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?


  1. Oh, the terror of new bodies of work! I am in the midst of it. I had a show of new and different work in 2007 and I still have all the work! My collage work is the basis of my 'reputation' but at the moment I love to paint.
    When I read about your year off Ii thought about the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. I don't know if I can put a link in a comment but I posted a video of a talk by her on my blog
    and then went on to read about her year of self discovery. I guess i have used artists residencies for the same purpose.
    What if
    I'd completed my Architecture Degree?
    I'd practiced psychology after completing that degree?
    I'd started a 5th restaurant after selling my 4th?
    I hadn't met my partner 10 years ago?
    Well life wouldn't be so splendid.

  2. Janice: I think we make our decisions intuitively and really don't know where we are going. A friend once said, "I just keep driving, I don't know where. I'll only know when I'm through it, past it and well into a new part of the journey."

    Truth is, the journey is our adventure. No reason just...we reach a fork in a road and we have to make a decision. Which road do we choose to travel. It would be awful to just stand at that fork, and ask what if I take that one, what if I take that one, and really not move.

    You'll know in time, or maybe you won't know and what difference does it make. Look at the journey you've had from that one decision to stop for the year.

    Sounds to me like life is good for you.