When Wayne Westfall looks at art, he asks himself three questions: Do I like this? Can I do this? How? These questions are particularly poignant for Wayne, who in 1979 broke his neck in a mountain climbing accident in Alaska and is now paralysed with limited upper body movement.
For the current show at the WAG, Wayne looked at watercolours by international artists on Pinterest, notably Australian Robert Wade and Indian Milind Mulick. His intention was to create a series of 40 paintings, one for each year of his disability. An important component of his art practice is that it allows him to forget external circumstances four or five times a week. “The magic of art is in the process, in the relationship between the painter and his or her materials,” he told me. Such intense focus is a blessing. Copying is not something he’s concerned about.
Colour and technique define the paintings in this exhibition. Vibrant hues, pure washes, and luminous whites from the watercolour paper left blank. Subject matter includes florals, people and places (often exotic), with inviting views down city streets, down canals, along paths and over rural roads. The paintings exude confidence.
Wayne has been painting watercolours off and on since 1988 when his sister gave him his first brushes and paints. After a long “sabbatical” beginning in 2008, he started practising art again in earnest in the spring of 2018. He felt he needed to reach another level in his work. “There are buckets of information about watercolour technique on the internet,” he explained. “I know I have to get in and out without overworking.”
When I visited Wayne in his living room/bedroom/studio, he showed me how he sets up his water container and metal palette containing small blocks of paint. They sit on a prosthetic arm that can swing out from beside his bed. A large computer screen with the chosen image is positioned beside his knees, which are tucked under a blanket, and his paper is taped to a board on his lap. The largest size he will work in is 11x14”. Only recently has he discovered that by taping his brushes a certain way, he can grasp them more easily. He is able to move his wrists, but not his fingers, and his brushwork is propelled by his shoulder. Three different-sized brushes lie within reach in the blanket folds. They are rounded because he can’t manage using flat brushes effectively. Since his dexterity is compromised, one of the hardest manoeuvres for him is changing brushes before the paint dries.
Back in the gallery, complementing the watercolours, a patchwork of line drawings on 25 pages hangs on the exposed limestone wall. For years Wayne did technical pen renderings of people in cafés, at the library, at bus stops, densely covering a page and using what one friend calls a line unique to Wayne. “I had a printer make a special sketchbook of smooth coated papers because I couldn’t control the pen over a rough surface,” he told me. Even so, each page on view took hours to complete. Wayne included words in the images, words that express positivity. These drawings are a testament to his persistence.
Wayne credits exercise and meditation with providing him the positive affirmation he so needed in the early years after his accident. “I never imagined I would feel pretty good about life and produce beautiful art.”
Colours of My Life continues until June 23.