The EmBRAce Project by Jacqueline Baerwald

The EmBRAce Project is a series of still life portraits that capture a feminine self image and what lies close to each woman’s heart – hinting at her world, internally and externally. The object placed on her “heart” symbolizes what is nearest and dearest to her right then, some cheering, others challenging. A quote accompanies each photo as if it were words of wisdom the woman would like to pass along to the viewers. Each image is named as if she actually existed, even though she is merely a portrayal of various identities. The images depict snapshots of each woman’s journey to embrace and process all the parts of herself that are potentially hidden, unexplored, guarded, discarded or privately held dear – the good, bad and the ugly. Will she embrace herself so fully that ultimately she can find the joy that’s hidden under all the layers of baggage? I hope so.

It all began with a chance photograph my husband took of laundry and leaves. The composition captured my attention and awakened my insecurity about my own identity, femininity and vulnerability. Who am I? What’s my purpose? Why do I feel  so awkward with myself? What’s really important to me? Why am I not really enjoying life? Do I really love myself?

The EmBRAce Project grew out of these yet unsatisfied subsurface inquiries. Why was I subconsciously judging, categorizing and dismissing myself based on exterior stereotypical trimmings, and thinking others were doing the same about me? Is that who I am? Or, as I discovered later, was my identity based more on what I held dear in my deeply guarded heart of hearts? Did I even know where that was or what was there? As an artist and a human I‘ve spent most of my life living out of my head – overthinking everything, analyzing every detail, doubly ensuring I got it right, fearing failure and abandonment. Growing up I was inadvertently taught that my heart could only lead me astray, to listen to it was dangerous. So I tucked it neatly away in a safe-from-me (and others) place and set my rule-oriented mind to guide me through thick and thin. I thought I could conveniently forget that feeling was part of being human. 

Something struck me that day I laid eyes on that simple snapshot of a bra and fall foliage. There was something about perceiving that void between those two nurturing symbols of femininity. Somewhere underneath the glossy exterior hid a heart invisible, buried deep, safely kept away from the light of day and my awareness. What really lay locked in there, sealed from my conscious mind? Could it be the key to what I’d been missing, what my mind had been unsuccessfully searching for? On a whim I decided to try something new and bold for me. Don’t think – just do. Don’t analyze – just synthesize. Don’t contemplate – just create. Make based on how it feels rather than doing an profusion of research, list-making, rule-writing and compiling of a compendium of carefully outlined constraints. Wing it. Go out on a limb. Take a leap. It was electrifying and enjoyable! I didn’t have to know what that pile of props meant, instead only ask if the mood and impression were captivating. Allow my intuition to guide. Open my heart and see what would emerge. Could I embrace this part of myself so long stifled?

Was I willing to be vulnerable – with myself, with others – through creating and then showing this spontaneous, sensitive subject? Honestly, most of these compositions were created over two years ago and then sat languishing on my computer, buried, just like my continued confused feelings about myself as my heart and head struggled to make sense of each other. It’s personal and unpredictable to open my heart, find myself, and just be. My mind reeled with a thousand questions – Am I really that? What will others think? What will they say? Will I fall? Fail? Lose? Be alone? The negative mind chatter was endless. But it couldn’t see the whole picture. Resolved to engage life with my whole being – mind, heart, body and spirit – I could start to truly see what’s important to me, to enjoy, nurture and embrace my true self. Many layers of baggage and damage had to surface up out of my heart, and frankly still is. Not all of it is pretty – some pitiful, some painful, some passionate – but all is pertinent. If I was to find my own voice, first I had to allow my heart to speak. 

Don’t overthink it. Just Open Your Heart. (J O Y ♥︎)


Note: All photographs were matted and framed by the artist, including collaging the wallpaper used in each photo’s background. Frames do not include glass.