Jen Starwalt Reconnects Us With Nature
Story by Frances Figart | Photos by Chris Starwalt
Even though she has always been artistic, Jen Starwalt didn’t create much for several years after she graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2006. She was busy traveling and having three daughters with her husband, Chris.
After their third child was born in 2014, the couple moved from Charlotte to the country outside Brevard in 2015. “I felt like I needed to create art again,” Starwalt says. “There was part of my soul that I wasn’t honoring.”
So the family carved out time for the young mother to create every day and she began to paint large wildlife portraits with detailed layers of highly pigmented color. “I am connecting with the soul of each subject,” she says of the works, which completely captivate the viewer. “Their eyes speak to me even though I have never met them.”
Starwalt was a self-described “nervous wreck” at the opening reception of her very first show at the Transylvania Community Arts Council Gallery this past February. “It was the first time in my life I put myself out there artistically.” Five of her pieces were on display and she arrived to find “herds of people staring at my work. As soon as they realized I was the artist, there was a crowd wanting to talk to me. That night I knew this was going to be part of my future.”
Starwalt grew up in Allentown, PA, an old steel town known by most through Billy Joel’s hit song. She spent weekends hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. “I would sit with my feet hanging over the edge of an overlook with my Dad beside me and watch the sunset. I always felt so much peace in nature.” She remembers seeing deer, black bear, a bobcat and a fox when young. “Everywhere I went I was hoping to catch a glimpse of something wild.”
At 13, she moved with her family to Charlotte, taking as many art classes as she could in high school. She started college at the Academy of Art in San Francisco but quickly realized she wanted to be back in the South, so switched to Savannah College of Art and Design, where she spent her school days creating large bold works and her weekends at the beach. “It was the perfect college experience,” she says. “I fell in love with working large scale, pastels and my husband.”
In 2006, the couple graduated from SCAD, married and moved to Los Angeles, where first child Ella was born in 2008, then to Atlanta, then Charlotte, where second daughter Sophie was born in 2011. They were following Chris Starwalt’s film career; he’s best known for working as an animator on Avatar. Throughout these years they also traveled to Mexico, Hondorus, Belize, the Virgin Islands, the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Their love of travel contributed in 2013 to what some would consider a radical decision.
“Shortly after our second daughter was born we decided spontaneously to sell everything we owned (seriously everything—we had seven insanely full suitcases, two kids and our two dogs) and move to Costa Rica!” Starwalt refers to this as the best adventure of her life. “We woke up with the howler monkeys, swam with sea turtles, saw whales, crocodiles, herons, iguanas, spider monkeys and macaws. I ziplined through the jungle, jumped off a cliff into a waterfall lagoon, hiked in the cloud forest, practiced yoga daily on the beach, and ended each day with the sunset over the ocean.”
A year later, they moved back to Charlotte just in time to have Leonie. Starwalt found re-entry to US urban culture difficult. “I felt very detached from the natural surroundings,” she recalls, “and realized how disconnected from the earth and nature our society has become.”
The family’s move to Brevard allowed her to reconnect with nature. It also provided fertile ground for the catalyst of Costa Rica life to inspire her new art form.
Starwalt uses 100 percent pure dry pigment soft pastels by Sennelier. She paints on oxidized sanded paper made specifically to grab hold of the small granules of a soft pastel. She first blocks out all major shapes of light and shadow just like an oil painter would do, then builds up layer upon layer of color to achieve her final painting.
“When I’m done they are very thick and heavy like an oil painting,” she says, “definitely not what your typical pastel work is. I know I have it finished when the layers of color really start to vibrate between one another and dance across the subject.”
Because of the delicate nature of soft pastels and the size and style of painting (framed pieces can be as large as 4 by 5 feet), framing becomes a very important part of Starwalt’s finished works. “I have developed a very close relationship with BlackBird Frame & Art here in Asheville to frame and preserve my paintings,” she says.
When she is creating, Jen Starwalt feels like she’s doing what she was born to do. “My daughters (two, four and eight) often come in and out of my studio while I work and give advice. They are so proud to have an artist Mom,” she says with delight. “I will always remember driving through Brevard when my little girls started yelling that they saw my painting hanging in the window at the Red Wolf Gallery.”
Starwalt hopes that, through her art, people will take more time to appreciate animals and want to reconnect with nature. She is currently working on an ‘endangered’ series with blood red backgrounds to draw attention to the world’s threatened species. “There is so much life to us all. We are all connected on this one earth we share. I hope when you look into each portrait that you feel it too.”
Learn more about Jen Starwalt Pastel Paintings at jenstarwalt.com, on Facebook and on Instagram @jen.pastelpainter, where you can see time-lapse videos of her creating her work. Starwalt’s paintings are on display at Red Wolf Gallery in Brevard and The Gallery at Flat Rock, where an exhibit called Wabi-sabi opens October 14. Starwalt’s works will also be a part of All Creatures Great and Small at Four Corners Gallery at the Desert Arts Museum in Tucson, AZ, beginning on November 4 and at the Southeastern Wildlife Expo in Charleston, SC, February 17-19.