Sunday, November 5, 2017

Mindfulness in Travel and in Painting

Iceworks 35   12x22"  Oil, cold wax on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

John Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Mindfulness for Beginners describes mindfulness in this way: "Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

I don't pretend to be an expert in Mindfulness but I do find two occasions when I am naturally more mindful: when I travel and when I paint. When I travel, especially when I travel to artist residencies where I have an uninterrupted month of time to explore myself, my surroundings and play with ideas, I find I am very present. I photograph, I walk, I listen to the land. I make note of the way that the colours and the light change from moment to moment. I watch storms come and go. 

"And that's why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy.
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road."
Pablo Neruda

I am much more mindful when I travel than I am when I return home. Except for in my studio.

In the studio, I try to allow for mindful and non-judgemental listening to my work: giving a painting or the beginning of a body of work, the space to speak to me. While I encourage working quickly in my workshops, in order to engage the interplay of no mind and mindfulness, I mean for artists to work somewhat differently at home where there is more time to sit and listen to the painting. Often after I've worked for a while, I'll sit in the comfy chair in my studio and spend time not thinking. Just sitting. Quietly. No music playing. Trying to feel where my work will go next. Listening with my body. It means being mindful of how you feel in your body as you work.

"ME: You always repeat things three times.

OLD WOMAN: Just the important things.

ME: Why? I hear you the first time.

OLD WOMAN: No. You listen the first time. You hear the second time. And you feel the third time.

ME: I don't get it.

OLD WOMAN:  When you listen, you become aware. That's for your head. When you hear, you awaken. That's for your heart. When you feel, it becomes a part of you. That's for your spirit. Three times. It's so you learn to listen with your whole being. That's how you learn."
Richard Wagamese from his book, Embers

Sunday, October 15, 2017


After I finished teaching my cold wax painting workshop at the Baer Art Center in northern Iceland, I stayed on to do a two-week residency. When I left home, I had some idea of what I wanted to paint in those two weeks. I was going to paint the subtle colours of Iceland day by day in a very minimal way.

However, after doing several of the minimal paintings, I had no interest in doing more.  As usual, the paintings led the way and it seemed that that was not what I was going to paint. 

So I started again where I'd left off last year when I did a month-long residency at Baer.  The paintings soon morphed into different forms, taking on the textures and colours around me, particularly the textures on the rocks I found on the stony beach in front of the Art Center.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Gradually changing.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

At home, I've begun to make diptychs and triptychs of the gestural work alongside new minimal paintings, combining them into a different form that speaks (I hope) of both the power and texture of the land as well as it's spacious silence.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

We don't know where our work will take us. To be a painter is to surrender to the process.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Inspiration from the land-Artist Residency, Iceland

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about breathing in the spirit of place. Some places however, resonate with us while others do not, for whatever reason. I remember travelling once by sail boat to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii), off the west coast of Canada. We anchored at the abandoned Haida villages along the way and took a dingy into shore to walk the land. I had brought along painting supplies, fully intending to sit and paint along the way. I found that I couldn't. Perhaps it was the energy of the land that had a long and sad history. I never did any work from that trip.

I resonate with Iceland––the space and the solitude here on this remote horse farm and artist residency in Northern Iceland.

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness… True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation." Wendell Berry 

In the painting workshop I taught here two weeks ago, I had a goal of trying to encourage resonance with the land. I'm not sure if one can do that but I thought I'd try to teach what works for me. I asked the students to walk the land in solitude and I read them this quotation by Irish poet and priest, John O'Donohue:

"It makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house....whether you believe that you are walking into a dead geographical location which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in an totally different form.  And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. That was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn't just matter, but that it was actually alive. Landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude and silence where you can truly receive time." 

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

" I'm outside, standing or sitting on a stone. I look around, toward the horizon, at the amplitudes and the mountains. Some stand close by, others further away. Automatically, the mind starts roaming or perhaps gliding around. I go into the distance, into eternity, where the mountains have impenetrable tranquillity, where they cease being mountains and become aeriform. I enter and pass through them. What exists in the mountain exists also outside of it, and in the surrounding quietude both dread and gloom reside. And in the air all all the thoughts of the world can be accommodated." Georg Gudni, Icelandic artist. From his book, The Mountain.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Iceland II

Baer Art Center, Northern Iceland

Group photo courtesy of Oxanna Adams

In July of 2016, I did a 4-week residency at the Baer Art Center in Northern Iceland. This year, I'm back for another 3 weeks. I taught a cold wax and oil, abstract painting workshop and I'm staying on for a 2 week residency. The workshop was made up of 4 Icelandic artists, one from Switzerland, one from the US and 3 Canadians. What an international group!  The enthusiasm was high, the laughter contagious and the food superb.What a week! 

I learned only the week before the workshop was to start, that the  Gamblin cold wax medium I normally use, couldn't be shipped by air from London, UK because it's designated as a flammable solid! I had checked this out in March and was told there was no problem, that the wax could be ordered and shipped to Iceland in 4 or 5 days! 

Big panic! I looked up several recipes online and found one that used solvent-free gel as well as beeswax and Odourless Mineral Spirits.  Steinunn Jónsdóttir, owner of the Art Center was to buy the odourless mineral spirits (which also couldn't be shipped by air). The only problem was that in Iceland, OMS is $70 US/litre. We needed 12 L!!

Quite a lesson in resourcefulness. Steinunn found an alternative: Odourless White Spirits

We made the wax, using a recipe I found online
Cold wax medium

1/4 cup bleached beeswax, 1/2 cup odourless mineral spirits or equivalent, 1 tablespoon alkyd medium. 
We used Gamblin solvent-free gel.

 It wasn't quite the same as the Gamblin wax. It was quite a bit softer. Perhaps it was the Odourless White Spirits that made the difference. In any case, we were undaunted. We made it and worked with it. And some terrific work came out of the workshop.

We laughed, we walked the land, we did a little touring, and we shared poems.

Here's the most enthusiastic one, which became a mantra for the rest of the workshop. It was chosen and read by Dassa Hauksdóttir:

“Being Positive” by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir

"Go Mountains!
Go Clouds!
Go Moss!"

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: