Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vulnerability in Life and Art

New Work 1334    30x30"   oil/cold wax on panel  © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

New Work 1335   16x16"  oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Red 1   16x16"  oil/cold wax on panel ©2013 Janice Mason Steeves

I am reading the wonderful book, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.  She 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." 

I think of the work I am currently doing and how different it is from the work of the past year.  This past year, I worked on a series I called Silence. There is an urgent importance I feel, in finding quiet space in our lives and in our work.  It's vital as well to create quiet spaces in our paintings, where we allow breath to enter.  This felt like a series I could work on for years.

In April, after not painting for a month because of the demands of exhibitions and workshops, I began to work in the studio by playing on small paper panels. I painted quickly and freely, using quirky mark-making and line and bright combinations of colours.  The excitement for this work has continued and it seems to be turning into a series of paintings.  It surprises me the quick shift in direction and I've been trying to understand the reason behind this shift.  It came to me in the past few days, in the ah ha moment where we remember how our lives and our work and the world are interconnected.

One night this past January, my good friend Susan and I went to a movie.  One week later she began having dizzy spells.  Within the month she was in the hospital diagnosed with a brain tumour.  She has remained in hospital since.  Susan can't walk or even get out of bed without assistance. Her speech seems to be improving although it's sometimes very difficult to understand her.  She doesn't seem to be bothered too much by this, and still tries her best to communicate, even leaving messages on my phone from time to time.  As she fights for her life, she holds to her goal of becoming well enough to attend her daughter's wedding in August.

I realize that my new work is about joy and gratitude.  Joy and gratitude are what Susan's illness is reminding me to focus on every day.  Gratitude for her friendship and her courage. I am grateful that I am healthy, that I can walk and I can paint.  

The art critic that sits on my shoulder tells me that contemporary art should not be about joy and gratitude.  It requires a much more weighty construct.  

I brush the critic off my shoulder.  Susan's vulnerability is physical.  Mine is emotional-it's something that artist's have to deal with on a daily basis: do we put ourselves out there in an open, honest, truthful way?  Or do we hide that light, hoping the critic will like us more that way.


  1. hank you Jan. You express my experience so beautifully. I work as an explorer and only as I work from my vulnerability do I come anywhere near nudging the truth of things.

    Also it is happening more and more that I fill with gratitude with each breath I take. It feels such a blessing to be alive and in good health. I wonder sometimes if I've become a simple-minded Polly-Anna because, if I pay attention to what we are told is 'the news', the world is in a hell of a mess.

    Clearly Mother Earth is suffering and we need to walk in new ways-- but I'm past
    vitriol and blame-- (although if I found myself face to face with Stephen Harper I'd be hard-pressed not to slap him about the head and shoulders)-- and yet...

    What I really want is to be part of a chorus of many who seek to articulate visions of what the world could be, if only we dared to be fearfully brave and act in ways that honour vulnerability, not conquest, beginning with the vulnerability of our planet and all its life.

    Here's eecummings:

    when god decided to invent
    everything he took one
    breath bigger than a circus tent
    and everything began

    when man determined to destroy
    himself he picked the was
    of shall and finding only why
    smashed it into because

    Let's keep on keeping on!

  2. Hi Jan, This and your previous post are so close to what is happening in my world: a long absence from the studio, the control mode, the loss of the joy that comes with free, uncontrolled painting. It helps me to read about your experience. Thanks

  3. Hi Sylvia,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I bet you meant the sense of joy that comes with free, uncontrolled painting! That's what I feel when I'm doing this new and gratitude. Appreciate your comments.