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  • jenniewestfall

“I’m just here for the scenery!” I shouted to my husband. It was 5:30 am and I was sitting on my surfboard just beyond the breakers at sunrise. He was far enough away from me that I had to yell, because he was very busy scouting for good waves - and he was actually catching them. Me, I was just proud of myself for getting up so damn early, into the water, and swimming out past the crashing waves that had been a barrier for me just weeks before. And the scenery was breathtaking at that hour. Lots of clouds in the sky because the rainy season had started earlier than usual, and the light in the sky and the color of the water was pure magic. But the truth was I also really wanted to catch a wave. Like actually surf. For most of our time in Costa Rica (six weeks total) I had been mainly surfing the breakers, a few smaller unbroken waves when I got lucky, and had been pushed into a few ‘bigger’ waves during surf lessons. For the first three weeks in fact, I hadn’t even tried to venture out past the breakers. I was too scared. So I played it safe and small.

There had been several moments over the last week there where I was utterly frustrated with myself and my lack of success in the waves. My 13 year-old was catching waves, popping up quickly, and I was so excited for her. But I was also envious! And of course Joe, my 6’2” athletic husband, surfs well. The comparison game in my head was on fire. My head knew it was so stupid to compare or be envious or even frustrated, but my emotions wouldn’t listen. I just wanted the fun (and success!) they were having!!

Joe had mentioned at one point this thing that a famous YouTube surfer guy had said that really rang true: when you surf, you have to be in a flow. As in, you can’t go out there, be all stiff and scared, comparing yourself to others, and expect to 1) catch waves 2) have fun 3) be present in the moment. It won’t work.

And of course the same is SO true for painting. You cannot force your way into a good painting. You can’t start from a place of comparing yourself to others, or feeling “less than” or “not good enough”. You cannot be in your head about making something that you like or that others will like. You can’t start out thinking “I have to make a beautiful painting.” You have to be in some state or form of flow.

I’m still working on how to get into this state of “flow” more consistently in my painting practice. But I will tell you that my best work has happened when I care a lot less about the end result and truly enjoy the process of painting. The one thing I know for sure is this: flow can only happen when you let go. Let go of all the striving and effort, let go of comparing yourself to others or caring what others think.

This is not easy work. This type of letting go is a life-long process - for me at least! Some of the ways I battle over-thinking and comparison traps is through journaling, prayer, meditation, and being vulnerably honest with people about the inner dialogue that plagues me at times. When we bring our hard stuff into the light, it diminishes its power over us.

Back to the ocean: that morning I was finally able to let go. I was genuinely enjoying the beauty of the moment. And then a smaller wave I thought I could catch came along. I paddled. I caught it. I stood up on the board. I rode it all the way in. It was pure magic.

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  • jenniewestfall

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

I went to an abstract watercolor workshop a couple weekends ago over in Portland. It was taught by someone I highly respect and whose art I greatly admire. In fact, he has been the main influence on my art practice in watercolor over the past decade. I took my first ever watercolor class/workshop from him when my daughter was two, and his weekly classes in Seattle were my outlet when I decided to stop teaching 4th grade and stay home full time with her. (She's now 13). I hadn't seen him in person in several years and was excited to spend three days digging deep into the realm of abstract painting in a medium that is too often very traditional, uptight, and even boring (for me at least!). And I knew that this particular instructor would be able to help us get past our own self-imposed ideas of what watercolor "should" be. But when I showed up to the workshop that Friday morning, something was visibly different. He moved slowly across the room. Forming sentences was difficult. His hands shook. When the workshop officially started he announced, "I'm going to need your help today. Because I have Parkinson's." Oh my. Huge wave of emotion. So many thoughts crossed my mind at once...

What courage he has to keep teaching. To be that vulnerable. To tell the truth. But then there were obvious disappointments. I was carving out three whole days away from my family in order to be here. Did I have time to be this patient, when words would escape him and he'd stop mid-sentence, at a loss for what word he meant to say next? And yet - when he would have a streak of fluency - you could tell everything was still there. All the brilliancy, all the ideas, all the technique, all the passion. Still there. It just was buried beneath this terrible disease.

And so it got me thinking about my recent paintings that I had already decided to call "Beneath the Layers". I decided to name to collection simply because it helped to unify my approach: I literally made all the paintings using layers and layers of paint. But there are also recognizable metaphors in the title as well. In a recent newsletter I wrote this:

"Speaking of my art, in recent weeks I’ve made a bit of a shift in what I’m working on. I’ve always loved watercolor and will continue to work in this fluid, transparent, spontaneous medium. But recently I’ve been craving something different. I’ve wanted to work with a medium that can be built up, dug into, added to, subtracted from. Acrylic is perfect for this. I like the layers. And the surprises that come when you scrape back the 5th layer of paint that reveal little chunks of color that you put on the panel over a week ago. Or years ago for that matter. Some of the layers are beautiful with their colors and textures. Some end up quite ugly. But you keep working on it, adding and subtracting, scraping away and revealing, and a finished painting emerges at some point.

It’s a little like life in that way: we all have these layers of ourselves that are built up over the years. Growing years, painful ones, beautiful and fulfilling ones. But it all builds up to make us who we are. And hopefully we can ‘scrape away’ our false stories we think or tell about ourselves and become the truest, most authentic version of ourselves, which no matter what will be beautiful!"

So this new collection has that significance behind the work. But after the watercolor workshop, another level of meaning emerged: even as we age or battle a disease or a disability we still have so much to offer the world. The outside of us may look different, the way we express ourselves with language may look different, the way we move our bodies may be different, but underneath all that there is still so much beauty. We can be blessed and encouraged knowing that each day is a gift.

Obviously my art is not directly inspired by hurt or disease or aging, but the idea of what is beneath the surface of someone intrigues me. And it leaves much more to be explored, whether in my art practice or in my personal life. What layers need to emerge further? Where should I be more vulnerable? What layers maybe need some refining? Which ones need to soften? So I'm very excited to finally be putting all these paintings out into the world! They will be on my website starting Tuesday, October 25th. It's been a journey creating them, layer upon layer.

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