As a child and young adult, Jennifer Molesworth was always doodling. “I loved to draw,” she says. “I was always sketching and painting. At some point I wondered if I should major in art in college.” But Molesworth’s love of the backcountry, of the streams and rivers, of wild places and her desire to work in them—all this drove her educational path, and she ended up focusing on biology, physics, and chemistry, emerging from college as a biologist.
Drawing, however, says Molesworth, “is a huge complement to science.” Molesworth found that not only did drawing and painting offer balance in her life and academics, but they also provided complementary support between her creative brain and her scientific brain. “Art helps open all these doors,” she says, “and the creative brain feeds back into the scientific brain, while science helps with perspective.”
Born in England, Molesworth immigrated to the US with her family as a 10-year-old in 1969. She was raised in New York and New Jersey, but always knew she wanted to live in a rural place, with easy access to the mountains. She found all that—and more—in the Methow Valley, where she has lived since 1992, working as a fisheries biologist with the US Forest Service from 1992-2007, and then as a biologist doing salmon habitat restoration for the Bureau of Reclamation until her retirement in early 2019, where, among other things, she championed the popular Methow Valley Kids Free Fishing Day Block Print Art residency that integrates art and biology. Read more here.
Given that Molesworth heads to the backcountry every chance she gets—hiking, backpacking, skiing—it’s no surprise that she draws her artistic inspiration from nature. “Landscapes, wildlife, birds, the sky,” she says, “they are what motivate me to paint.” Indeed, to view a collection of Molesworth’s paintings is to catch a glimpse into the Pasayten and Sawtooth Wilderness areas, into high mountain lakes, and into the wide open spaces and alpine basins that surround the Methow Valley.
Molesworth’s preferred medium is watercolors. “They’re light and portable,” she says, referring to the ultralight watercolor set she has devised for carrying into the backcountry. “I’ve got a tiny palette with a lot of colors,” she says, “and a few nice brushes. I use a piece of a political sign with layers of watercolor paper taped to it, so I can make multiple paintings on a trip.”
Molesworth and her husband, Paul Salladay, often hike deep into the backcountry and set up camp. If the weather is good, Molesworth says, “I can produce one or two paintings a day. It’s very meditative. Paul explores while I paint. I’m surrounded by endless things to paint. Not just the big things like the mountains, but also the bugs, the fish, the frogs. I love to watch how the sky changes as the weather moves through.”
The plein air approach works well for most of Molesworth’s paintings, but with animals she needs to paint at home, using photographs she took on trips into the mountains. “I dive into my studio,” she says, “and work with my photos and my memories.”
Molesworth sees her art and the art of others who paint backcountry places as an avenue for people to experience the unique value of wild and scenic places. “The critters, the undeveloped areas—these are all things we need to appreciate and protect,” she says. “We can’t take them for granted.”
Social media, Molesworth fears, is no friend to wild places. “Instagram is killing the wilderness,” she says. “These little pockets, the best kept secrets—we all used to share our favorite trip locations with each other, and a few people would take the suggestion and hike in. But now they’re being broadcast so widely, to thousands and thousands of people. They’re coming in droves. It seems like for many people, these places are just items to check off on their bucket list. ”
Molesworth appreciates how important art is to Methow Valley residents. “We are a community where art belongs,” she says. “There have been artists working here forever; they bring so much color and vibrancy to our area. It’s starting to be possible for artists to thrive here.”
“I think we need to ensure that we continue to have creative opportunities for artists, and for kids,” Molesworth adds, referring to the drama, music, and visual arts opportunities her daughter had when she grew up in the valley.
Now that she’s retired, Molesworth says, she plans to really dedicate herself to her painting. “I’ve been trying to paint weekly,” she says, “but now I’m going to do it daily.” Molesworth also intends to begin promoting her work as an artist, updating her website, getting more public with her art, participating in gallery exhibits. Molesworth loves working with watercolors, but in this next phase of her journey as an artist she is committing herself to working with oils. “I want to paint more, learn more, create more,” she says. “It’s for my own fulfillment; I’m not going after a whole new career.”
A whole new career? Certainly not! Because there are still mountain trails to explore, powder to be skied, gardens to be planted, and grandchildren to be cherished. “We are so lucky,” says Molesworth of herself and Paul, and the life they have cultivated in the Methow Valley, “we just savor every moment.”
Learn more about Jennifer Molesworth on her Methow Arts webpage.