The Waves Between | In Conversation With JJ Midwinter
4 min read
Written by Chris Betty
Image by Maeva Cushla
When did you first develop your connection with the sea, and how has it come to be such a big part of your life and work?
I moved to Pentire in Newquay in 2015, and before that I’d lived in London for the majority of my life. When you’re in London every day, all you’re seeing is 50m in front of you. And most of the time, a lot less than that. I remember getting here and being able to walk out of my door to see this expanse every day. Obviously, I’d been to the sea before, but I wouldn’t say I had a connection until I moved here. It was life changing, genuinely.
I think there’s something about it. Just looking at it… You can tell that it influences my art, that expanse and that empty space.
For me, and this is partly what my work is about, it puts your life into perspective. When we’re closed in all the time, and we’re inside our heads, I think we’re very prone to overdramatise our lives. Anxiety is a big part of that, and I think when you’re put into a space where you have this perspective, you realise that you’re actually tiny. Just a tiny little person in the midst of a vast expanse. I think that can be quite helpful. So yeah, that’s where my personal connection came from.
And how about surfing? Did that just follow suit naturally once you’d moved down here?
I’d already surfed a little bit before I moved down here, but just being in the water all the time – I’m sure everyone says this but there’s something about it. Feeling it on your skin, floating around in it… you can’t be in the sea and worry about your day-to-day life at the same time. And I think that’s been really huge for me.
Actually, the reason the book is called “The Waves Between” is because I had realised that I was taking my life with me into the sea. I was sitting there, and I was just wanting to catch waves. Obviously, you want to catch waves, but I realised that the meditative part of surfing was just as important, and the waves in between the ones that I was catching were just as valuable, if not more so.
You’ve said previously that The Waves Between isn’t really about the act of surfing, even though surfers appear to be the main subject matter. So, what is it really about?
Success often comes from originality in your own perspective. When I got here, as a newcomer to Cornwall, I realised that what I was good at was seeing everything from a different perspective. An outsider’s perspective. I was fascinated by surfers and by the culture. I realised quicky that I was never going to be the number one surf photographer, but I was interested enough to document the lifestyle.
From an internal place, at the start, I didn’t even realise why I was shooting, or how I was shooting. Lone people walking on a beach… I find that little silhouette of a surfer quite iconic. But why was I shooting these people with this huge space around them?
Anxiety was something I’d been feeling. I’d had a big break up and I went to therapy, and in amongst that I would talk to my therapist about my art. I didn’t necessarily feel that it was reflecting who I was. And she was like, “I don’t know how it couldn’t be!?” She found it quite funny, because I was that person by themselves, going off on an adventure alone. And then when I was shooting groups of people, I think that was me wanting to feel part of a community…
That was really interesting for me, and once I saw that I was able to tap into it a bit more. I think my work became a lot more defined and interesting after that, as I was able to tap into that internal space rather than just looking for images.
You speak very openly about your own mental health and the interplay of that with both your work and connection to the sea. How does that manifest, and how important do you think it is to be more open about our mental health?
We all have mental health. I think society makes us pretend that we don’t sometimes. In my 20’s I thought I didn’t need anyone to help me. But then, after going to a therapist myself, I realised it wasn’t this big scary thing. I think that awareness is around more and more now. I have friends who have more severe mental health issues than me. It’s just one of those things where for them, it’s normal. For me, it’s normal. But it just isn’t, ‘out there’… and it makes me feel really sad to think that people would be putting off making their lives better.
Going to a therapist changed my life. Entirely. The mindfulness that I cultivated from going to therapy allowed me to take control of something that had been controlling me and my artwork. I think the book is mainly about that maintenance in life. I think mindfulness is really important, getting in the water is really important, but I don’t think they’re ‘the cure’. They’re tools to up your mood, to help you enjoy life more, and be grateful, but the game changer for me was therapy.
I consider myself a vaguely intelligent man, and I got to the age of 35 before learning all these very simple lessons. But I’d never seen anyone openly talking about it. Now you see that all the time, and I want to be part of that. I want to, where I can, put it out there. I want to show people, “hey, my hand’s up. I’ve been to a therapist. I’ve had issues. It’s not that big of a deal to ask for help.”
When I’m with my friends, we don’t talk about our successes all the time. We don’t sit there and put on this outer sheen that is Instagram. We talk about the things we’re worried about. It’s honesty about the things we feel we’re failing at, things that make us anxious. And I think the world could do with a little bit more of that.
Your work is pretty recognisable, iconic even. Do you ever feel the urge to explore different subjects and media or do you revel in this style which you’ve become known for?
Ok, this is a bit of a big one for me. I’ve been working on the book for a while now, shooting in this style for a couple of years, pretty much. And I guess… I feel like, at the moment, I’ve done all I can in this style. I have a lot of different interests. Nature is a big interest for me and that will continue on through my work, but on the surfing part of it I feel I’ve said what I can say about surfing.
During the pandemic I was staying in Padstow and we weren’t allowed to go to beaches. I couldn’t film or shoot, so I just stayed in and painted. And from that I’ve now started to explore abstract painting and that’s going to be the next part. It’s a combination of nature and my mental health and taking those aspects, harnessing them and creating something that’s from the heart.
It is a bit of a risk, and I’ve definitely agonised over it. In the world we’re in, people want you to be consistent as an artist. You need to be recognisable and consistent. I think I’ve done that for a while now and changing is often punished, whether that’s Instagram or other platforms. People want to know what they’re going to get from you. They don’t want you to change. I’ve even had people say, “are you sure you want to stop doing this?” and I might come back to it, but for the moment I want to change it up. When you look at 20th Century artists, they all had different periods. They all changed. So I’m going to do that. Who knows what will happen.