The soul of an artist, the heart of a warrior. That best describes Carroll Westfall, a decorated World War II veteran who used his talent as an artist to help him cope with the violence he witnessed.
“I wasn‘t drafted. I enlisted because I heard about the bad things the Nazis were doing,” he recalls.
At 90, he continues to work but says the memories of those long-ago battles are “as fresh as if they happened yesterday.” His work as an artist and art restoration expert gives him an opportunity to escape the memories.
“You have to concentrate. You get lost in the detail and if you are restoring you must learn to imitate the artist. It has been very helpful,” he says.
As an infantry scout in the Army, he went ahead of the unit, spending most of his time behind enemy lines trying to ensure safe passage.
“A lot of times the enemy would let me move ahead unharmed. I remember walking us into an ambush. At the last second, I saw a glint of metal coming from a tank hidden in the trees. I fired to let the troops know. The next thing I know, the nearest officer to me is hit by a shell. He was there and then he was completely gone.”
The Germans may have gotten the best of him that time, but it was his skills that usually won out. He singlehandedly took out three machine gun nests at different times and captured 15 German soldiers. Reluctant to talk about the war, he continued with his story after some persuading.
“We were pinned down behind an embankment and the SS were dug in on the other side of the ridge. Everyone who tried to move was shot. After two days I had all I could take so I charged the machine gun nest. They shot the rifle out of my hands so I threw a grenade,” he says.
Mr. Westfall fought throughout Europe and in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He says he once eliminated a machine gun position on a knoll when he surprised 15 sleeping German soldiers.
“They had dug a slit trench and were so exhausted they didn‘t even hear the gunfire. I woke them up and was holding a grenade. I pulled the pin and said if anyone moves we all die.”
He held that grenade for more than 15 minutes waiting for his unit to reach his position.
“He killed many of them during the war,” interjects his wife, Deborah, who has worked side by side with him for 31 years. She is also an artist.
“It bothers me more now than it used to,” he confesses.
He only did one painting from his war years titled “Unburied.” It depicted a friend of his who was shot while trying to advance over barbed wire.
“It was bought by a naval officer, but I didn’t want to sell it for a long time,” he says.
”It was very strong and the eyes followed you,“ his wife says.
Mr. Westfall‘s bravery in battle earned him the Bronze Star, two Silver Stars and several combat infantry medals. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. “Sudden noises are a problem,” says Mrs. Westfall.
It is his art, his work, that has delivered him from the horrors of war, he says. Not long after returning from Europe, Mr. Westfall turned to art restoration, specializing in Old Masters. He continues to do restoration and his own work today.
“I enjoy working and have been doing it nearly 60 years,” he says,sitting at the easel in his home studio in Brookline. “I remember starting to draw and paint when I was 12.”
A pen-and-ink drawing he did in 1938 sold at Dargate Auction Galleries earlier this month, inspiring a bidding war. At the same auction, several other paintings he did and some he restored were also sold.
He began his professional artistic career while still stationed overseas, attending the Wharton Technical School in Wharton, England. He worked in London as an artist before moving to the French Riviera, where he painted street portraits for a living in Nice and Cannes. Finally he moved back to his hometown in Clarksburg, W.Va., and in 1959 he made the move to Pittsburgh.
At one point, he had studios here and in Manhattan, where he did restoration work with the big auction houses, Christies and Sotheby‘s. He brings a portrait painter’s eye for detail to his restoration work. The oldest painting he has restored was one of Christ that had been carbon-dated to the 1300s.
"I never felt intimidated by a work of art I had to restore,” he says. “Challenged and responsible, but never intimidated.“
Over the years his clientele have included PNC Bank, Pittsburgh Field Club, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, U.S.Steel and the Duquesne Club.
“When you are restoring a work, you feel an immense responsibility to represent the piece as the artist intended it to be seen.”
He takes that same tack with the portraits he paints:
”A portrait is a very intimate undertaking. You have much more of an opportunity to bring out the personality than with a photograph.
“I prefer doing my own painting, particularly portraits, but art restoration pays the bills.“
Mr. Westfall can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on twitter @pasheridan