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.