Sunday, August 27, 2017

Getting Feedback

BTW 9  Oil/mixed media on paper  12x12" © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

BTW 7 Oil/mixed media on paper 12x12"  © 2017Janice Mason Steeves

In my last blog post, I wrote about how difficult it's been to get into my studio after a very long hiatus. I debated whether I'd write that blog post because it felt like I'd be showing all my vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Maybe not the smartest thing to do as a painter of over 30 years and as an art teacher and coach. When I'd finished writing it, and my finger hovered over the word "Publish", I thought of these things. Much debating went on in my head in that hovering, the inner critic's voice being most negative of all.

BTW 2 Oil/mixed media on paper 12x12"  © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

I'm so grateful to have pushed the "Publish" button. I received many beautiful personal emails written by people who had recently been through periods of personal illness, or members of their family had, and they had become the caretakers of those family members. Others wrote with similar stories about being pulled out of their studios and their creativity by life events. Like me, they worried that their creativity had dried up, never to return.

Many others offered advice. Some sent personal emails, some posted on Facebook, some made comments on my blog. Amazingly, much of the advice was the very advice I'd given my students when they went through dry periods. In fact some of my students wrote offering me my advice back!!! Ha! I guess I needed to hear it reflected back to me.

And others wrote to tell me just to be patient, that I'd gone through two big operations and I needed time to heal. They assured me that creativity was in my blood and my very makeup and that it couldn't possibly dry up.

One friend who is a well-known Canadian writer, wrote to tell me that she is also in a period of stasis. She suggested an exchange: that by Wednesday of this past week, she would send me two paragraphs that she'd written and that I send her a small painting or the beginnings of a larger one.

BTW 4  Oil/mixed media on paper 12x12"  © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Ahhh, I'm so grateful to have received all of these touching emails. Every one said something I needed to hear. I especially loved the exchange idea.

BTW 5   Oil/mixed media on paper 12x12"  © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

All in all, the responses energized me. It's as though a weight was lifted from my shoulders, as though I didn't have to bear this burden alone. But of course I do. It just felt as though I had some wind beneath my wings (to steal an image from a famous song). Soon afterward, I got back into my studio to work. I am working without thinking at whatever the hell I feel like working on.

"MY DEAL WITH THE CREATOR IS THIS: I'm dragging a sack of old worries, hurt, anger, doubt and fear up a long hill trying to get to the other side, to relief, to healing.

CREATOR SAYS: 'If you need a hand, I'm here. You pull and I'll push.'

I SAY: 'Really?'

CREATOR SAYS: ' I promise that I will always be there to help you. But there's a catch.'

I SAY: 'What's the catch?'

CREATOR SAYS: 'You have to pull first.'"

                                                      Richard Wagamese from the book, Embers

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Commitment in Life and Art

My son was married two weeks ago. It was a joyful, beautiful wedding. He's 42. It's taken him a long time to find the love of his life. But he waited. And they found each other.

And the week before that, I attended the 50th wedding anniversary of old friends. A heart-touching celebration.

I think of commitment when I think of these two events so closely connected in time. Only I think of my commitment to being an artist. I've been pulled out of my studio this past 7 months because I've been healing from two knee replacement surgeries. It's difficult enough to get back into the studio after a vacation or a brief illness but after a 7 month hiatus, only working off and on, I find it agonizingly difficult to get back to work. It's a push-me, pull-you situation. I want to get in there and yet, when I do, I don't know what to do. Creative ideas start to spring forth the more you work. And they quickly dry up when you're not making work.

I've given students in my workshops the great advice to just get in there and play after a long hiatus. And it is great advice. Only it doesn't seem to be working for me just yet. When I can't seem to play, I just go into my studio and tidy up, move things around, rearrange stuff. Just be there.

But one thing I do know, is that I'm committed to making art. I know that I will get back in my studio. I know that the ideas that are percolating in my head will eventually come out.

So I decided to try to inspire myself with wise quotes:

OK, OK, OK, I'll begin.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dialogue with Alice Ballard and Janice Mason Steeves

Lake Logan, North Carolina

JANICE: I'm looking forward to teaching a workshop at Lake Logan in North Carolina  from October 25th-30th alongside Alice Ballard. Alice is a ceramic sculptor. You can see her work here:
Although we are teaching separate workshops, we will work together for part of each day, so students will have some experience with both teachers.  Together, our workshops are called: Considering the Natural World as Source.
Alice, I'd like you to tell me a little about your work and how you teach.

ALICE:  I am so excited to be working along side Janice Mason Steeves. You can see Janice’s work here:   Not only do I see wonderful opportunities to share what I will be teaching to her class but I get to be a student as well, as I learn about how Janice works with cold wax and oils along with the source of her ideas and inspiration! This is the richest of all ways to teach and to learn.  

Alice in her studio

In answer to Janice’s question I would say my work is a reflection of my relationship with natural forms. These forms come to me on walks in my garden, hikes, the grocery store or appear as gifts from friends who share my fascination with the beauty inherent in Nature’s abundant variety of forms. It is often the metamorphosis of nature’s forms, as they change from season to season, that attracts me. I am endlessly drawn to that universal world in which differing life forms share similar qualities.

Pod by Alice Ballard

As for my teaching style, I encourage everyone to take a deep breath, slow down, to be “open” to the possibilities... Creating art should be a joyful and fun experience or process, an experience which is all about learning to work with your medium and to open your senses to all the possibilities without fear of taking a chance...It is the process after all that is at the heart of art making that drives our ideas forward... 

Janice, my question to you is how you have come to choose cold wax on oils as your avenue for self expression?

JANICE: I came to cold wax medium at the same time I was moving into abstraction. I had been painting representationally for 25 years, and felt my work needed to change. I found Rebecca Crowell’s work in cold wax and oil in Santa Fe and contacted her about taking a workshop. She had just started teaching at that point. We have since become close friends. The medium spurred me into working abstractly, especially because the main tool Rebecca used was a 6” bowl scraper, which meant making large shapes. The only trouble was that I had no idea how to paint abstractly. So I bought books on the foundations of art and design, and gradually taught myself. I developed a workshop to help students learn about the structure of abstract painting much more quickly than I did. So I teach the fundamentals of abstraction, along with techniques of cold wax painting.

Janice in her studio

I also am influenced by the world around us, particularly landscape, and especially light. I try to incorporate that influence into my work in an abstract manner. I agree with you Alice that creating art should be a joyful experience and I encourage play. That’s how I begin each new series, by playing, trying out new ideas, experimenting. 

New Work 4 12x12" ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

For the joint sessions in our workshops, I’ll begin each morning with a short contemplative coming together. Then I'll ask students to sit outside for 20 minutes, quietly and separately, coming in at the end to do 4 quick, small paintings in oil and cold wax. At the end of the week, we’ll gather as a group to discuss the questions I ask the students to contemplate as they sit outside, and to look at the resulting work.

Tell us how you’ll teach your joint sessions, Alice?

ALICE: My plan for our combined classes is to close each day with participants making a small meditation bowl in clay.  The meditation bowls will be made by pinching a small amount of clay into a form.  The form the clay would take on would be in response to something meaningful encountered during the course of each day…...

JANICE: I'm very much looking forward to working with you Alice. I think this is a very exciting idea. I love the idea of working collaboratively for part of each day.

To find out more information about these workshops and to register, contact:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Breathing in the Spirit of Place

How do we access the felt experience of place and recreate it in our artwork?

I love doing artist residencies because I can spend a few weeks in one place, getting to know it a little. In order to sense the land, I go for long walks alone, so I won't be distracted by conversation. I smell the air, listen to the particular sounds of the place, notice the colours and the light.  I take lots of photographs so I can keep those images in my mind. Sometimes I collect things: stones, feathers, odd bits and pieces. But mostly stones. I come home with my suitcase loaded with stones. For me they hold the energy of a place.

The spirit of place is called the genius loci. In her book The Soul of Place, Linda Lappin writes, "Most people today might define the term 'genius loci' as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. In other words, a guardian spirit with it's own personality, able to interact with human beings." 

Lappin goes on to say that, "Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of multiple habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds or other sources of food..........That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it."

When I was at an artist residency in northern Sweden a couple of years ago, I didn't realize how I was becoming attuned to the landscape until I made a colour chart one day. I looked at the world outside my studio window and made colour swatches of what I saw: the silver-blue of the lake under grey skies, the raw sienna of the bogland emerging from the snow, the colour of the pine trees on the distant shore.

And when I looked at the way my paintings had changed during the residency, I could clearly see the effect that the land and the light was having on me. 

The same occurred at my artist residency in Iceland in July  of 2016. Below are a couple of photos from there.

And three of the small paintings I did there:

I feel the genius loci present in each landscape, and work with it for a time while I'm there.

Once I come home, I seem to incorporate the images and the resulting  paintings, while influenced by a place, are not so site-specific.

Rebecca Crowell has done a lot of travelling to teach workshops in the past few years. In her recent blog post, she talks about how she is "attempting an integration of these experiences", rather than expressing the spirit of a particular place.

It's what I'm also doing, returning to my studio, invigorated by new experiences, having fallen in love with a new landscape, it's sights and colours. I return with some relatively site-specific paintings, and then I abstract these ideas. 

These paintings below are recent ones (each 12x12"), still influenced by Iceland:

"I know mountains because I have stood on precipices and breathed. I know prairie because I have lain on my back and been absorbed by the sky. I know the ocean because I have immersed myself in it and felt the pull of the current. If I want to know life, I need to experience it's wonder and breathe it in with every breath. If I want to know possibility, I need to see its immensity and allow it to absorb me. If I want to know faith, I have to surrender to it and feel it pulling me in its unseen direction."
Richard Wagamese from the book, Embers.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Coming to Art Late in Life

In healing from my second knee replacement lately, I haven't been able to stop thinking about my last workshop here in my studio at the end of April. It was the most intense group of women I have yet had the privilege to teach. Our lunchtime conversations immediately delved into a depth that I hadn't experienced before.

There is a passion in people who come to art later in life, a richness, a depth that is earned through living long enough. They share a strength of purpose, a deep need to connect with their creative souls.

My workshops are filled with older adults, by far the majority are women, who are generally in the age range from 50-75. These are baby boomers, who are redefining old age and creating a new term which some call Second Adulthood. Their children are grown and gone, their parents have passed on, and they are retired or are near retirement. All of a sudden, they have freedom they have never had before. This is especially true for women who, in this generation, have fulfilled the role of caretaker, no matter if they had other jobs. They put themselves last on the totem pole of the family. This is now their time.

They come with stories to tell. Stories about how their kindergarten teacher held up their work in class and said, "This is an example of bad art." They have carried that criticism deep inside for their whole lives.  There are stories of how their parents discouraged them from becoming artists or how they never had any confidence in themselves. Stories of how art helped to heal them from trauma or how art helped them find themselves after devoting their lives to others.

I'm thinking of connections with the book I am currently reading called All the Good Pilgrims by Robert Ward that he wrote after walking the Camino. He shared stories of the pilgrims he met along the way. Ward often asked others what their purpose was in walking the Camino.  At various points on the journey,  he asked himself the same question. It bothered him that he could find no clear answer within himself.

He stayed one night in a nunnery in the city of Leon. During the day, Ward had been pondering again the question of what makes a pilgrim with others he had become friends with on the journey. After Vespers at the nunnery, one of the nuns stayed behind to chat. Her simple reply when Ward asked her the question was, "A Pilgrim is someone who is looking for something."

I wonder if artists aren't pilgrims. Looking for something. Coming at last to art.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"If we go for the easy way, we never change."

In my abstract painting workshops, I aim to teach more than technique. I'm trying to combine head and heart, structure and freedom, teaching the techniques of cold wax medium and oils through the elements of design and composition. Along with structure, I stress the importance of play, working quickly, and intuitively.

The idea is to encourage an artist to see things differently, to open them up to other possibilities, to change the way they design their paintings. It's not an easy thing for them to do. Although many students are looking to grow and learn, which is why they sign up for a workshop, or do art mentoring, many have developed ways of painting that are easy for them to do, that feel good.

I like to challenge students in my workshops. It isn't easy. I encourage students to paint with their heads for a couple of days, learning about structure and design, a shortened version of what artists were required to do in the days of Ateliers. This was the classical way of learning to paint and draw, just as a musician learns scales, and how to read music before they can play. For the remaining days of my workshop, students are invited to play, to work more intuitively, to incorporate head and heart into their work.

I hear good comments about my workshops: how they change the way people work, change the way they see, and even, change their lives. But many of these artists, then, soon after, instead of slogging it out in their studios, finding their own direction, get discouraged at the work involved and go on to another workshop where the focus is different. They work in that style for some time. And they may go on again to another workshop and yet another. Gradually, with all the confusion of different teaching styles, they often end up going back to working the way they did before any of the workshops.

It's difficult to grow and change. There has to be strong commitment behind the intention. The hard work needs to be done in the privacy of your own studio/workspace, where you struggle alone with finding your own voice.

It's also hard to commit to change when the artist posts their older work or unfinished work on Facebook where they get a few 'likes', or they sell a piece of the older work. While that can be rewarding, it also encourages stagnation and the effort required to grow and move forward dies.

"If we go for the easy way, we never change.” – Marina Abramović

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Not Being Able to Paint

I've never  had much down time between the various series I've painted. One series of paintings generally followed another, with only short breaks between them, except for a couple of times I stopped my studio work for minor health issues. I always felt it was a simple matter of discipline and drive as well as that mysterious hook that kept pulling me back into the studio. The creative process always kept me full and enriched, no matter how much painting I did in a day, or even if the work was going nowhere.

Until now.

For the past 2 1/2 years I've been troubled with very sore knees; bone on bone said the orthopaedic surgeon who recommended total knee replacements for both knees. Wanting to avoid surgery, I pursued a number of alternative routes until I could stand the pain no longer. I've just recently emerged from knee replacement surgery, wondering why I didn't do it sooner.

During this long process, I've learned to have great compassion for people suffering from chronic pain, and also more compassion for people who can't get themselves into their studios.

In her book Morning, Noon and Night: Living the Creative Life, singer/songwriter Judy Collins said, "I am not myself when I am away from the work, in spite of appearances. Perhaps I look the same to my friends, to my husband, but I  know better. I am suffering from a malaise that tells me I will never write anything again. It is a terrible, deep, frightening feeling. I feel lazy and useless. All my accomplishments mean nothing. I can't catch the dreams, let alone the inspiring winds of creativity."

She goes on to say, "There is talent and there is the discipline to get the talent to pay out. I have to harness the talent, use the discipline and I then find that, surprise, there is a pleasure in the discipline.     Discipline is freedom disguised as a cell. It holds its own secret. The cell is its own door, and discipline is the key."

Sometimes, discipline is required, but other times, rather than berating ourselves or feeling guilty for not showing up in the studio, we have to surrender to what's happening in our lives, in our bodies. That's hard. But it happens. It happened to Lisa Boardwine, who told me her inspirational story when I interviewed her for the book I'm writing about coming to art late in life, called At Last: On Becoming an Artist in the Afternoon of Life. Lisa used to market her paintings by doing outdoor shows and festivals. At the end of one show,  she was walking through the parking lot to her car.  All of a sudden, a car that was driving through the parking lot went out of control and started speeding toward her. It slammed into a parked car, pinning Lisa against a building. Her right foot was crushed and her left shoulder broken, injuries that required several surgeries and months of physical therapy. Even though she was unable to paint for a long time, Lisa would often go into her studio just to feel the creative energy there. She sat in her wheelchair, simply holding tubes of paint in her lap. As she healed, she finally became strong enough to stand at her easel to paint. About her painting at that time, Lisa said,"It was like discovering art a second time in my life." She had to surrender to the healing process.

Currently I also have to surrender to what's happening in my body, knowing that I'll be back in my studio soon, able to create again. I've always felt like I have a creative dragon living inside of me. When I make art, the creative dragon is happily fed and content. When I'm not making art, the dragon feeds on me! Right now, it just needs a time out. Like I do.