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  • jenniewestfall

Parkinson's & the Beneath the Layers Collection

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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