Monday, October 24, 2011

The Power of Limits and the Walls of Aran

I'm aiming to hold onto the feeling of Ireland for a while yet.  Not so easy though since my re-entry into life hasn't exactly started. I've just recently returned from Edmonton, where my show, Memories of Home, opened on Saturday, Oct. 15th at the Agnes Bugera Gallery. Being in Edmonton, where I lived until I was 17, many memories of growing up under the big open sky of the Prairies came back to me.

In this suspended state between returning home from Ireland and opening my show in Edmonton, my thoughts keep returning to the stone walls on the island of Inish Mann.  Perhaps it is because I was born in the Prairies that I felt so claustrophobic there, hemmed in by legions of stone walls.  There I was, on the middle island of the Aran Islands, that is whipped by constant winds which blow up tumultuous, ever-changing clouds, and surrounded by a grey sea that is often covered by white frothy-capped waves.  A wild, open environment.  But there was not an inch of the island that was not covered with stone walls.

The physicality of such limiting walls, made me consider the idea of limits in art.

In her book," Prospect, the Journal of an Artist", Anne Truitt writes about going on a driving trip across Canada and arriving in Carberry, Manitoba.  She said that she 'understood for the first time that limitlessness might be a threat, that it might induce the reverse of claustrophobia, a desire for enclosure, for protection from the naked eye of the sky."  She muses that it would take a store of courage to live on land that so emphatically does not need a human hand, and that people may have fallen in love with the prairie, as sailors fall in love with the sea. Truitt wondered aloud to her travelling companion if they would "have been moved to art if we had been born on this prairie?"

Perhaps the reason for acres of stone walls on Inish Mann was for enclosure and protection.   Surely the walls were built to clear stones from the land, as well as for protection from the wind and to create delineated pastures for the cattle and sheep.  But because of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of walls, my sense is that something more is at play.  The walls give limits against the limitless.

Creativity comes from limits, not freedom.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book, "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art", says, "Sometimes we damn limits, but without them art is not possible. They provide us with something to work with and against.  In practising our craft we surrender, to a great extent, to letting the materials dictate the design. Limits yield intensity.  Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits.  Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."

The poet Wendell Berry writes:
"The impeded stream is the one that sings."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ireland-Sean Scully

Sean Scully Exhibition
Cut Ground

Kerlin Gallery

On my last day in Ireland, October 6th, my friend Mary and I went to see Sean Scully's show at Kerlin Gallery, in Dublin.  It was just opening that day and I was hoping to see it before I left Ireland.

I spent some time in the gallery and just as I decided to leave, to my surprise and delight, there was Sean Scully coming up the stairs.  He was to be interviewed for Irish television by the Irish painter, Sinead Ni Mhaonaigh.  Scully is a very tall and imposing figure, balding, with a fringe of short grey hair and a stubbily grey beard, looking every bit his sixty-six years until he begins to speak.  Then his entire demeanour changes and a fire comes into his eyes.

I was really privileged to be able to listen to the entire interview as I stood in the gallery.  Scully and Sinead roamed around the enormous white space as the videographer moved the huge rolling camera in and out and around the conversation.  Scully discussed his thoughts on painting and life, talking about how his work is informed by grief, particularly the loss of his son in the 80's, which forever transformed his use of colour.  Listening to his wide-ranging and intense thoughts on the future of art, his disdain for conceptual art, his love of painting, I felt like I was hearing a man who is a warrior for the importance of  deep, emotional, resonant art in the world.  His work is informed by his own brand of spirituality and he is unafraid to say that.  In fact, when asked which two people he would like to meet, living or dead, cited Jesus Christ because he was such an independent thinker, and Mahatma Ghandi.

Sean Scully with Sinead Ni Mhaonaigh for Irish Television RTE

I asked him to sign the stunningly beautiful boxed catalogues that accompanied this exhibition.The catalogues included three inserts. The covers of two of them are written in Arabic.  One catalogue will accompany his exhibition at Kerlin Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art Fair, November 16-19 and refers to time Scully has spent in Morocco.  That part of the exhibition is called Tin Mal, which refers to an important spiritual site in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Scully has painted a series of major works dedicated to sacred sites, the first being Iona, 2004-2006, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibition is called Cut Ground and refers to a story from Scully's childhood where he stole candles from his church and hid them away in his garden, in an effort to keep the light.

My residency and visit to Ireland are over for now.  I will be processing this journey for some time and will write more of my thoughts about it as I go along.  But I know I will be back in Ireland next September.  I've already been accepted into the artist residency, Cill Railaig, near the Ring of Kerry, in County Kerry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Final Days at Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland

Thoughts of Stones    33 x 42" ©Janice Mason Steeves 2011  
The last few days at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre were spent photographing around the lake (Annaghmakerrig), the buildings and the grounds, as though trying to gobble it up to hold in my memory. It was a stimulating, hard-working time for me.  I completed five multi-panel paintings of various sizes while I was at the residency.  My colours really changed for this period of time.  They became very muted, reflecting the greys of the stones at the neolithic sites, and the overcast skies and soft tones of the landscape. I'm already looking forward to another residency in Ireland next September.

The best part of the residency was the intensely stimulating, creative contact with other artists: writers, musicians, poets, playwrights and visual artists.  Many gave spontaneous 'sessions' in the evenings where they improvised with other musicians, singers, poets or tap dancers.  What a huge gift!  Many gave away their books of prose, poetry or musical CD's.   It was also a huge delight to have the companionship of my friend, the American artist Rebecca Crowell.  Our shared dinners, stimulating conversations and times of screaming hilarity added a huge piece to this residency.

Improv tap dancing to the sax

Collaboration with poet Ann Egan (L), Little John Nee on ukelele and Anka Draugelates on piano

Anka Draugelates on viola
I echo the words that Little John Nee signed in the Tyrone Guthrie Guest Book:

I leave here a better person.