A conversation between Alex Allenchey and Jessica Westhafer
Alex Allenchey: When did you know you wanted to be an artist? Were there any specific challenges or encouragements to your pursuing that aim specific to growing up in the South?
Jessica Westhafer: I can’t remember wanting to be anything else other than an artist from a young age. I grew up in a pretty artistic family that encouraged me to create. My grandmother was a stained-glass artist and my father was a great draftsman, both cultivated my interest in art at a young age. My dad was an electrician, but he always told me how he wished he had ignored family pressure and pursued teaching art instead. He and I were always drawing together, it became a fun game and competition between the two of us. When we would go out to eat at restaurants where he would dare me to draw a person across the room or an object on a nearby table, these drawings usually came to fruition on whatever napkins we had at our disposal. We also spent a lot of summer evenings drawing from the surrounding landscape on our deck.
In high school I was finally able to take an art class and continued doing so until I graduated. It was a really great program and I’m still very close to my high school art teacher. We were constantly taking field trips to visit local artists and each year we competed in state wide art competitions in Little Rock, Arkansas. My art teacher encouraged so many of her students to pursue making art full time after high school and I’m forever thankful for her enthusiasm. The downside of growing up in such a small town was the lack of public art available. So, each summer my family would take a vacation, where a few days would be devoted to exploring the area’s art museums. The National Gallery of Art was an especially magical and memorable trip, seeing a Van Gogh in person was life changing.
AA: Before pursuing a Masters in Art at Indiana University, you earned a BFA at the University of Arkansas, where in addition to studying painting, you minored in printmaking. Does your printmaking background ever play a part in your painterly development? I’m thinking specifically of the graphic flatness in your work.
JW: I’ve actually never considered that relationship before, but it definitely had its impact. I started out taking several Serigraphy and Lithography courses. I think printmaking mostly overlaps with how I begin a painting by working through multiple drawings. Constantly drawing in printmaking taught me the importance of line, value, and shape to create an internal structure within each work. I especially loved mixing ink, grinding lithography stones, and at times found peace in the process of printmaking—even if that process was at times unforgiving. Overall the undergraduate program I attended was very traditional. Serigraphy was the first class that didn’t look down on work that was ‘illustrative’, instead we were encouraged to find inspiration in newspaper comics, old book illustrations, and even greeting cards! It was actually in Lithography I met some very good painter friends; we would hang out in their studios on the third floor where I became so envious of their space, their gooey tubes of color, and how poetically they spoke of painting. Soon after I signed up for a painting course and the rest was history.
AA: After graduating from U of A, you were in a handful of group shows in the Fayetteville area. What’s the Arkansas art scene like? At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue graduate school?
JW: Fayetteville has a great art community. I had a handful of supportive painting faculty (Stephanie Pierce, Kristin Musgnug, and Sam King) who had rigorous practices outside of academe and helped foster the art community. They had this great space called Lala Land where each month they would host a number of things including live art performances, specially curated group shows, and community art sales. Opening exhibition nights, a local punk band would perform, it was definitely the place to be. I’m also extremely appreciative while having lived there to be in such close proximity to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. After graduating from the University of Arkansas I worked in the education department temporarily and found a lot of joy in being so near to the collection each day. The museum is free to the public and does a great job supporting local artists which is fantastic. Crystal Bridges also brought in an array of visiting artists to the area for lectures or workshops including Kerry James Marshall, Leonardo Drew, Katherine Bradford, and Faith Ringgold. After working in the museum, I spent two years of working full time as a high school art teacher. It was fulfilling and exhausting. I painted any moment I had available and it was magical. I quickly realized how precious my time was and didn’t want painting to take a back seat any longer. I knew that I wanted to be a painter and that graduate school would afford me the opportunity to paint full time.
AA: You mentioned the importance of regular drawing and creating an internal structure. Are your works on paper where compositions for paintings first originate or do they help solve problems once a work is already in progress?
JW: The drawings are really where narrative ideas and compositions first originate. I always keep a small sketchbook on hand, so I can jot down ideas quickly. These quick sketches are usually small and focus on creating a compositional structure. Later on, in the studio I take the small sketch and work it into a larger charcoal version where I have more room to play with value and contrast. Since quarantine I’ve been working with chalk pastel to tackle color problems within painting. The paintings don’t always end up resembling their origin drawings but help me flesh out ideas beforehand.
AA: I was reading about your current MFA thesis show at Indiana University and in your statement, you cite how your paintings often recreate experiences from your adolescence that are then recast from a present perspective. Is it challenging to consistently mine memories from the past, especially if they’re less than pleasant to revisit? And does inspiration for a new work typically spring from a latent emotion or a remembrance of a specific time and place?
JW: Painting ideas emerge from both personal nostalgia and the psychological. I don’t find looking to the past for inspiration particularly challenging, even if the past is at times painful. I’m interested in adolescence as a time where everything you feel seems to be amplified. The characters in my paintings are often sentimental, vulnerable and a little rebellious—they’re an homage to that period of life. I look back on my adolescence with feelings of tenderness, how certain events or individuals inspired personal change and growth. I believe there is a healing power in the act of making or creating. As artists we have the ability to invent, reimagine, immortalize, and even create our own alternate realities that beg the question ‘what if’. Painting is magic!
AA: When did you arrive at your approach to painting these “noodle-like” and “stretchable” figures?
JW: I’ve always been enamored with the figure. The noodle-like figures first emerged in high school notebooks where I had the bad habit of sketching unflattering versions of my Chemistry teacher rather than taking notes. They have continued to live off and on hidden in my sketchbooks but then disappeared during my undergraduate experience where the focus shifted to how well you could describe a figure or a still life from direct observation. My first semester of graduate school I became increasingly bored painting perceptually, working from a still model felt so lifeless and I craved more action! I began searching for sources that would allow me to invent more, eventually choosing to paint from my wonky sketchbook drawings. I remember feeling so vulnerable working from sketches that I didn’t consider to be ‘good’ and that I usually kept hidden for myself. However, my faculty mentor Caleb Weintraub was extremely supportive, and it was his encouragement that gave me the permission I needed to break away from traditional painting roots. Everything merged, and I no longer felt restricted to separate multiple interests. I began using some of my favorite animations as a painting reference (Adventure Time, Disney films, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head) in combination with looking at painters like Caravaggio, Pontormo, Bronzino, and Hugo van der Goes.
AA: There’s a certain melancholia that runs throughout the paintings — figures tear up, stare into puddles, seek self-help — but I still find myself consistently chuckling at the certain absurdities (the puddle’s reflection flipping the bird to its human counterpart, for instance). How important is humor as a tool in your work?
JW: Humor is so important. I’m not sure I would have survived some of the tougher parts of life without having a sense of humor. In my work humor functions in that same capacity: as antidote. It’s a coping mechanism, laughing is one of the ways we are able to release nervous energy and tension. And at times humor can make something difficult feel so much less significant. It’s a way of regaining control when things feel completely out of your control. We can choose to either laugh or cry, and sometimes in order to feel better both are necessary.
AA: In addition to Caravaggio and Bronzino, are there art historical periods or painters that you find yourself regularly returning to? Who and what are you looking at currently?
JW: I find myself regularly returning to Flemish painting, Mannerism, German Expressionism, and the Chicago Imagists—Gladys Nilsson! Lately, I’ve been looking at Fayum portraits which are hauntingly beautiful and Vuillard whose paintings seem to vibrate. Other artists who have had a huge effect on my work as well include Lisa Yuskavage, Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, and David Hockney.
AA: I noticed a few newer paintings like “Mamba Mentality” and “Life’s A Tearjerker” have textured sections across the canvases. What was the impetus for incorporating foam and beads on surfaces and are they something you plan to explore more in the future?
JW: Last spring, I took a ceramics course here at IU to see how my work would translate into a 3D form. Ceramics really encouraged me to respond to the surface of the clay rather than rely on the painted illusion alone. I made a series of clay characters where I experimented with surface ideas—I carved out strands of hair, used slip to create a surface resembling pimple-y skin, and mixed clay with sand to mimic the itchy feeling of a wool turtleneck. My close friend Jenny and fellow MFA at IU is a mad scientist when it comes to ceramics, she really helped me discover the magic surface had to offer. I left ceramics craving the same kind tactility and element of surprise within my painting practice. Since then I have been experimenting more with painting surfaces and pushing the limits of oil paint.
AA: Obviously, we’re in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, which has uprooted so many lives and scheduled events, including your Thesis show at IU that’s now gone virtual, where people can tune in to an online talk featuring your work on May 8th. How has your painting practice changed in light of our new reality and what do you have planned after graduate school?
JW: For now, I’ve moved out of my studio and am working from home. I’ve had to work a lot smaller in scale than normal but am incredibly fortunate to still be able to paint. I’m also drawing a lot more and dabbling in chalk pastels, which are new to me and exciting. Like many, COVID has changed my post graduate plans and the future is a little precarious. I’m trying to stay in the present as much as possible, keep my studio practice sustainable, and apply to opportunities as they become available.