Thursday, July 26, 2018

An Interview

Recently I was interviewed by Amy Guion Clay for her blog post on Artist/Travellers. Amy is an inveterate traveller and has gone to 17 artist residencies in the past number of years. When I first found her blog in 2011,  I was heading off to an artist residency in Can Serrat, Spain. Amy had just been there and was on her way to residencies around the world in a year she devoted to travel. Currently she's been to 17 artist residencies and has recently released an online video program teaching all about artist residencies.

She interviewed me because of my long-standing interest in art and travel.

You can read the interview here.

Cill Rialaig artist residency, Ireland. Out on Bolus Head with the Skellig Islands in the distance

One's destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.  Henry Miller

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Vulnerability in Art and Life

Iceworks 55  oil/cold wax on panel 12x23" © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

I taught a cold wax painting workshop in abstraction this past week at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, Ontario. I've never had so many beginners in one class before. Two had never ever painted. One hadn't painted in 4 years. Three made art using other media. Only two painted regularly in landscape and abstraction. What a challenge! In our morning discussions, I gradually came to understand that the main challenge each artist had to face, was their vulnerability. Of course this is the case in every class. I suppose I was more clearly made aware of it though in this workshop. 

As an artist, you come up against yourself all the time. There's no way to hide who we really are. "I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one." John Steinbeck

I've written many times before about vulnerability  Here, and here. Yet it still comes back into my life, not only in my own painting, and again as I begin to teach a new class, but also in the lives of most of the people I teach. So I'll keep revisiting it each time it appears to see if I can find new ways of looking at it.

In her wonderful book, Daring Greatly Brené Brown 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." 

 It's important to stay vulnerable. To do that we have to keep learning at whatever age we are, not only learning, but challenging ourselves to try new things to walk new paths. Our level of discomfort is a good measure. It can be a signpost that this is a direction to follow. Many authors have written about the fear of blindly stepping forward in a new direction which can be like walking through thick fog.

Henry Moore said that "the secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is––it must be something you cannot possibly do!

In the book, The Art of Possibility, the authors talk about mistakes and vulnerability. “Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and ‘cool’, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fibre of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it.” 

Of course, learning the skills is crucial. But there's vulnerability at every level in making art: going to your first workshop, applying to enter work in your first juried show, being rejected from your first juried show and perhaps many more, starting a new series, or having your first (and subsequent) exhibition(s), whether in a restaurant, your home or a gallery.  Each of us has to challenge ourselves to move into the discomfort of vulnerability, of fear, and of rejection. That's where the treasure lies. 

"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing." — Vincent Van Gogh

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wild and Silent Places in Art and Life


As I'm exploring potential wild, remote locations for art workshops, I'm learning what sort of landscape I most resonate with. According to the huge interest I've received for these potential workshops though, the idea of travel to out-of-the-way places has struck a chord with many others also.  What is it about being in wild and relatively silent locations ( in a world where wild and silent places are becoming increasingly fewer)  that draws us in?

I'm rereading Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence. After challenging herself to spend 40 days alone and in silence in a remote cabin on the Isle of Skye, Maitland, described the experience and went on to explore many levels and kinds of silence.

"I began to realise", Maitland wrote "that it was not peace and contentment that I craved, but that awed response to certain phenomena of the 'natural' world in which words, and even normal emotional reactions fail". She goes on to say, "I discovered in myself a longing for the sublime, for an environment that, rather than soothing me, offered some raw, challenging demands in exchange for grandeur and ineffability." Like Maitland, I'm also searching for these sorts of places.

Places of deep silence share a kinship with art, from painting to writing to music. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post you can read here.

Iceworks 49 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in Poetry in 2014, Canadian Sue Goyette wrote about the importance of silence in writing.  "When it comes to writing, she says “it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out” for the reader. She explains that when something is too specific it becomes inhospitable. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning".

Iceworks 54 · 12 x 24 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a post on the website All About Jazz, on the role of silence in music. As well there is another on  Classic FM blog about the importance of silence in classical music, where the author discusses Mahler's Symphony No. 9, among others.  "The final passage of the final movement, Mahler's farewell to the world (he was diagnosed with terminal heart disease as he composed it), also contains some of the most poignant silence imaginable. The final notes are marked 'esterbend' (dying away), so it's almost impossible to tell when the silence actually begins but it's loaded with such incredible thematic weight that it becomes weirdly deafening. You strain so hard to hear something that, ultimately, you just can't."

While silence is essential in writing and music, it doesn't seem important in much contemporary visual art, where paintings often shout. To achieve silence in painting, the keyword is restraint: limiting the number of shapes, the amount of texture and number of lines, allowing some areas of colour to be strong and others grey or neutral. What is it that wants to sing in a painting?

Iceworks 48 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a close relationship between the awe experienced in wild and silent landscapes and the expression of that in abstract paintings. The silence and the pace of nature help us slow down, to find a quiet inner space. And it's from that quiet inner space that creativity can happen and silence can be expressed. These are places my soul wants to go.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Art of Travel: Drawing Inspiration from the Land

I love to travel to wilderness locations such as the ones I described in my previous blog post, where one can be overwhelmed by the size of the landscape and feel for a time, completely alone, lost in the vastness. It's partly to do with the silence in such landscapes, where you can almost hear your heartbeat.

Northern Sweden

Northern Sweden

I consider the idea of visiting remote places an aid to helping artists develop a more mindful response to the land, and as well, to find a visual vocabulary to express that connection. Mindfulness is the key. Not only being mindful of your own body, feelings and thoughts, but becoming mindfully aware of nature. And then, finding ways to creatively express that connection. I find it so easy when I go for a walk to forget about where I am and think about my problems, or worries or get lost in daydreams.

Iona, Scotland

Iona, Scotland



There are many ways of developing a sense of place. One way to connect that I've discussed in previous blog posts, is to spend time in one location, a practice called Sit Spots. The idea is to choose a spot in nature that you respond to in some way and to sit in this same spot daily or on a regular basis. We only have 4 or 5 days in a workshop for this exercise. But it's a beginning. For the sit spot exercise in my workshops, I suggest sitting outdoors in the same spot each day for 20 minutes, just observing, and then, perhaps  painting or sketching in a journal for another 15 or 20 minutes, abstractly recording feelings and experiences.


Another way of relating to place is through the Japanese concept of Shinrin-Yoku, a term coined by the Japanese government in 1982, which translates as 'Forest Bathing". It involves quietly walking and exploring, with all senses open to every sound, colour and feel of the forest. In this practice, mindfulness meets nature and the goal is to 'bathe' yourself fully in the essence of the forest. You wander very slowly, breathing deeply and mindfully and stopping to fully experience what deeply interests you, the texture of the bark on the trees, a mushroom or wildflower.

Rockwood, Ontario

Today, the research database PubMed lists 85 studies on the health impact of forest bathing, including studies indicating that it significantly lowers blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels  and sympathetic nerve activity compared with city walks, while also alleviating stress and depression.1 The most provocative of these studies conclude that exposure to phytoncides, the airborne, aromatic chemicals/oils emitted by many trees, have a long-lasting impact on people’s immune system markers, boosting natural killer cells and anticancer proteins by 40 percent.

Working with this idea, I'm in the process of booking a wilderness lodge that is deep in a forest for a workshop in 2020 that includes a forest bathing program, led by a naturalist. So exciting.

But besides the idea of nature healing us, I wonder; what if we were all more mindful of this earth? What if we gave back?

"To be struck by the magnificence of nature is to be returned again and again, in all-too-brief moments, to the innocence in which we were born. Awe. Wonder. Humility. We draw them into us and are altered forever by the unquestionable presence of Creator. All things ringing true together. If we carry that deep sense of communion back into our workaday lives, everyone we meet benefits. That is what we are here for: to remind each other of where the truth lies and the power of simple ceremony."  Richard Wagamese, from the book, Embers

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Art of Travel: Planning Workshops in Remote Locations


Dunskey Castle, Scotland

One thing I love to do is to organize workshops in gorgeous retreat centres or lodges or castles in remote areas of the world.  The intention in each of the workshops listed below, is to invite students, through various exercises and outdoor meditations, to connect with the landscape, to carry home that connection and translate it into abstract paintings. Contemplation, writing and painting are ways of connecting with and honouring the land.

My friend Rebecca  Crowell and I are finalizing plans to co-teach a workshop in a magnificent castle in Scotland, south of Glasgow in September 2019. Located near the sea, it has stunning views from the art studio on the top floor and 2000 acres of beautiful grounds to wander, including 2 lochs. We will stay in the West Wing. Registration for this workshop will open in September 2018.


I'm in the process of planning a cold wax painting workshop in Newfoundland, Canada for June of 2019. That's the season when icebergs break off the glaciers in western Greenland and the Gulf Stream floats them down along the east coast of Newfoundland,  a route known as Iceberg Alley. As well, sometimes whales can be seen off the coast. On our day off from our painting workshop, we'll catch a boat to see if we can find icebergs and whales. The workshop will be held in The Doctor's House  in early June 2019.  Watch for an ad for this workshop in June 2018.

The Doctor's House, Newfoundland


I'm also in the process of planning another cold wax painting workshop at the Baer Art Center in Iceland for the summer of 2019. Stay tuned for more on this.

Baer Art Center, Iceland



 And finally, Rebecca and I are also planning to co-teach a small class of 8 people, in a remote outpost in Mongolia, probably in August of 2020.  There we will stay in the Three Camel Lodge where our accommodation is in luxury gers (or yurts) in the Gobi Desert, each with it's own bathroom. We'll hold our workshop in a ger, eat gourmet meals in the dining room and spend 2 days on out-trips in land rovers to see this area of Mongolia. There will be a tour of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia the day after we arrive. Out-trips from our lodge would include a visit to the Yol Valley National Park, the Singing Sands, a meditation temple and the Flaming Cliffs. How exciting is this??

The Flaming Cliffs

The Singing Sands

We would appreciate your letting us know if any of these workshops are of interest to you. We'll put your name on any list or lists you like!

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”― Mark Twain

Monday, March 19, 2018

Searching for New Paths

Iceworks 48  12x15" Oil/cold wax on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves
Just a week ago, I was interviewed by Rebecca Crowell for her podcast: The Messy Studio. It was a very casual interview, especially because her "recording studio" in New Mexico where I was visiting her, was a blanket fort on the floor beside her bed!

As I listened to the podcast last week when it was posted, I was reminded again how important the idea of play is in my own art practice. Click here to listen to the interview. Rebecca has observed that my work has a conceptual component and asked which comes first, the idea or the painting. I responded that it's always play that comes first, staying open to what wants to come through. No direction. No purpose. No worrying about whether anyone would like the work or not. Simply playing with materials.

I realize I've written about play several times over the years. It still fascinates me: that state of not-knowingness. Of being open to the fertile empty state of possibility.

There is a wonderful essay entitled "In the Space of Art"  written by Mary Jane Jacob from the book "Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art". She writes, "In art as in Buddhism, creative potential resides in that nothing place, that nowhere of emptiness; an open space without attachment to outcome, with an aim to guide the process but the goal (the answer) kept at bay...for as long as usefully possible."

She goes on to say, "Practice is about trying, developing, cultivating, improving. Practice connotes repetition: to practice, to perfect. Practice becomes one of the rituals of life, continual acts of doing. And sustaining a practice-not just surviving in the business of art, but living in the space of art-means to know that the process is of greater value than the product, that the making...and even arriving at the making...exceeds the thing made, that the experience outweighs the material form."

Richard Serra in the book, "Spark: How Creativity Works",  freed himself from the constraints of making art by approaching it as play. He said, "I'm interested in the notion of play; [I'm] not interested in the end, [I'm] interested in the activity itself; [I'm] interested in not worrying in a self-conscious way about what I have to make."

In my studio, I follow the work (play) to see where it leads. It inevitably leads to new ideas and to a new series of paintings. But it starts slowly. And as it moves along, I discard the ideas I find don't hold my interest, and follow the ideas that continue to feel playful. After a time of playing and gradually creating a series, I sit back and ask the work what it wants to say. What is it about? I listen to it. There's always an answer. Often it surprises me. So Rebecca's question about which comes first, the painting or the concept has a very clear answer. It's always play that leads the way.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Mindfulness in Art: Trust

Iceworks 44  12x15"  Oil/cold wax on panel  ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceworks 45  Oil/cold wax on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Last fall I started a series of blog posts based on John Kabat-Zinn's 7 attitudinal foundations of mindfulness from his book: "Mindfulness for Beginners".  I thought it would be interesting to look at the relationship of  these 7 fundamentals to painting. Trust is one of them.

 In a personal story, as some of you know, I had two consecutive knee replacements in 2017.  Much of 2016 and most of 2017 was spent in pain and then later, healing. By the fall of 2017, I was back in action. However, during the healing process, I had a bit of a crisis of faith. Faith in myself to continue to create.

Normally I have pretty continuous creative ideas. They arrive like pictures in my mind. Unlike Agnes Martin who had  a separate vision for each painting,  I seem to get pictures in my mind of a series of paintings.......or maybe it's just an idea to follow. I'm not sure. But I do get visual creative ideas. During my artistic hiatus with operations and healing this past year and a half, I had none. Zero. I also wasn't working in my studio. I had no desire to. I did have guilt about it though whenever I passed by the studio area in my house, and looked in. Most often, I didn't even look in.

I thought that perhaps I was done for as an artist. That this was a clue that I was to retire-hang up the brushes.

And then I went to Iceland, to teach a workshop and to stay on for another 2-week artist residency. I had previously done an artist residency at the Baer Art Center in July 2016, when I was in the throes of great pain while waiting for the knee replacements. Both times I found the residency inspiring and restorative. I didn't expect the series I began there to continue once I was at home. In the previous residencies I've done, I turned aside the residency work and resumed where I left off in my studio practice. 

This time was different. Very gradually, I began to work in the studio again, slowly at first, feeling my way along. Playing with ideas. Working with the images I'd produced in the residency, adding quiet  panels of colour. Gaining back my confidence. 

Still. I wasn't getting any inner pictures. 

Slowly, slowly, in the last three months, I began again to get pictures in my mind. I can't begin to express the joy I had when this happened. It was a long slow journey back to the studio. Unlike some who have had an artistic hiatus for health reasons, but who yearn to return to the studio, I had none of that. No desire at all.

Normally, I have good advice for those of my students who struggle to schedule their work time in the studio. But could I follow my own advice? No. Could I push myself to get into the studio? No. Sometimes it just takes time. Sometimes it means surrendering to what is.

I can see now that I needed the time away from my studio to heal. To watch all 156 episodes of the West Wing, countless movies, and to read tons of murder mysteries. 

There was a part of me that hoped that my creativity would return.

Perhaps it was that that saved me. That desire.

Perhaps it was just the timing of my body's healing. I needed to learn to trust in that. Trusting not only that I would return to painting, but that my paintings had a life of their own. That they had their own plan. I needed also to trust that path. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Following A Series: In Search of Poetry

How does a series come about? What is it that makes an artist want to follow a few paintings along to see where they lead? Is it simply making the decision to do so? Or is it something exciting about them that sparks other ideas?

The current series I'm working on began at my artist residency at the Baer Art Center in Iceland in 2016. It took a few days to settle into the residency. As I walked the treeless farmland that hugs the coastline of Skagafjordur where the residency is located, I became fascinated with the dark and imposing cape. It would be an island except for two long bands of stones that join the cape to the mainland on either side, creating a freshwater lake in the centre with a black sand beach.  Seen from the water, the cape is a breathtaking expanse of basalt columns that have formed into overlapping layers which flowed into various curved shapes as the volcanic columns were cooling long ago.

I didn't interpret this landscape directly, but I was certainly inspired by it as I tried to paint it in an abstract way.

I painted every day gradually letting the work change as I focused on one element or another or as the landscape grew in me.

I continued this series in the fall of 2017 when I came back to the Baer Art Center to teach a workshop and to stay on for a 2 week residency.

When I came home, I wasn't sure I could maintain the energy for the work without being in the landscape. But then as I continued to look at these pieces, I wondered if I could work with them in another way by adding on panels that would describe the colours of Iceland. I'd made a colour chart when I was there and decided to use it to help me remember the colours I'd seen.

And then, I began to play with the colours alone, using various sizes of panels. Pursuing what I find interesting, following the feeling of the work.

The work became even quieter. Barely a whisper.

I've been following where these paintings have led me. In search of poetry.

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.     
Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Where Do Creative Ideas Come From?

Last week I visited my artist friend, Rebecca Crowell in New Mexico. Rebecca and her husband Don Ticknor have bought a property  north of Santa Fe, which Don is renovating and restoring. 

Rebecca and I will be teaching a painting workshop in northern Spain in September and we needed time together to work on it. We spent part of each morning throwing ideas back and forth about the format of the workshop and came up with some creative plans. I realize that so many ideas I have come from books I've read about art and the creative process or TED talks or the podcast ON Being with Krista Tippett or simply talking to people. For example, in my workshops that take place in beautiful landscapes,  I often have my students choose a 'sit spot' outdoors, where they sit every day for 15 or 20 minutes to simply observe. This idea came from an outdoor workshop my daughter took with Jon Young, author, wildlife tracker and naturalist, who developed the daily sit spot practice to help people connect with nature. To this practice I added the idea of asking inner questions while you sit outdoors.  Robert Macfarlane in his book called the Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, suggests that some thoughts or forms of imagination are particular to a place, and when in a powerful landscape, one might ask themselves questions such as: What does this landscape know of me that I cannot know of myself?

Such questions and other creative ideas come from everything we do and see and read, from people we talk to and visions we might have. Creativity is about curiosity, following that curiosity, and making connections between things.

As I flew from Denver into Santa Fe, I was curious about the circles in the land below. I took photos from the window of the airplane. The grid of farmer's fields with the various greys and browns were so beautiful in late January. I noticed that many of the fields were square, with a perfect circle inscribed in the middle. I later learned that these shapes were due to the circular irrigation/spraying wheels. They reminded me of paintings I had done at the Tyrone Guthrie artist residency in Ireland several years ago that were informed by the circles inscribed on stones and in passage graves. Connections. More ideas.

Ireland 22x32" Acrylic on paper ©2011 Janice Mason Steeves

In the afternoons in New Mexico, Rebecca and I went sightseeing. This is an area rich in history and creativity, and the home of two of my favourite artists: Georgia O'Keeffe and Agnes Martin. We wandered around the areas where they lived and worked.

Rebecca at Plaza Blanca near Abiquiu, NM

 O'Keeffe was inspired by the landscape of New Mexico and she painted what she saw. But Agnes Martin was not. She said in the documentary, With My Back to the World, that she could have painted anywhere, that she was not inspired by this life, but by the life beyond. She claimed to see visions of  grids that she should paint, which were so specific that she could create an exactly measured grid from her visions. When each painting was completed, she would simply wait for another vision to come.

This is similar to the story of the poet Ruth Stone, as told by Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk. Ruth Stone felt that she had to catch her poems as they came through the air. Once she was in a field and when she heard one coming, she had to race to the house to get a paper and pen to write it down before it sailed past. She caught it just in time but backwards as it flew, so that she wrote the end first and then the middle and then the beginning!  It coursed through her life, she said in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards ceremony, like a constant verbal stream heard above the thrum and buzz of everyday existence. “It just talked to me, and I wrote it down,” she said. “So I can’t even take much credit for it.

Many artists find inspiration in the land as Rebecca does. She's inspired by the various landscapes she's travelled to in the last number of years as an artist and an art teacher. She doesn't describe a particular landscape, but creates an amalgam of the various places she's travelled to and what she brings home with her that has stayed in her heart.

40x40"  © 2018 Rebecca Crowell

We visited the artists Debra Fritts and Frank Shelton who live near Abiquiu. Debra is a ceramic sculptor who creates stunning, mythological female figures that seem to be seeking or yearning. She is a story-teller, weaving life stories into her dream-like sculptures. Frank's current work is created from canvas drop cloths that he cuts, manipulates and layers to create breathtaking minimal pieces. He writes, "my process of working may best be described by paraphrasing a quote from the late Israeli artist, Moshe Kupferman. '...I first put in emotion and expression. Next, I cover it up. Then, I put in silence...' While the process and product are important to me, I feel both are dead without passion. It is the passion that sustains me as an artist and human being."

Frank Shelton and Debra Fritts in their gallery near Abiquiu, New Mexico

I can sit at my desk for a year and nothing happens, whereas sometimes a waitress handing me a sandwich can just touch me very, very deeply and suddenly everything will open up, the heart will open up. It’s very mysterious how the heart opens up, it can be just a glance, a gesture or just someone passing on the street and it happens that it touches me and everything changes and suddenly I feel I want to speak of something. Leonard Cohen
"If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often. Leonard Cohen