Sunday, February 3, 2019

Choosing Life


Pathway 9  Oil on paper on panel  16x24.5 © 2019 Janice Mason Steeves

I have a friend who turned 103 last August. She was my supervisor when I worked in the psychology department of a psychiatric hospital in Ontario. I was fresh out of university with a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and thought I knew it all. In the first week on the job, I wrote and submitted my first report.

My friend (we'll call her Martha), phoned me in my office which was just down the hall from hers. There were no computers in those days. She asked me in a very reproachful tone, if I had just submitted a report. Yes, I had, I replied. She told me that I was to consult with her before submitting any report. Would I please come to her office. Martha was sitting behind her desk with a somewhat disdainful look on her face. She did not suffer fools lightly and I most definitely was proving to be a fool.

Martha and I began a very uncomfortable relationship. Very slowly and gradually though, we came to like each other as I grew in my understanding of psychological testing and honoured her expertise. We actually became friends.Then, after a couple of years, I moved away. My life took me to various cities in western Canada. Martha and I stayed in touch at Christmas for many years but gradually, we lost contact.

Many years later, she contacted me through one of my galleries. She was a mere 92 at that point. I called her back and asked her how she'd found me. "Jan", she said in her usual abrupt tone, "I googled you". I chuckled. She asked sharply, "What are you laughing at?"  I mumbled something about  my Mum not knowing how to use the internet. Blah Blah Blah. She had rapped my knuckles once again.

We arranged to meet for lunch in her nearby city. Martha had always been a very flamboyant dresser. Nothing had changed. When she came to the door, she was wearing gold earrings, a leopard print blouse and scarf, over black slacks. And at 92, her hair was coloured the same shade of flaming orange I'd always known her to have.

Our luncheons became an annual event. For her 100th birthday, she threw herself a big party, sold her house that she'd lived in for most of her life, and moved  into a Senior's residence. She had become more stooped and her vision was deteriorating. But that didn't slow her down at all. She hired an assistant to help with her writing and soon after she turned 100, her first book was published, about her experiences as a Psychologist in WWII.

Now at 103, Martha walks unsteadily on a walker. Still though, she continues to dye her hair flaming orange and wears sequin tops and leopard print scarves.

I missed lunch with her last summer because she was suddenly hospitalized for severe pain. Diagnosed with bowel cancer, the doctors gave her a dire prognosis and suggested euthanasia as the first option. Farther down the options list was surgery. Martha chose surgery! 

She chose life.

The operation proved successful. It turned out to be a large non-cancerous tumour. She easily recovered and moved back to her senior's residence, where she began working on a second book about her life as a traveling psychologist after the war. That book was published just before Christmas 2018.

She's working on a third!

It's never too late to discover your creativity!



The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver


1.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.
2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.
3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?
Pathway 2  Oil on paper on panel  12x15" © 2019 Janice Mason Steeves

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Art Workshops and Mary Oliver




Pathways 4  12x24"  Oil on paper on panel  ©2019 Janice Mason Steeves

To begin each day in my painting workshops, I do a short mindfulness meditation to bring our focus into the studio, into the workshop. And then I read a poem. Words that might inspire. Poems that might, in the words of John O'Donohue, "create an invisible cloak to mind your life".

My workshops are filled with women (mostly) who are generally between 55 and 75. The Boomer Generation. These are women who have worked as teachers, nurses, doctors, professors, engineers and who are now retired or near the end of their careers. Many are also mothers of grown children. And grandmothers. They've come to art later in life and are ready for a second career, finally able to follow their hearts to discover their creativity. But still, many are tied to their roles as mothers and grandmothers and find it difficult, as women do, to allow themselves space and time where they are not nurturers and caregivers. Time for themselves, for their creativity. 



The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.

~ Mary Oliver ~ 
(Dream Work) 

Pathways 1  12x18"  Oil on paper on panel  ©2019 Janice Mason Steeves

I read Mary Oliver's poems in every one of my workshops. Her words are so accessible and go straight to the heart of our lives. I was saddened by the news of her death this week, but I celebrate the great gift of words she left us.
And on the afternoon of the last day of the workshop, Mary Oliver asks in her poem,
The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


May Mary Oliver's words continue to encourage, inspire and cover you with an invisible cloak to mind your life.

Pathways 2   12x24" oil on paper on panel  ©2019 Janice Mason Steeves






Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Please let me try that one again!




What Can We as Artists Do for this Earth?


Storm-watching workshop at Long Beach Lodge, Tofino, BC

I tried to post a video on this blog but it obviously didn't send when I sent out the post.

My apologies. I wasn't able to send a test email first so just took my chances.
I thought I'd resend this blog post and give it another go without the video.

The video I tried to post is really beautiful and well worth a look. Click HERE to watch it. It was a Greenpeace initiative fro. 2 or 3 years ago but I just came across it. I found it incredibly moving. Pianist and composer Lodovico Einaudi floated along on a platform in the Arctic near the island of Svalbard. He played Elegy for the Arctic, a gloriously haunting piece, while great chunks of ice broke off from the glacier behind him, crashing into the sea, almost overwhelming his music. So powerful, shocking, sad and beautiful all at the same time. I cried.

"It's time for a different formal defence of nature", suggests Michael McCarthy, one of Britain's leading environmental writers, in his book Moth Snowstorm.  He goes on to say, "We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy."

"This has", he continues, "been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalized defence of the natural world. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalized way."  "We need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves––proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down"




Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and author of the book One Square Inch of Silence, writes, "We've reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life-style changes. More than ever before we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is our meeting place."


As a silence activist, Hempton says, " Silence is an endangered species." His art is collecting and recording natural sound. He records the soundscapes of prairies, mountains, and forests around the world and defines silence not as an absence but a presence. Hempton has made sound recordings inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, of thunder in the Kalihari and of dawn breaking across 6 continents. Hear his interview with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being

Do you ask yourself what you as an artist can do for the environment?  I do. 

In my own small way, I'm aiming to do that by organizing Workshops in Wild Places. The idea behind this initiative is to travel with small groups of artists to remote, silent places, and to encourage them to really experience these places, to fall in love (again) with this glorious earth and to paint from that place.


Messenger
By Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.





Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What Can We as Artists Do for this Earth?



Storm-watching workshop at Long Beach Lodge, Tofino, BC


I posted the video below on Facebook the other day. It was a Greenpeace initiative from 2 or 3 years ago but I just came across it. I found it incredibly moving. Pianist and composer Lodovico Einaudi floated along on a platform in the Arctic near the island of Svalbard. He played Elegy for the Arctic, a gloriously haunting piece, while great chunks of ice broke off from the glacier behind him, crashing into the sea, almost overwhelming his music. So powerful, shocking, sad and beautiful all at the same time. I cried.





"It's time for a different formal defence of nature", suggests Michael McCarthy, one of Britain's leading environmental writers, in his book Moth Snowstorm.  He goes on to say, "We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy."

"This has", he continues, "been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalized defence of the natural world. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalized way."  "We need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves––proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down"



Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and author of the book One Square Inch of Silence, writes, "We've reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life-style changes. More than ever before we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is our meeting place."

As a silence activist, Hempton says, " Silence is an endangered species." His art is collecting and recording natural sound. He records the soundscapes of prairies, mountains, and forests around the world and defines silence not as an absence but a presence. Hempton has made sound recordings inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, of thunder in the Kalihari and of dawn breaking across 6 continents. Hear his interview with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being

Do you ask yourself what you as an artist can do for the environment?  I do. 

In my own small way, I'm aiming to do that by organizing Workshops in Wild Places. The idea behind this initiative is to travel with small groups of artists to remote, silent places, and to encourage them to really experience these places, to fall in love (again) with this glorious earth and to paint from that place.

Messenger
By Mary Oliver
 
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.





Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Case for Coming to Art Later in Life: Part II: Late-Blooming



Pathways 2  11x15"  Mixed Media on paper  © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves


There is a timing for things. It isn’t a mistake or a sign of weakness when a person comes to art later in life. The time hasn’t been right for them to arrive any earlier. Like late-blooming plants, they’ve weathered the heat, the winds and the fierce summer storms and now, the autumn is their time.

In nature most plants and trees bloom in the spring and summer. But some are only ready to flower in the late fall or winter. In Southern Ontario where I live, some fall and winter-blooming plants include Chrysanthemums, Burning Bush, Amaryllis, Christmas Cactus and species of Witch Hazel. The magnificent Saguaro Cactus, which grows in the Sonoran Desert between Arizona and Mexico, can live for 150-200 years but only blooms after 35 years. And the Madagascar Palm Tree blooms with hundreds of tiny flowers only once in 100 years.

 Like the Saguaro Cactus, I bloomed late too, attending art school in my late 40s. It was the right time for me to go through that experience, as I needed maturity and confidence to handle the times where I was flattened by a critique of my work or the lack of interest in it from the instructors. I wouldn’t have been strong enough to handle that in my twenties.


A few years ago with the idea of writing a book about coming to art later in life, I interviewed a number of artists for their thoughts about the gifts they brought as they began to paint later in life. Here are a few of their comments: One woman said, “I [now] have some dependable tools to help me work through the challenges, and a broad range of skills and knowledge that I didn’t have when I was in my twenties,” she says. “I’ve benefited from the circuitous route that I’ve taken to get here. I have formal training in a smorgasbord of disciplines and these all serve to strengthen my ability to think and create. OK, maybe it does rattle me some days,” she says, that “I didn’t show up early. But honestly it just didn't occur to me that I could ever have these skills.”

Another said, "“Maybe I did while away a few years in my youth, but all those [life] experiences have made me who I am today and today I am making art. That is what really counts.”


"I know that if I had not always held on to the idea of making art one day and becoming an artist I might not have made it this far." said another artist. "I know that all sounds rather melodramatic, but I had some tough times in the past and I think [that holding onto that dream] got me through."


"Painting at this stage of my life", said another, "has provided me vehicles for focus, mental agility and excitement once I retired from a pioneering career. I would not be good at golf or cards, though many people are. I would not be happy watching TV and the aquarium, as my dad did when he retired. That really sounds like Retirement, an exhaling and withdrawing from the public arena. The word that better captures my sense of this period would be Inspirement, a continued breathing in, waking up curious about the lessons, not the score."
 
We bring a richness to our art when we arrive later in life after we have done the work and taken the journey; a depth that wasn’t accessible to us when we were young. No one asks why some flowers bloom in the autumn. We’re just grateful that they do.  


"The flower unfolds

Only when it knows


It is strong enough


To withstand the wind


And the rain." 
-Christopher McGeowan



Pathways 3  11x15"  Mixed Media on paper © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves