Saturday, June 27, 2009

Welcoming Mistakes

I think that one of the best things I can allow myself as an artist is the opportunity to fail. There is a huge sense of freedom that comes with letting go of the preciousness of the unpainted panel, the stark white surface. In my own process, I work on birch panels, which I take time to prepare in a careful way. The longer it takes me to prepare the surface, the more energy I have put into it makes it more precious, as though having spent this much time on it, I had better paint something worthwhile!

We're taught in life to try not to make mistakes. But how freeing to actually try to make mistakes. In a photography book I have, called the "Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing", by Philippe L. Gross and S.I Shapiro, one of the exercises is to go and shoot the worst photos you can. It brings a whole new outlook and a great sense of play. You lose sight of 'the product', or perfection.

When I was still in art school, I remember in an outdoor painting class, a student sitting in front of a beautiful piece of Arches Watercolor paper, completely frozen, unable to begin. The instructor came by each of us time and again to see what we were doing, to offer instruction. The student grew increasingly anxious, but couldn't begin. Finally, the instructor, in complete frustration, threw his cup of coffee on the white page. We all drew in our collective breath in horror! The student was livid. Furious! The teacher just walked away. The student eventually recovered and sat down to paint the best painting he'd done in that class. Well, what the teacher did wasn't exactly a mistake! But what he did, was destroy the 'perfection' that the student was battling.

In my work, I have found a way to allow for making mistakes. My method of painting is to cover the surface of the prepared panel with paint and then wipe away the paint to expose the light beneath...adding and subtracting until I have the image I want. But the time I can work on the paint is limited because some colours begin to dry within hours....others can stay wet for days. But working within those time constraints, I need the psychological freedom to work quickly and freely. If a painting doesn't satisfy me when it is dry I can only work back into it in a small way. I don't use white in my work so I can't work back into the whites. Once the light is gone, it's gone. My solution for this is that when the paint is dry, I do a light sanding then stretch canvas over the panel, gessoing and prepping the surface all over again.

Making mistakes is an important topic in any walk of life, in any discipline. We all make mistakes. They are necessary to learning. Taking risks is the important thing.

By welcoming mistakes in my work, I give myself the gift of freedom.

"If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down." Mary Pickford

J.K. Rowling in her commencement address to Harvard graduates in June 2008, said that, "Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all-in which case-you fail by default."

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt: From a speech given in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1910

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Improvising

The other day I was listening to CBC radio as I worked in my studio. I heard John Adams the American composer interviewed about his book "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life". I enjoyed his comment about how, when he began composing, he wasn't interested in using irony on which most contemporary art depends. He said that Beethoven and Mozart didn't do irony, and he wasn't interested in it either. He had to find his own way and go against the tide of the time.

Yesterday I watched a video of John Adams in an hour long interview about his book and his life that took place at the Los Angeles Public Library on May 14, 2009.

It was an intelligent, wide-ranging and very inspiring interview. One thing that I took out of the interview was that Adams said he never had an idea for a composition, without improvising....he doesn't get an idea by just sitting there thinking about it.
Today I've ordered the book. And I'm off to my studio to improvise!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Work

It's been a busy few weeks for me lately. I'm getting work ready for several galleries at once. Just recently I've been invited to join Linda Lando Fine Art in Vancouver. I was delighted to accept the offer and am now getting new work ready to send out there in July. I am also beginning work for my solo exhibition in Calgary next spring at Wallace Galleries. I'll be sending them some new work this summer as well. In my current work, I am continuing the series, "Evening on the Lake of Dreams". Here are three of my most recent paintings.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

To Noah

This week I babysat my grandson, Noah who is just two years old. My daughter was working at a temporary job and needed me to babysit for just one week.

I normally have a very steady studio schedule of probably 5-6 hours per day, as well as doing all the other non-studio work, such as photo documentation, buying supplies, record keeping, shipping work and emails. As well I try and allow time for generating ideas, and reading as well as researching on the internet.

This week I had to slow down. I had to view the world through the eyes of a two year old where everything is wonder, like taking endless time scooping stones with a small shovel into a pail and then back again onto the ground. I live in the country and as we played outside one afternoon, we heard a horse whinney. He said, "What's that?". I told him it sounded like a horse. He said, "Can we go and see it?". "Yes", I said, "let's go". We had to jump in the car because it would be too long a walk for him to get to the road in time to see the horses. We got there just in time to see two people ride by on their horses. Noah was completely silent as I held him in my arms and we watched the horses go by. As the horses walked out of sight he kept repeating, "Wasn't that fun to see those horses?"

We drove a little farther along the road. I was hoping to see the neighbor's cows out in the field, close enough to the fence for Noah to have a good look at them. And they were close enough! What a delight. There was even a llama in the field with the cows! And farther along, there were two female horses and their foals grazing close to the fence. We watched them for a long time.

I've walked along this road day after day, wrapped up in my thoughts. Until today, I have not seen it with the eyes of a two year old.

We went to the grocery store for a few supplies one afternoon and as we stood in the check-out line, Noah began to spontaneously sing in a good loud voice, "Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow.." the old Raffi song." Everyone in line was smiling.
I love the way such a little soul can so easily spread joy.

So thanks Noah for a week of slowing down. I hope I can carry those lessons into next week.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

To Cy Twombly

A couple of weeks ago, a friend gave me an article from the NY Times Literary Supplement. The article was about Cy Twombly's new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC, called "The Rose". His paintings were in response to Rilke's poem, "Les Roses".

As so many artists who paint "florals" will know, in the art world, the subject is considered prosaic, the work of Sunday painters. As a sometime painter of flowers, I was delighted to see Cy Twombly painting 'florals'. Very freeing. I felt like laughing out loud. I guess it's OK to paint 'florals' now that Cy Twombly is doing it!

Last week after visiting Linwood Gardens, I visited the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo to see the Action/Abstraction exhibition, Pollock, De Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976. I loved the exhibition, particularly the work of Anne Truitt, whose memoirs I had read. I had never seen her work before. Tall, elegant, silent wooden columns, each side carefully prepared and painted in many layers of colour. Her intent was to release colour from the wall.

A lovely thing happened next. On my way out of the gallery after spending a few hours in the exhibition, I stopped off in the gallery gift shop before I left. There I found the most astonishing book on Cy Twombly, which I promptly bought, called "Photographs, 1951-2007". In the introductory essay to the work, Lazlo Glozer, art historian and critic, says, 'Intoxicating beauty, flooded with light, saturated with poesy, ensconced in iridescent color, suspicious of harmony." The photos are like paintings. They are mostly sepia in tone, shot on a point and shoot camera I think, but printed with a glorious grainy surface. Many of the photos are blurry. They would never win a prize at my local camera club show....or in Photolife Magazine. They are kind of personal journal entries..photos of his studio, or details of his paintings, or photos of peonies, roses, details of sculptures. But some sort of fragile and honest beauty is felt here. Inspiring.

Linwood Gardens





This week I visited Linwood Gardens to photograph and enjoy their famous tree peony collection. Linwood Gardens is SW of Rochester, NY in the farmlands of the Genesee Valley.

Designed in the early 1900's the walled gardens have pools and fountains, ornamental trees and a view of the valley below with an Arts and Crafts style summerhouse. The story of Linwood Gardens is a fascinating one. Lee Gratwick who lives on the estate, is the current steward of Linwood Gardens. Her grandfather William Henry
Gratwick II created Linwood as a country home.


Her father, William H. Gratwick III was a landscape architect, artist, sculptor, and sheep farmer among other things. He imported tree peonies from Japan and over the years created many new hybrids in partnership with NY artist, Nassos Daphnis. William's wife, Harriet directed a community music school on the property. It seemed to be a time out of the Great Gatsby, where all manner of creative endeavors happened such as Sunday evening music concerts with a full orchestra and famous artists came to visit including Ansel Adams, Minor White, and William Carlos Williams.

Lee Gratwick has added her own creativity to the gardens which she has rebuilt and manages on her own. The Gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Lee opens the Gardens for three weekends each year in the spring for the Tree Peony Festival for the public to enjoy this famous collection of tree peonies.

I was able to photograph for nearly three days before it started to rain and I had to leave. I photographed there two years ago and put together a small hardcover book of Linwood Gardens, the proceeds of which go toward maintaining the gardens. Because it's a self-published book, I will continue to update it with current photos of the gardens.




"It is at the edge of a petal that love waits."
-William Carlos Williams

Tree Peonies


Sappho

Persephone

Hephestus

Oread

Nike

I'm still floating in the world of tree peonies as I look at the more than 700 photos that I took at Linwood Gardens last week. These otherwise private gardens are open for three weekends during tree peony season. And it is spectacular, not only to see the tree peonies, but also to see the weathered structures of the formal gardens that were designed by the architect Thomas Fox and to experience the palpable history that surrounds the place.

Tree Peonies are native to the mountainside and forest regions of China and Tibet. Known as the "King of Flowers", it was held sacred in the gardens of monasteries and temple courts, and grown as an exclusive treasure of the Imperial Palaces. In the eighth century, Buddhist monks took the Chinese tree peony, moutan, to Japan. Extensive hybridization by Japanese gardeners produced distinctive flowers with pure colouring, and elegant lines with long, delicate stems. The tree peony did not appear in the gardens in England and America until the nineteenth century, but even then it remained a rare plant because it was difficult to propagate.

In 1888 the discover of Paeonia lutea, the long sought yellow peony, enabled the introduction of new genetic material and unique colours never before seen. Dr. Saunders, in the late 1920's, made the cross between the P. lutea and the Japanese varities, obtaining seventy new hybrids with exceptional vigor and beauty. Over the next 50 years, William Gratwick and Nassos Daphnis continued the hybridization work at Linwood Gardens, creating an historic collection of new tree peonies, which are preserved at Linwood. The Daphnis varieties are named after Greek Gods and Goddesses and I've included a few photos of his peonies here.

Evening on the Lake of Dreams




My current exhibition, "Evening on the Lake of Dreams" opened at Galerie D'Avignon in Montreal on May 2 and will run until May 23, 2009.

One of the most interesting things that happened to me during the course of my work on this series, was that the title of the exhibition came to me in a flash at 4:00 am one morning. I was in that state somewhere between waking and dreaming and hoped I would remember the title when I woke up later on. As I lived with the title for a couple of days, the idea for a myth came to me and I began work on a story that the title suggested in my mind. This story is posted on my website, www.janicemasonsteeves.com. As I continued to paint, the story wove it's way into the paintings, which became more dreamlike as the series progressed.

"Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."-Henry David Thoreau