After years of wondering what Westren kept in his tattered blue bag, Warburton finally got his answer last week: He was carrying his own works of art — which, in a cruel twist, were nearly thrown in the trash.
It all started about a year ago, when neighbors realized they hadn’t seen Westren for a while and called police. He was found dead in his tiny rental flat, where he had lived alone since 1999. He was 75.
“It just kept preying on my mind,” Warburton, also an artist, said of his neighbor’s unexpected death.
Warburton, who lives with his partner in the unit below Westren’s, decided to try to learn more about him.
After a quick Google search, Warburton learned his neighbor had faced addiction issues and turned to art to help him heal.
“As an artist myself, I was feeling a kinship with George,” said Warburton, adding that the cause of Westren’s death was not publicly disclosed.
Westren’s apartment remained as he had left it for a year, until June 20, when a crew hired by the local housing association suddenly showed up to empty it. From his unit below, Warburton — who is unsure why a year went by before the unit was cleared — heard the commotion.
He ventured upstairs, where he saw six workers sifting through Westren’s belongings. Hundreds of felt-tip drawings, he soon saw, were stacked around the unit. They were all headed for the trash.
Warburton quickly realized he was the only person standing between his neighbor’s meticulous abstract artwork and the garbage bin. He recalled thinking, “If I don’t save George’s artwork, I’ll probably regret it for the rest of my life.”
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He grabbed as much art as he could and brought it back to his apartment, making multiple trips. He spent the next few hours wiping dust off piles of portfolios, in awe of his neighbor’s geometric creations.
“I just saw hundreds of these immaculate, beautiful artworks,” said Warburton, who tried to track down Westren’s family members to give them the art, though he had no luck. “They’re professional quality. He had talent.”
“I wanted people to see this,” Warburton said. “You don’t just rescue beautiful artworks from the trash every day.”
Warburton chronicled the story in a Twitter thread, which circulated rapidly with thousands of shares, likes and comments. Throughout the thread, he shared images of Westren’s work.
“George Westren, sweet guy. From what I know, he had a tough life but art was a lifeline for him,” Warburton wrote in one tweet.
“It’s just such a privilege to see all this work that must have been carefully amassed over years, each one required so much patience and control,” he said in another.
Comments poured in, many of which came from people who knew and admired Westren and his artwork. Warburton was delighted.
“The loveliest, gentlest man!” one person wrote. “One of his pieces is in my hallway. Thanks for sharing and for saving his work.”
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“I remember George saying that making art gave him focus and helped him live with purpose,” another tweet read. “We definitely need to do something to help preserve his work.”
Warburton connected privately with people who knew Westren well in hopes of learning more about him.
Kim Noble, for one, helped shed light on Westren’s life. He was Westren’s art instructor for nearly two decades.
Noble, 47, led an art group for people with mental health challenges, and Westren was one of the original members of the weekly class. When they met, Westren was living on the streets.
“He was homeless for quite a long time during his life, and he really struggled with alcoholism,” Noble said. “He had no interest in art at all, and then one day he went into an exhibition to get out of the rain.”
The exhibit was the work of Bridget Riley, a British painter famous for her op art paintings. Westren was inspired by her.
“He saw something in these pictures, and he kind of just started to draw. He became an artist,” Noble said. “As he used to say, that saved his life.”
He quit drinking and secured an apartment in an affordable housing community, where he ultimately died and where Warburton lives today, Noble said. In his final years, art was Westren’s whole world.
“The process for George was just as important as the outcome,” he said. “He just would draw and draw and draw.”
To Noble’s knowledge, Westren never married or had children, though “George is a very private person,” he said. “This group and his friends within this group were his family.”
Noble also knew that despite being a quiet man, Westren wanted his art to have an audience. He once attended an art exhibit for Noble, bringing a small portfolio of his own drawings to showcase.
“He wanted people to see his work,” Noble said, adding that he included Westren in several episodes of a podcast series he recorded in 2020. In a segment about mental health and fear, Westren was asked about how he copes in times of trouble.
“Just continue and fight against the world. It’s not an easy fight,” he responded.
When Noble learned his friend had died, “I was pretty gutted,” he said. “He was a good man.”
Classmates wouldn’t sign his yearbook. So older students stepped in.
Henry McWilliams, who has lived in the same building as Westren and Warburton for more than 20 years, said Westren was a kind neighbor and was never without a portfolio of drawings.
“Every day, he would go off and try and get it shown somewhere,” said McWilliams, 71. “It’s unfortunate that he passed before he got the recognition.”
Now, though, “he will not be forgotten,” McWilliams said.
Warburton is trying to see that through. His goal, he said, is to “give George the legacy that he deserves.”
After countless people on social media and in London asked to buy Westren’s art, Warburton came up with a plan. Although he is not selling the original drawings, he made prints of 30 unique pieces. They are now available to order online, and proceeds will be used to create an exhibition of Westren’s work and preserve it in perpetuity, he said. Any additional funds will be donated toward a cause that would have been close to Westren’s heart, Warburton said, adding, “I just want to do the right thing by George.”
It’s a bittersweet story, he said, one that is sad and beautiful in equal measure.
“The story behind the work, that’s really the thing that gives it meaning,” Warburton said. “If people can attach meaning to art, it becomes infinitely valuable.”
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