over again. He attended the art group once a week for nearly 20 years until it closed, always with his art portfolio that he took with him everywhere – even though he often left him on the bus! He was so dedicated to this art collective and their art.”

In particular, Noble recalls a particular view of his own work in London. “George came and, although a quiet man, proceeded to court everyone, opening his portfolio, showing everyone and everyone his drawings. People were really impressed with it at the end of the night – I think they forgot it was actually my work on display!” Both Noble and Warburton are confident that Westren would love for their art to be shared and so widely admired.

Related: Curran Hatleberg’s Wet and Hallucinatory Images of the Deep South

Now Warburton hopes to do justice to his neighbor by showing off his work. He has already found a company to digitize 30 of the best images and plans to sell those prints to fund a small memorial show. He also hopes to find someone who can properly frame and preserve the works. “I’m not the owner of the project, I’m just a temporary guardian”, he makes a point of emphasizing.

The experience left him thinking deeply about life, legacies and loneliness. Before Westren died, Warburton knew him simply as the “sweet old man” upstairs. He often saw him coming and going and wondered what his life involved. “I thought maybe he was a journalist,” he says. Discovering that he was a fellow artist and that the two could have been friends rather than just acquaintances who exchanged the occasional word, prompted Warburton to think about the big picture.

“There are shy people in our communities: kind, lonely people who are unlikely to seek help even if they need it. And to think I was so close and we had so much in common. So I think that’s why I see a kindred spirit in George, and I hope others can see that too.”

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