Monday, November 5, 2018

Painting Place

Of the Camino  3  20x21"  Oil/earthen pigments on panel

In the workshop I recently taught in Spain, I gave a slide show where I presented a survey of my work from the past 12 years of my 35 year art career. I hadn't seen the slide show for a while. The last time I'd presented it was for a talk at a public gallery a few years ago in conjunction with my show.  It's a good exercise to look at the development over time of your work now and again. I realized again how important place is in my work. Place and light. Both. And travel.

Of the Camino 1  8x40" Oil/earthen pigment on panel

 While I love coming home, I equally love to travel as you might know from my recent introduction of Workshops in Wild Places. I expect my work will continue to grow and change as I travel to the various places where I've organized workshops. Connecting to place is something that's done with the heart. Not all places resonate with my heart. I'm happy to see them and take photos, but not all places make me squeal with delight to be there. The workshops I'm planning are in places that make me squeal (silently) with excitement!

Pigment (soil) found on the roadsides in northern Spain

Once I got over the awe of walking into the16th Century stone village in Spain where we were staying for our workshop, I felt that kind of squealing excitement. Grinding up the soft coloured stones that we found on a riverbank and collecting the richly pigmented soils gave me the same thrill! Working with the pigments was magical and made me feel a deep connection to the land.

It reminded me of the time I was at a month-long artist residency near Barcelona. I had gone with few supplies, hoping to find some materials to work with. I intended to make some connection in my work or in the materials I hoped to find, to the Black Madonna in the Basilica of Monserrat in the nearby mountains. I had such incredible luck. In the residency I found a shelf with small plastic bins of various pigments. I asked about them and found out that these pigments had recently been used to paint the Basilica. Not only that, but the pigments had been donated to the residency for the artists to use!

Pigments from Basilica Monserrat

In Castrillo, I was enamoured both with the earth pigments we came across which I began to use in my work, and also by the very idea of the Camino. It's a journey of light, of enlightenment, of transformation, of walking mindfully. It's a pilgrimage to integrate the disparate parts of our lives into a whole. A similar integration takes place on the physical plane in this village, where the walls and homes are made of stones cemented together and the road through this small town is made up of individual stones carefully embedded side by side, on which you need to walk mindfully in order not to fall. Castrillo and the Camino seem to be carrying a similar message of unity, of integration. I've been processing these ideas since I've been home. I find that I work very intuitively at first, just flowing along, letting the work lead the way. And then I sit back and ask it what it's telling me. These are the words that came to me and these are the images that came to me.

Of the Camino 2   Oil/earthen pigments on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Painting Workshop on the Camino

You feel the energy of the Camino right away at the retreat centre in the small village of Castrillo de los Polvazares. I've just returned from teaching  a workshop in Northern 

Spain with Rebecca Crowell. Even though the Camino is about walking a sacred journey, about contact with the earth, I felt an ungroundedness, a sort of lightheadedness, an open vulnerability.  Basia Goodwin, one of the owners of the retreat centre, Flores del Camino, talked about the idea of the Camino being divided into three stages of personal growth, corresponding to the three distinct geographical regions. The first is the physical part, which is all about the difficulty of walking, the energy required, the blisters, the aching muscles. The second third is the mental/emotional part where the pilgrim is walking through the vast, treeless plains of the Meseta. There is much time for thinking about self, about life, about the reason for the journey. In this expansive place, doubts, fears, regrets and sorrows come up to be examined. The body is broken down and reformed. The last third of the journey is the spiritual part, where the pilgrim walks up into the mountains, literally taking an upward journey. Flores del Camino is located right at the transition between the mental/emotional stage and the spiritual stage.  Pilgrims come to this little village in a very open, vulnerable state, ready for the final and more spiritual leg of their journey. These stages of personal growth on the Camino could be compared to Jung's concept that "The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it." I felt that same vulnerability, reforming and letting go, just by being present in one place on the Camino for 3 weeks.

With only one week at the retreat centre for the workshop participants to experience this place, I devised a couple of exercises to help them connect with the land more quickly than they would have if they had taken the time to walk the Camino. One exercise that I do very often in my workshops (only those held in beautiful places), is having the students do sit spots. I've written about Sit Spots before in a blog post I wrote about a workshop in Sweden, (as well as in other posts) where Mena Martini, one of the participants wrote a deeply felt poem about place. Sit spots involve choosing a place to sit outdoors in a quiet place and simply observing. Connecting with a place simply by being present in it.

Another exercise that I used was for participants to write a 'Word Painting", where they sit outdoors to write about what they see in a descriptive way, that a person reading it would get a good idea of what artist sees. I borrowed this idea from a book written by Linda Lappin, called The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook, where she gave this exercise to writers. I thought it would be a great way for visual artists to connect to place as well. And it was! The writings from the students were deeply beautiful, descriptive and poetic. It would help them take some of Castrillo and the area, home with them.

Of course, we also connected with the place through some lectures given by Basia and Bertrand, where they presented some information on the Camino, did a slide presentation about the Petroglyphs,  and gave us a small workshop on sacred geometry.

Bertrand also led us on a day-long excursion in the area, where we walked quietly up a dirt road in a wide-open valley to see the sun rake over the nearby petroglyphs at dawn, clearly delineating the ancient carvings. Each person sat alone and silently to honour this sacred site

After breakfast, we collected some coloured soil beside the road, found rocks alongside a river that would easily grind up into pigment, and visited the Cruz de Ferro the Iron Cross, a sacred place and the highest point on the Camino where pilgrims leave stones or other objects they have brought from home. Some leave prayers, blessings, their names on stones. All are left in a reverential fashion.

In the end, and back at home, many of the students wrote to say how the experience of being in this tiny stone village on the Camino was life-changing, in ways they could not describe. It was the same for me. This experience will stay with me a very long time.

Friday, September 14, 2018

About Place: A painting workshop on the Camino

Rebecca Crowell and I are staying in a gorgeous retreat centre on the Camino de Santiago called Flores del Camino. It's in the small stone village of Castrillo de los Polvazares with a population of 100.  Voted one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, the streets are cobblestone and each of the unique earth-coloured stone houses is joined to the next in rows that wind through the town.

There are no yellow arrows or brass shells embedded in the village road marking the way of the Camino, as there are in larger cities. It basically consists of one-street and the  Camino resumes at the edge of town.  Paying attention to the moment doesn't stop though when you come into the village because walking the uneven cobblestone streets is an exercise in mindfulness itself!

The owners of this retreat centre, Bertrand Gamrowski and Basia Goodwin are committed to supporting pilgrims who are walking the Camino, offering them a place to stay as well as offering dinners (payment by donation) for those staying at the local albergue. Bertrand and Basia also offer workshops and lectures on various aspects of the Camino, the nearby petroglyphs and sacred geometry and will offer a couple of lectures to the students in our workshop to help us more deeply connect with place.

I am struck with the integrity of the pilgrims and the commitment of Basia and Bertrand. After walking the Camino, both felt called to Castrillo, leaving their jobs and their lives in London, England to move here. Now their two small children will grow up in this beautiful village, speaking Spanish and feeling comfortable with pilgrims coming and going through their home.

Way-marker for the Camino just outside of Castrillo de los Polvazares

As we learn more about the village, the Camino and this centre, Rebecca and I are rethinking our workshop. We're looking at a more spiritual focus, where we take the importance of the Camino into consideration. How can we not? It's the very essence of this retreat centre and of the little village.

To learn more about the area, we drove yesterday on a circular sightseeing route that Bertrand laid out for us. His tour took us to see petroglyphs and other beautiful sites. On our drive, Rebecca and I fell in love with the soft stones we found that we could grind up for pigments, and we collected local soil from this hillside below. We stopped to look for soft stones by a couple of rivers and when we spotted a patch of bright yellow soil on the roadside, we turned the car around to scoop some up! We mix the earth with a binder to make it into paint. 

Red hillside

Smashing the soft sandstone. What fun!
Painting made with natural pigments

One focus of the Camino and of all pilgrimages is the connection between heaven and earth, between the spirit and the body. It seems right then that one aspect Rebecca and I will explore in our workshop is to have students create pigments from various local soils, symbolically connecting the spirit of the Camino with the physicality of the earth to better identify with place.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Behind the Scenes

For the past six months I've been focused on organizing a travel workshop program. I've been researching remote locations in small comfortable lodges where there is immediate access to the land. The idea is for artists  to spend time on the land and through various contemplative activities, discussions, and creative exercises, to develop an artistic response to the environment. The idea began in January of 2018 when I was meeting with my good friend, the artist  Rebecca Crowell in her home in New Mexico. We thought of the idea of continuing to teach together, as we will be doing in our upcoming workshop in a retreat centre on the Camino in northern Spain. We had such fun planning that workshop that we thought we'd try to do the same in another location, but in New Mexico this time. We searched for possible retreat centres but couldn't find any that were suitable: one had only outdoor toilets, one said to beware of scorpions on their website (yikes!), another has a long dirt driveway and suggested the need for 4-wheel vehicles. The last we looked at (among many others) had very little land to explore and when we later learned that it was for sale, we abandoned our efforts. 

I came home and asked myself where in the world I'd like to go and thought of my bucket list. Mongolia was on that list so I began looking there first. Fairly quickly, I discovered a luxury resort called Three Camels Inn in the Gobi Desert. I emailed them and began a dialogue with their contact in the US. Once I had an itinerary and a price, I mentioned the idea to Rebecca as a potential workshop location. She thought it was way too expensive for our group of artists. I had to agree. But when I put out the idea on my blog post and on Facebook, we were overwhelmed at the positive response to Mongolia. Not only to Mongolia, but to all of the workshops.

Three Camels Inn, Mongolia

After our concern about the cost of the Mongolia trip, I moved on to research potential places in Scotland with the idea of teaching a workshop myself in an art centre there. I have visited Scotland a number of times and have family there. During this research, I found a magnificent castle/hotel on the ocean south of Glasgow. I contacted the owner and began a back and forth negotiation that ended up in booking a workshop there for September 2019 which Rebecca and I will co-teach.

Dunskey Estate, Scotland

Energized and encouraged by all this excitement, I then went on to research inns in Newfoundland. Not such an easy task. While there are hotels in larger centres in Newfoundland, there are few inns in the countryside that are large enough to hold 9 people along with space for a painting workshop. I finally found the Doctor's House, a magnificent inn on the shores of Trinity Bay, about an hour north and west of St. John's. Registration is now open for this workshop and there are only 2 spaces still available.

I've found other exciting venues: in Tofino, BC (Storm-Watching) for November of 2019  and Nova Scotia (Forest Bathing and Star-Gazing) for September 2020.

Long Beach Lodge, Tofino, BC

Trout Point Lodge, Nova Scotia

But what most excites me about these locations is that I'm interested in inspiring artists to create a whole new response to the environmental crisis that goes beyond facts, pessimism, arguments, and blame, and instead offers up what nature means to our spirits; the love of it. With this in mind, my initial workshop idea has developed into a program I've called Workshops in Wild Places. It offers the opportunity to travel to remote locations throughout the world to experience the beauty, energy and power of the wild landscape, to deeply and joyfully connect with it, and then–– through a facilitated contemplative and creative process–– translate that response into abstract paintings. 

You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. Thich Nhat Hahn

Thursday, July 26, 2018

An Interview

Recently I was interviewed by Amy Guion Clay for her blog post on Artist/Travellers. Amy is an inveterate traveller and has gone to 17 artist residencies in the past number of years. When I first found her blog in 2011,  I was heading off to an artist residency in Can Serrat, Spain. Amy had just been there and was on her way to residencies around the world in a year she devoted to travel. Currently she's been to 17 artist residencies and has recently released an online video program teaching all about artist residencies.

She interviewed me because of my long-standing interest in art and travel.

You can read the interview here.

Cill Rialaig artist residency, Ireland. Out on Bolus Head with the Skellig Islands in the distance

One's destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.  Henry Miller

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Vulnerability in Art and Life

Iceworks 55  oil/cold wax on panel 12x23" © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

I taught a cold wax painting workshop in abstraction this past week at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, Ontario. I've never had so many beginners in one class before. Two had never ever painted. One hadn't painted in 4 years. Three made art using other media. Only two painted regularly in landscape and abstraction. What a challenge! In our morning discussions, I gradually came to understand that the main challenge each artist had to face, was their vulnerability. Of course this is the case in every class. I suppose I was more clearly made aware of it though in this workshop. 

As an artist, you come up against yourself all the time. There's no way to hide who we really are. "I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one." John Steinbeck

I've written many times before about vulnerability  Here, and here. Yet it still comes back into my life, not only in my own painting, and again as I begin to teach a new class, but also in the lives of most of the people I teach. So I'll keep revisiting it each time it appears to see if I can find new ways of looking at it.

In her wonderful book, Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes of vulnerability. She describes it as the experience of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure that we face every day. Vulnerability isn't weakness, she says, but "it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage." 

 It's important to stay vulnerable. To do that we have to keep learning at whatever age we are, not only learning, but challenging ourselves to try new things to walk new paths. Our level of discomfort is a good measure. It can be a signpost that this is a direction to follow. Many authors have written about the fear of blindly stepping forward in a new direction which can be like walking through thick fog.

Henry Moore said that "the secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is––it must be something you cannot possibly do!

In the book, The Art of Possibility, the authors talk about mistakes and vulnerability. “Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and ‘cool’, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fibre of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it.” 

Of course, learning the skills is crucial. But there's vulnerability at every level in making art: going to your first workshop, applying to enter work in your first juried show, being rejected from your first juried show and perhaps many more, starting a new series, or having your first (and subsequent) exhibition(s), whether in a restaurant, your home or a gallery.  Each of us has to challenge ourselves to move into the discomfort of vulnerability, of fear, and of rejection. That's where the treasure lies. 

"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing." — Vincent Van Gogh

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wild and Silent Places in Art and Life


As I'm exploring potential wild, remote locations for art workshops, I'm learning what sort of landscape I most resonate with. According to the huge interest I've received for these potential workshops though, the idea of travel to out-of-the-way places has struck a chord with many others also.  What is it about being in wild and relatively silent locations ( in a world where wild and silent places are becoming increasingly fewer)  that draws us in?

I'm rereading Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence. After challenging herself to spend 40 days alone and in silence in a remote cabin on the Isle of Skye, Maitland, described the experience and went on to explore many levels and kinds of silence.

"I began to realise", Maitland wrote "that it was not peace and contentment that I craved, but that awed response to certain phenomena of the 'natural' world in which words, and even normal emotional reactions fail". She goes on to say, "I discovered in myself a longing for the sublime, for an environment that, rather than soothing me, offered some raw, challenging demands in exchange for grandeur and ineffability." Like Maitland, I'm also searching for these sorts of places.

Places of deep silence share a kinship with art, from painting to writing to music. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post you can read here.

Iceworks 49 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in Poetry in 2014, Canadian Sue Goyette wrote about the importance of silence in writing.  "When it comes to writing, she says “it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out” for the reader. She explains that when something is too specific it becomes inhospitable. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning".

Iceworks 54 · 12 x 24 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a post on the website All About Jazz, on the role of silence in music. As well there is another on  Classic FM blog about the importance of silence in classical music, where the author discusses Mahler's Symphony No. 9, among others.  "The final passage of the final movement, Mahler's farewell to the world (he was diagnosed with terminal heart disease as he composed it), also contains some of the most poignant silence imaginable. The final notes are marked 'esterbend' (dying away), so it's almost impossible to tell when the silence actually begins but it's loaded with such incredible thematic weight that it becomes weirdly deafening. You strain so hard to hear something that, ultimately, you just can't."

While silence is essential in writing and music, it doesn't seem important in much contemporary visual art, where paintings often shout. To achieve silence in painting, the keyword is restraint: limiting the number of shapes, the amount of texture and number of lines, allowing some areas of colour to be strong and others grey or neutral. What is it that wants to sing in a painting?

Iceworks 48 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a close relationship between the awe experienced in wild and silent landscapes and the expression of that in abstract paintings. The silence and the pace of nature help us slow down, to find a quiet inner space. And it's from that quiet inner space that creativity can happen and silence can be expressed. These are places my soul wants to go.