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.