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.