Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rock Art

I was recently in Arizona and New Mexico, visiting friends and looking at lots of fabulous art in the galleries there.
Some of the most amazing artwork I saw- the origins of painting-were the pictographs of the Verde Valley estimated to be 1200 years old. Pictographs are paintings or drawings made on rock with colours made from mineral pigments and natural dyes from plants. The final few miles to get to the Palataki Red Cliffs out of Sedona were on dirt roads. There we saw the adobe dwellings and the pictographs of the Singua people.

The photo of the pictograph with the jagged line with light grey triangles below is believed to be an image of the mountain range behind. The sun on the summer solstice rises above the mountain at exactly the spot where the apex of one of these grey triangles points in the pictograph.

We also visited the Deer Valley Rock Art Center outside of Phoenix, where over 1500 petroglyphs, or rock carvings, were discovered in 1980, when a dam was being built to control flooding on Skunk Creek. Radiocarbon dating of petroglyphs at this site resulted in ages that range from about 700 years to more than 10,000 years ago.

No one is certain of the meaning of pictographs and petroglyphs. Certainly to do with communication of some kind. Some might indicate religious activity, some might indicate hunting. I wonder how the art work of today will be interpreted in another 10,000 years, if there is no accompanying artist's statement?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Daimons and Myths

vas Hermetis: 1, 2 3 each 4'x6" encaustic on panel ©2009 Janice Mason Steeves

I've named this series, vas Hermetis, after the Alchemical term for the symbolic Grail, a universal vessel of transformation. I'm reading two books at the same time right now. One is The Grail Legend by Emma Jung and Marie Louise Von Franz. They say that, "in nearly all mythologies there is a miraculous vessel. Sometimes it dispenses youth and life, at other times it possesses thee power of healing, and occasionally, as with the mead cauldron of the Nordic Ymir, inspiring strength and wisdom are to be found in it. Often, especially as a cooking pot, it effects transformations; by this attribute it achieved exceptional renown as the vas Hermetis of alchemy." From the Jungian school of psychology, these two women present this legend as a living myth that is profoundly relevant to modern life.

The other book I'm reading is The Demon and the Angel, Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration by Edward Hirsch. Hirsch writes about the concept of duende, "that mysterious, highly potent power of creativity that results in a work of art"....and describes writers that 'wrestle with darkness" such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Yeats, Emerson, Blake, T.S.Eliot and painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, among others.

"Yeats", says Hirsh, "was powerfully attracted to the notion that, as he expressed it when writing about Shakespeare, the Greeks 'considered that myths are the activities of the Daimons, and that the Daimons shape our characters and our lives.' He fancied the idea that for each of us there existed one archetypal story, a single explanatory myth, which, if we but only understood it, would clarify all that we said and did and thought."

These paintings will be available at Linda Lando Fine Art in Vancouver at the end of November.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Toronto International Art Fair (TIAF)

On Friday I  went to the TIAF with my artist friend Shirley Williams to spend the day at the Toronto Convention Centre and check out the show.  There were 82 exhibitors, mostly Canadian, many from Toronto and Montreal. There were several galleries from the US--New York, Chicago and Minneapolis--and a few international galleries from London,  Madrid, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, and Antwerp.

I was surprised at the number of representational works in the Art Fair.  I haven't gone for a few years and I found the fair to be very different, not nearly as edgy as in previous years, although there was lots of abstract work as well.  I noticed that there were a good number of sales and when we asked, the galleries mentioned that it was  larger works that  were selling and they seemed pleased with the number of sales.  Is the recession over then? 

Here is some of the work that I liked:

Galerie Lacerte, Quebec City
Jean-Robert Drouillard
Le balle est partie vers toi II
wood and acrylic

Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto
Kevin Yates
Main Street 2009
Bronze, painted wood

(wall mounted)

Dale Chihuly Installation

 My favorite:

 Purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario:

Cal Lane
Love Rug 2008
Petroleum Barrel, Plasma Cut

from Art Mur

and below
Cal Lane
Private Collection

My favorite dress at the show, just like one I had in the 60's only I wore mine quite differently then.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Writing an Artist's Statement

        Detail: River of Longing 8   24x80" oil on panel     ©2009 Janice Mason Steeves

How often have I rewritten my artist's statement over the years?  Endless times.  It's a work-in-progress.  As my painting changes, I have to rewrite it.  As I complete another grant application or apply for a residency or have an exhibition, I have to rewrite it. Although I enjoy writing, working on my artist's statement feels like a form of torture.  There is something about the process that is incredibly difficult. It requires objectivity to write it.  I paint intuitively.  I don't conceptualize the work or the project beforehand, which makes it difficult to be objective.

A couple of years ago, I bought an e-book from Alyson Stanfield called "The Relatively Pain-Free Artist's Statement.  It took me through a 20-day lesson plan.  It's step-by-step approach to looking at your art and your life, which is helpful for any artist at any stage in their careers. At the end of it I had a much-improved artist's statement.  Thing is, it's a never-ending process.

Writing an artist's statement is in a way like writing a mission statement.  It's writing about what you want your work to be, what you want others to see in the work, what you mean to say visually and it pushes my comfort level to expose the depth of my work through words.  I find that my work is in a sense beyond my words, it is ahead of my words.  My words have to catch up to my work. I search to find the words to describe it and they come only reluctantly and over time. It's as if I'm getting to know my own work through the process of writing about it. The more I write about it and the more I read other artists' statements, the clearer I can be about my own work.  I recently rewrote my artist's statement yet again, at the prompting of my artist friend, Anne-Marie Kornachuk, who offered to read my statement,  sent me hers, and then offered a few penetrating questions to nudge me in my rewriting.  I worked on it off and on for a couple of days.  Here's the latest version.  It describes as clearly as I can be at this time what my work is about and what I intend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Order of Canada

I was visiting my home town of Winnipeg last week and I learned that one of my good friends from University of Manitoba days, Susan Glass, was awarded The Order of Canada last July. The Order of Canada is an honour for merit. It is the highest such order administered by the Governor General on behalf of the Queen. Created in 1967, to coincide with the centennial of Canada's Confederation, the three-tiered order was established as a fellowship that recognizes the achievement of outstanding merit or distinguished service by Canadians, through life-long contributions in every field of endeavour, and who made a major difference to Canada, as well as the efforts made by non-Canadians who have made the world better by their actions. Membership is thus accorded to those who exemplify the order's Latin motto taken from Hebrews 11:16, desiderantes meliorem patriam, meaning "they desire a better country."

Susan's contributions have mostly been in the Arts. She is a western Canadian at heart. After attending schools in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Vancouver, BC, New York, NY, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, she attended the University of Manitoba graduating with a bachelor of commerce degree in 1967. 

In 2000 Susan chaired the third annual Canadian Arts Summit held at The Banff Centre, after having participated in the first two fledgling years as the Summit began to take shape as a forum for the 40 largest arts organizations in Canada.

Serving on the Board of Directors of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for 13 years, she chaired that board from 1995 to 1998 and continues to chair its Major Gifts Committee.Her continuing degree of commitment to that organization reflects her belief in the integral pride of place that the RWB occupies in the image and identity of Winnipeg.

Susan currently is a national governor of the Shaw Festival. Other voluntary directorships have included the University of Manitoba board of governors, St. Boniface General Hospital, St. Boniface General Hospital Research Foundation, Canadian Club of Winnipeg, and the University of Manitoba Alumni Association. She is also involved with fundraising for the Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art in Winnipeg in their new building campaign.

I know most of this from "Googling" my friend. She is down-to-earth and extremely humble and rarely mentions what she is doing, always deeply interested in her friends and their families. In fact I learned of her award by chance from another friend who mentioned it in passing.

I write about Susan to honour her in my own small way and say thanks to her for all the work she does in her city and in Canada.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More thoughts on changing directions in your work

The other evening, I went to the opening of Will Gorlitz's exhibition at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario. Gorlitz is a Professor in the Studio Art Program in the Department of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph and a veteran Canadian figurative painter who "sets out to unsettle our vision", says Richard Rhodes, editor of Canadian Art magazine. See a brief video tour of a 2008 Gorlitz exhibition.

I found it interesting to hear him talk briefly about his work at the opening. In my last couple of blog posts, I wrote some thoughts about changing directions in my artwork and asked how to recognize when we need to change directions or how to stay true to our own intuition. Will mentioned that when he graduated from art college, that he had noticed how it seemed an important thing for an artist to find their path and to stick with it. He decided right then to challenge that 'convention', and try to make many different bodies of work.

When this retrospective was offered to him, he said that he wondered how they would hang so many different bodies of work. But after the show was hung and he stood looking at it, he realized that there was a connection between the various works.

It makes me wonder if we have a certain mark or way of making artwork that is ours, even if the bodies of work seem unconnected. And looking back at our work over time, if we simply make art long enough, do the connections become more apparent?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Changing directions in your work

River of Longing 6 ©Janice Mason Steeves2009 18x18" oil on canvas on panel

After writing my last blog post, I was interested to read the blog post of Susan Buret, an Australian artist who commented on my last post, The Road Not Taken. Susan said that she has had three no sale shows but that her work later won awards or was acquired for well respected collections. She mentioned that she has recently begun a new body of work which is in its formative stages and questions whether she should change directions.

Her article has me thinking again about the situation. It's a paradox. On one hand is the flood of excitement of creating new work but then there is a huge effort required to get that new work out into the world. On the other hand when you stay with a body of work or a subject, there is an opportunity to go inward and deeper into the work, while continuing to work in a way that is recognized.

There is something so vulnerable about a new body of work. I remember many years ago when my first pottery instructor squealed with excitement at my very first thrown pot. It went up in layers, all wobbly and bendy. But it was such an important achievement for me who had been working on throwing a pot for weeks at my night school class. The teacher came running over and let out a yell of excitement. He thought it was so fantastic! I thought it was terrific that I finally did this, but I also thought it was a mess. It was all wrong! He loved it. He said that he would never be able to make pots like this one any more. He'd passed that rough vulnerable place of early learning and he could never visit there again. I haven't ever forgotten that teaching.

Should an artist continue to work in the same way and keep exploring it?
For me, who likes to paint images, I often wonder if I should find new images to paint, as I tend to paint one image again and again in a repetitive, meditative manner. I do paint some other images, like waterlilies and flowers. But the main image I keep going back to is the image of the 'vessel'. I keep finding new ways of painting it that hold my interest and excitement and sustain me. My friend, and artist, Robert Marchessault, paints trees and has done so for years. I can tell by the beautiful energy in his paintings that he continues to find more and more to say about them. Bob told me the other day when I was talking to him about this very topic, to just notice if you are still excited about the work, does it still interest you to do it.

If it doesn't hold the interest for you as an artist any longer, it's time to make the change.  That's what makes your work true.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Road Not Taken

The other day I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine who is an artist. We were talking about our work. She’s discouraged because she sold only one painting at her last exhibition in the summer and she’s having a difficult time getting back into the studio.

It reminded me of a similar thing that happened to me about four years ago. I had been to India that winter and came home full of the colours of India. Actually India is a pretty drab colour, shades of grey and mud. But the women’s saris are stunningly brilliant colours that glow against that background of grey and mud. I took hundreds of photos and came home saturated, eager to work with those colours.

The Light Series©Janice Mason Steeves 2005 12x12" encaustic

I had been using encaustic in my work for about eight years at that time and had just taken a week long workshop at R&F Handmade Paints in New York, which included photo transfer work among other things. The photo transfer work and encaustic and India seemed to come together for me in a series of electric-coloured paintings. I didn’t even contemplate trying to incorporate the colours of India into my usual work. I don’t know why.

I worked on this series for maybe a year, enthusiastically making lime green, turquoise blue, candy pink and scarlet red paintings that had scraped away images or photo transfers on them or paintings that looked like an exposed filmstrip. I was pushing myself into new territory and it was scary and also fun.

I showed them in a solo show I had previously organized at my gallery in Toronto. I had worked hard and was excited about showing this new work. There was a good turnout at the show, but not one sale. And in fact, in the ensuing years, probably only three paintings have sold from the series. The paintings were tried in other galleries, all with the same result.

I was so discouraged I decided to stop painting for a year, the first time I had stopped work in over twenty years of painting. I told my galleries this, and much to my surprise, they all thought that was a good idea! I guess I’d been hoping they would say something like, “Oh no Jan, what will we do without your work?”.

I filled the time with reading and traveling and doing what? I don’t know. It was like a retired person, who fills their days easily but can’t say what they do. I did that. Until I grew tired of it and after a trip to China, searching for wild peonies in the mountains of Tibet with Chinese botanists, I was excited and inspired to get back to work. I went back to old ways of working, painting in oils on wooden panels. I gave up encaustic for what would be five years. I didn’t incorporate any of what I’d learned by experimenting with brightly coloured and layered surfaces for a year.

My friend asked me, “What if you had kept working that way, I wonder what your work would look like today? That thought has followed me all week since our conversation.

The Light Series©Janice Mason Steeves 2005 12x12" encaustic

What if?

But what if I’d studied Medicine in University? I wouldn’t be an artist today.

What if I’d taken that Art Therapy course that I was enrolled in but dropped out of at the very last moment to stay home instead and devote myself to being a full time painter?

I’m glad I gave up that way of painting. It was an expansive time in many ways and then the following year that I took off was a very inward time of reflection, mediation and travel. I think the two years are connected, the outward and the inward. But I had come to the end of that cycle of work even though I had thrown it off in an angry way. It couldn’t sustain me.

In that year of reflection, I spent time reconsidering what is important to me in my work. Did I leave that work because I didn’t have many sales? Did I leave it because other people didn’t seem to really like it? How important is that to me? Can an artist function without any sort of acknowledgment? Or had I just run out of enthusiasm for the work and was it time to move on?

What paths have you not taken?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


It is with great embarrassment that I admit that I finally visited the recently renovated Art Gallery of Ontario yesterday for the first time! Designed by the world renowned architect, Frank Gehry, it has been open for almost a year! This is Toronto-born Gehry's first building in Canada, and according to the AGO website, it marks the very place where he made his initial connection between art and architecture.

I was completely stunned by the beauty of it as soon as I entered the building. I mean stunned! The wheelchair ramp near the front door, with it's wooden floor and half walls winds like a ribbon to the ticket desks. There is a hush to the building. It's quiet and still. Enormous circular staircases wind their way to heaven in the central courtyard and archways from other staircases look through to see them from other angles. Maybe it's because the building is just so new to me, but I almost didn't care if I saw any of the artwork. In fact, I would say that the building far surpassed ANY of the artwork. Is that a good or bad thing?

The Galleria Italia was the highlight for me. The window wall that looks out onto Dundas Street, has ribs that make you feel as though you are inside the body of a whale. I once had a cellist play in my house and because of all the wood I have in my home--wooden floors and beams--the sound was magical. The cellist told me that the wood of the cello resonated with the wood in my home. I couldn't help but wonder what a cello would sound like in the Galleria Italia.

The energy in the Art Gallery is totally different than before the renovation. It's so calming, inviting and actually healing. It feels like a living being. I just wanted to bathe in the light and energy of the space. Can't wait to go again. Maybe I'll look at the art next time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Poetics of Robins

Last spring, I had a battle with a robin. She was trying to build her nest on the transom above my front door. Each day she brought endless amounts of debris from my garden and each day, I used my broom to sweep it away. She, or maybe it was another robin, had built their nest in the exact place two years ago and for a few weeks I couldn’t use the front door. But the worst of it was that in that precarious place, one of the babies had fallen to its death. I didn’t want to have that happen again. So I kept sweeping away the grasses and each day she brought more. We were both determined. Then one weekend I was away for three days. And when I came home, boom! There was a solid, mud-packed nest. I climbed a ladder inside my house and peered into the nest through the transom window. Five small blue eggs nestled in the bottom.

I am reading the book, “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet”, by Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian, who is an exponent of Creation Spirituality—the belief that we are born in ‘original blessing’. In his book on creativity, Fox speaks of how it is a lack of trust that keeps us wallowing in our noncreative state. He refers to the book “The Poetics of Space”, by Gaston Bachelard, who says that ‘trust can begin with the simple act of examining a bird’s nest, for when we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world….Would a bird build it’s nest if it did not have its instinct for confidence in the world? A nest is a sign of optimism. It knows nothing of the hostility of the world…A dreamer might say that the world is the nest of mankind. For the world is a nest and an immense power holds the inhabitants of the world in this nest. And with this trust, creativity and imagination come to life.”

I was fearful for the robin’s creative work. And now, as I look at my artwork, I wonder in what way I might be limiting myself or not trusting. The robin approached her creativity with full trust and optimism and dogged determination. Within a short time, four of the eggs hatched, grew wings and flew away.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


0956-P, 26x80", oil on panel ©2009 Janice Mason Steeves

This is a painting I completed this week. It's from a series called the River of Longing. It doesn’t seem to fit into the series, but I don’t know what else to call it yet. So I’ll just let it be # 0956-P for now. It started off to be something else. I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to paint when I began. I struggled and struggled with the image trying to make it be what I saw in my mind. After many hours, I sat back to regard the work and came to the quick and upsetting conclusion that the painting was stunningly boring. In frustration after spending so much time on it, I placed it on my worktable and had the satisfaction of smearing various colours over the surface…the greens and browns I was working with at the time. Then I walked away and took a long break.

When I came back, feeling calmer, I very quickly and roughly sketched in the outline of three vessels, and put it up on my easel to have a look. I was excited by the dark moodiness and the freedom of it. I continued to work on it, but very slowly and with very little effort. It had painted itself!

Only then did I remember reading about Wu Wei. Wu Wei has been translated as “inaction”, “not forcing”, and “doing nothing”.

In the book, Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel has an exchange with his archery master that illustrates how a goal can be reached by giving up the attempt to reach it:

”The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed…What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”….”What must I do, then?” I asked thoughtfully. “You must learn to wait properly.” “And how does one learn that?” By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

Sometimes I can find that place when I paint. If I am not attached to the results, and work quickly, without thinking, my paintings are much stronger and help me find new directions to explore. This painting has led me to a new way of expressing the vessel symbol that has recurred throughout my work for the past fifteen years and it has reminded me of an important lesson. Paradoxically, the purposeless characteristic of wu-wei is purposeful; its purpose is not to let purpose get in the way of the goal to be attained.

Monday, August 24, 2009


River of Longing 8, 24x80", oil on panel©2009 Janice Mason Steeves

I decided to have a retreat in my home last week, to have no communication with the outside world other than to listen to CBC Radio. I booked the week off. No appointments or meetings or dinners with friends. I turned off the computer and unplugged the phone. Freedom!

I spent the time meditating, reading and spending long days in my studio. The days stretched on endlessly like when I was a kid playing outside in summer holidays. I even managed to get some big housecleaning tasks accomplished. I hate housecleaning! Perhaps it kept my feet on the ground to do such nice mundane tasks. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon scrubbing ten years of paint off my big old worktable. A friend tells me that such cleaning makes room for the birth of something new.

The creative ideas started to flow maybe on the third day of the retreat. I have creative ideas at other times too, but with a long flow of time stretching itself out, the ideas had more space to form, without interruption.

Some creative people cut off contact with the outside world for periods of time to do their work. I watched the movie, “Grey Gardens", a powerful documentary about two of Jackie O’s eccentric relatives who became poverty-stricken, living in infested squalor in their East Hampton’s mansion. Drew Barrymore cut off all contact with the outside world for the three months of filming the movie. I read that when the author Susan Sontag wrote The Volcano Lover, she didn’t see her friends, didn’t answer phone calls or open mail for three years to focus her energy on her book. I attended a workshop many years ago with Katherine Liu, a California artist. She said that each month, she paints for three uninterrupted weeks and in the fourth week, she comes out of her studio to visit friends and do household tasks. After spending some time in seclusion this past week, I can understand how that isolation makes for a very creative space where ideas have time to move and grow organically. It’s finding my own balance that’s important. I felt so nourished by this retreat. A bit like going to a spa. I’m resolving to do it twice a year…ummm ….maybe once a month.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Blog and Fear

(Detail)River of Longing 5 (0952-P)©2009 Janice Mason Steeves
I started blogging about three months ago with the idea that, like taking Vitamin D, it is extremely good for me as an artist to do this. I struggle with the worry of what to say and who will read this blog anyway. Jane Lind is a good friend of mine and an author. Her book, “Perfect Red”, a biography of the artist Paraskeva Clark will be published in November. Her publisher, Cormorant Books, suggested that creating a blog was important for a writer. I decided that what was good for Jane would probably be good for me too.

I write my blog posts sitting here in my quiet room in my house in rural Ontario and then post to the netherworld, imagining that only my friend Jane will be reading these posts or maybe my kids. However I was at an art gallery exhibition two weeks ago and was introduced to one of the exhibiting artists, who said, “I recognize your name, I read your blogs!” I didn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified. It felt a bit like having your personal journal read…..but then of course I know that I’ve published it online…what did I expect?

It’s all very new to me.

I decided that if other people are actually going to read my blog, I’d better get some help with it and enrolled in an online course called Blog Triage with Alyson Stanfield and Cynthia Morris. I’m starting today….

Lesson One:

I’m intending this blog to be about my art process, inspirations, thoughts and worries, travels, and other artists.

In writing this blog I hope to learn to more comfortably write about my work and to become increasingly aware of what drives my own creativity.

I’m hoping that the people who read my blog might be people who are interested in the creative process, other artists, musicians, writers and others who work creatively and who want to connect and share their own processes.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Art and Fear

I looked at an old sketch book from 2007 yesterday. From time to time I review my old sketch books to find inspiration and to see what I was thinking one year, three years, five years ago. I'm often surprised to find that similar ideas circulate throughout my work. Sometimes I complete a painting only to discover later on when perusing my sketchbooks that I had made an earlier sketch of the same image.

Yesterday what inspired me were some quotes from the book, "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

I wrote these notes in my sketchbook that continue to resonate with me.

"As an artist you're expected to make each successive piece uniquely new and different yet reassuringly familiar when set alongside your earlier work. You're expected to make art that's intimately (perhaps even painfully) personal-yet alluring and easily grasped by an audience that has never known you personally."

"..for most art there is no client, and in making it you lay bare a truth you perhaps never anticipated: that by your very contact with what you love, you have exposed yourself to the world. How could you NOT take criticism of that work personally?"

And this: ..."in our artwork there is nothing but reaction. The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back and when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in it's pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

River of Longing

This is a recently completed painting in my new series called, "River of Longing".
I continue to work on images of waterlilies and 'vessels', which are boats/canoes or bowls, as in the Evening on the Lake of Dreams Series. But recently the energy seemed to subtly shift into a new series as I begin to work with images to create a new myth which will accompany this work.

Drawing on my interest in and study of Shamanism over the years, the empty canoe image serves as a powerful symbol. In an article in the San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, "the symbolism of the boat/ship emanates from what Jung calls, 'the primordial era when the unconscious was predominant and the conscious weak', when myth and lore were taken for factual reality and gods and goddesses for granted as projections of the immutable, incomprehensible forces of nature. Long connected in various world religions with magic, death and rebirth, the boat as archetype has a powerful significance".

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How do you keep the creative fire burning?

I find the creative process to be a fragile place between the conscious and the unconscious. Sometimes I have intensely creative periods and then periods of lower energy, where I still love painting, but the energy behind a series of paintings begins to dissipate.

The composer John Adams said in an interview on CBC radio that he doesn't wait for the Muse to come to him, he improvises and then inspiration comes to him.

My process is similar and yet my own. I keep working even when I find the energy is letting go of a series I've been working on. But there comes a time, as I keep working, when I get a flash of a new idea, maybe in a dream, or just as a clear thought.

I have artist friends who seem to work steadily at their painting with no diminution of their energy. As an outsider looking on, it appears that they have consistent energy in their work from one year to the next. Part of me envies this consistency. Part of me knows that I am not like that and I need to work in my own way.

Besides continuing to work, or 'improvise', when I am in an in-between cycle, I find I am more open to receiving inspiration around me.
Here are a few ways I try to open to inspiration.
Mostly I find if I can quiet my mind, a space is opened.

1.Go for long walks in nature or go and sit in the woods. I am lucky to have woods behind my house so I can sit there often.

2.Meditate. I learned a form of active visual meditation many years ago that really works well for me.

3.Swim. That's my favorite activity and I find, like walking it calms my mind so that new light can come in.

4. I mow my lawn on my riding lawnmower. No kidding. This is one of the best ways to zone out. My earplugs are in, I can't answer emails or phone calls, and I have to focus but not. I guess it's like doing dishes by hand or washing the floor. Mundane repetitive tasks are really excellent for quieting the mind.

5. Tai Chi. I started Tai Chi a year ago and still can't do the 108 moves by myself. So I keep attending classes and following the others. But it is phenomenal at making me focus.

6. Listen to CBC radio, especially Tapestry with Mary Hines, the Sunday program that focuses on the spiritual. Or, "Writers and Company", with Eleanor Wachtel. Listening to such inspirational interviews is good for the heart and the mind.

7. I love reading poetry from time to time, most especially Mary Oliver. But I also love and continue to read Rumi and Rilke.

8. I also love the occasional inspirational quote, which I then write down and keep in my file of guessed it, "Inspirational Quotes".

Here is the quote which I have been rereading lately:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." Martha Graham

Friday, July 10, 2009

New Work

Here are three recent paintings that are currently on the walls at Abbozzo Gallery in Oakville, Ontario as part of the Ontario Society of Artists, "OSA Summer Exhibitions".
I continue to work on the series, "Evening on the Lake of Dreams". The myth that accompanies this work is on my website. I went to the opening last night on a fabulous warm summer evening. There are five Oakville Galleries involved in this exhibition, so it made for a wonderful gallery walk to see all of the work in each gallery.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Welcoming Mistakes

I think that one of the best things I can allow myself as an artist is the opportunity to fail. There is a huge sense of freedom that comes with letting go of the preciousness of the unpainted panel, the stark white surface. In my own process, I work on birch panels, which I take time to prepare in a careful way. The longer it takes me to prepare the surface, the more energy I have put into it makes it more precious, as though having spent this much time on it, I had better paint something worthwhile!

We're taught in life to try not to make mistakes. But how freeing to actually try to make mistakes. In a photography book I have, called the "Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing", by Philippe L. Gross and S.I Shapiro, one of the exercises is to go and shoot the worst photos you can. It brings a whole new outlook and a great sense of play. You lose sight of 'the product', or perfection.

When I was still in art school, I remember in an outdoor painting class, a student sitting in front of a beautiful piece of Arches Watercolor paper, completely frozen, unable to begin. The instructor came by each of us time and again to see what we were doing, to offer instruction. The student grew increasingly anxious, but couldn't begin. Finally, the instructor, in complete frustration, threw his cup of coffee on the white page. We all drew in our collective breath in horror! The student was livid. Furious! The teacher just walked away. The student eventually recovered and sat down to paint the best painting he'd done in that class. Well, what the teacher did wasn't exactly a mistake! But what he did, was destroy the 'perfection' that the student was battling.

In my work, I have found a way to allow for making mistakes. My method of painting is to cover the surface of the prepared panel with paint and then wipe away the paint to expose the light beneath...adding and subtracting until I have the image I want. But the time I can work on the paint is limited because some colours begin to dry within hours....others can stay wet for days. But working within those time constraints, I need the psychological freedom to work quickly and freely. If a painting doesn't satisfy me when it is dry I can only work back into it in a small way. I don't use white in my work so I can't work back into the whites. Once the light is gone, it's gone. My solution for this is that when the paint is dry, I do a light sanding then stretch canvas over the panel, gessoing and prepping the surface all over again.

Making mistakes is an important topic in any walk of life, in any discipline. We all make mistakes. They are necessary to learning. Taking risks is the important thing.

By welcoming mistakes in my work, I give myself the gift of freedom.

"If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down." Mary Pickford

J.K. Rowling in her commencement address to Harvard graduates in June 2008, said that, "Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all-in which case-you fail by default."

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt: From a speech given in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1910

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The other day I was listening to CBC radio as I worked in my studio. I heard John Adams the American composer interviewed about his book "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life". I enjoyed his comment about how, when he began composing, he wasn't interested in using irony on which most contemporary art depends. He said that Beethoven and Mozart didn't do irony, and he wasn't interested in it either. He had to find his own way and go against the tide of the time.

Yesterday I watched a video of John Adams in an hour long interview about his book and his life that took place at the Los Angeles Public Library on May 14, 2009.

It was an intelligent, wide-ranging and very inspiring interview. One thing that I took out of the interview was that Adams said he never had an idea for a composition, without improvising....he doesn't get an idea by just sitting there thinking about it.
Today I've ordered the book. And I'm off to my studio to improvise!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Work

It's been a busy few weeks for me lately. I'm getting work ready for several galleries at once. Just recently I've been invited to join Linda Lando Fine Art in Vancouver. I was delighted to accept the offer and am now getting new work ready to send out there in July. I am also beginning work for my solo exhibition in Calgary next spring at Wallace Galleries. I'll be sending them some new work this summer as well. In my current work, I am continuing the series, "Evening on the Lake of Dreams". Here are three of my most recent paintings.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

To Noah

This week I babysat my grandson, Noah who is just two years old. My daughter was working at a temporary job and needed me to babysit for just one week.

I normally have a very steady studio schedule of probably 5-6 hours per day, as well as doing all the other non-studio work, such as photo documentation, buying supplies, record keeping, shipping work and emails. As well I try and allow time for generating ideas, and reading as well as researching on the internet.

This week I had to slow down. I had to view the world through the eyes of a two year old where everything is wonder, like taking endless time scooping stones with a small shovel into a pail and then back again onto the ground. I live in the country and as we played outside one afternoon, we heard a horse whinney. He said, "What's that?". I told him it sounded like a horse. He said, "Can we go and see it?". "Yes", I said, "let's go". We had to jump in the car because it would be too long a walk for him to get to the road in time to see the horses. We got there just in time to see two people ride by on their horses. Noah was completely silent as I held him in my arms and we watched the horses go by. As the horses walked out of sight he kept repeating, "Wasn't that fun to see those horses?"

We drove a little farther along the road. I was hoping to see the neighbor's cows out in the field, close enough to the fence for Noah to have a good look at them. And they were close enough! What a delight. There was even a llama in the field with the cows! And farther along, there were two female horses and their foals grazing close to the fence. We watched them for a long time.

I've walked along this road day after day, wrapped up in my thoughts. Until today, I have not seen it with the eyes of a two year old.

We went to the grocery store for a few supplies one afternoon and as we stood in the check-out line, Noah began to spontaneously sing in a good loud voice, "Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow.." the old Raffi song." Everyone in line was smiling.
I love the way such a little soul can so easily spread joy.

So thanks Noah for a week of slowing down. I hope I can carry those lessons into next week.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

To Cy Twombly

A couple of weeks ago, a friend gave me an article from the NY Times Literary Supplement. The article was about Cy Twombly's new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC, called "The Rose". His paintings were in response to Rilke's poem, "Les Roses".

As so many artists who paint "florals" will know, in the art world, the subject is considered prosaic, the work of Sunday painters. As a sometime painter of flowers, I was delighted to see Cy Twombly painting 'florals'. Very freeing. I felt like laughing out loud. I guess it's OK to paint 'florals' now that Cy Twombly is doing it!

Last week after visiting Linwood Gardens, I visited the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo to see the Action/Abstraction exhibition, Pollock, De Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976. I loved the exhibition, particularly the work of Anne Truitt, whose memoirs I had read. I had never seen her work before. Tall, elegant, silent wooden columns, each side carefully prepared and painted in many layers of colour. Her intent was to release colour from the wall.

A lovely thing happened next. On my way out of the gallery after spending a few hours in the exhibition, I stopped off in the gallery gift shop before I left. There I found the most astonishing book on Cy Twombly, which I promptly bought, called "Photographs, 1951-2007". In the introductory essay to the work, Lazlo Glozer, art historian and critic, says, 'Intoxicating beauty, flooded with light, saturated with poesy, ensconced in iridescent color, suspicious of harmony." The photos are like paintings. They are mostly sepia in tone, shot on a point and shoot camera I think, but printed with a glorious grainy surface. Many of the photos are blurry. They would never win a prize at my local camera club show....or in Photolife Magazine. They are kind of personal journal of his studio, or details of his paintings, or photos of peonies, roses, details of sculptures. But some sort of fragile and honest beauty is felt here. Inspiring.

Linwood Gardens

This week I visited Linwood Gardens to photograph and enjoy their famous tree peony collection. Linwood Gardens is SW of Rochester, NY in the farmlands of the Genesee Valley.

Designed in the early 1900's the walled gardens have pools and fountains, ornamental trees and a view of the valley below with an Arts and Crafts style summerhouse. The story of Linwood Gardens is a fascinating one. Lee Gratwick who lives on the estate, is the current steward of Linwood Gardens. Her grandfather William Henry
Gratwick II created Linwood as a country home.

Her father, William H. Gratwick III was a landscape architect, artist, sculptor, and sheep farmer among other things. He imported tree peonies from Japan and over the years created many new hybrids in partnership with NY artist, Nassos Daphnis. William's wife, Harriet directed a community music school on the property. It seemed to be a time out of the Great Gatsby, where all manner of creative endeavors happened such as Sunday evening music concerts with a full orchestra and famous artists came to visit including Ansel Adams, Minor White, and William Carlos Williams.

Lee Gratwick has added her own creativity to the gardens which she has rebuilt and manages on her own. The Gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Lee opens the Gardens for three weekends each year in the spring for the Tree Peony Festival for the public to enjoy this famous collection of tree peonies.

I was able to photograph for nearly three days before it started to rain and I had to leave. I photographed there two years ago and put together a small hardcover book of Linwood Gardens, the proceeds of which go toward maintaining the gardens. Because it's a self-published book, I will continue to update it with current photos of the gardens.

"It is at the edge of a petal that love waits."
-William Carlos Williams

Tree Peonies






I'm still floating in the world of tree peonies as I look at the more than 700 photos that I took at Linwood Gardens last week. These otherwise private gardens are open for three weekends during tree peony season. And it is spectacular, not only to see the tree peonies, but also to see the weathered structures of the formal gardens that were designed by the architect Thomas Fox and to experience the palpable history that surrounds the place.

Tree Peonies are native to the mountainside and forest regions of China and Tibet. Known as the "King of Flowers", it was held sacred in the gardens of monasteries and temple courts, and grown as an exclusive treasure of the Imperial Palaces. In the eighth century, Buddhist monks took the Chinese tree peony, moutan, to Japan. Extensive hybridization by Japanese gardeners produced distinctive flowers with pure colouring, and elegant lines with long, delicate stems. The tree peony did not appear in the gardens in England and America until the nineteenth century, but even then it remained a rare plant because it was difficult to propagate.

In 1888 the discover of Paeonia lutea, the long sought yellow peony, enabled the introduction of new genetic material and unique colours never before seen. Dr. Saunders, in the late 1920's, made the cross between the P. lutea and the Japanese varities, obtaining seventy new hybrids with exceptional vigor and beauty. Over the next 50 years, William Gratwick and Nassos Daphnis continued the hybridization work at Linwood Gardens, creating an historic collection of new tree peonies, which are preserved at Linwood. The Daphnis varieties are named after Greek Gods and Goddesses and I've included a few photos of his peonies here.