Thursday, December 6, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

The final week of my journey was a pilgrimage to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. To reach Iona, I had to take the 8:21 train from Glasgow to Oban, a spectacular 3 hour trip, then a ferry to Mull, past the Lismore Lighthouse, glowing white against the mountains behind.  A one hour bus ride across Mull and a 10 minute ferry to Iona. I stood up top on the ferry, loving the cold wind against my face.

It was called Quiet Week.  Nineteen of us stayed in the Abbey, eating communal meals, washing up afterwards, sharing stories by the coal fire in the cozy Common Room.  We attended daily sessions with Stephen Wright, an interfaith minister, learning about the Contemplative Way, meditating and praying. We attended two services a day in the tiny Michael Chapel that was lit only by candle light.

It's difficult to find the words to describe how I feel as I come away from Iona.  I wish I could always carry Iona with me.  I spent a lot of time alone, meditating in the cold, empty stone Abbey or hiking to the sandy rock-strewn beaches that surround the island. The  weather this November was clear but cold with a raw wind.  I collected stones on the beaches, lots of green and white marble ones.  Iona marble it's called. There used to be a marble quarry on the island.

St. Columba landed on Iona circa 560AD, exiled from Ireland, bringing Celtic Christianity to Scotland. The Book of Kells was started on Iona we learn.  It's a sacred place.  Pilgrims come from all over the world.  Mostly in the summer.  There were few tourists in November.  Thanks be.

It is said that if you pick up a stone or two on Columba's Bay at the southern end of the island, you could give to them something you wish to  throw away.  Your doubts or fears or worries.  You throw that stone into the ocean.  You might also wish to pick up another stone which would represent something to carry home with you.  I threw a few stones.  And I brought home lots.

People come to Iona again and again. Perhaps it's impossible to hold onto this place.  Many of the group I was with had been many times.  Nine times for one man.

 In his essay, Why we Travel,  Pico Iyer, says that travel is like falling in love.  We come to travel open-hearted, awake to every moment, present....."it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed."  We come to Iona like this.  And we leave on the early morning ferry in the predawn moonlit darkness, clutching our white and green marble stones against our chests, feeling that Iona has changed us, determined to come back.  "Most people do", says the shopkeeper at the Craft Shop near the ferry.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Journey Continues in Scotland

East Aquhorthies Stone Circle

This part of my journey has taken me on to Aberdeenshire in Scotland where I've been staying with cousins for the week.  The first day was glorious with clear skies and bright sun and we made hay...visiting 3 stone circles and 2 other archeological sites, and also the graveyard where my grandparents are buried.  It's wonderful how I feel connected to this place through those grandparents and my cousins.

View from the window at Coreenview Farm

Midmark Kirk Stone Circle with crosses from the cemetery casting shadows on the recumbent stone.

The stone circles here are quite different from those in Ireland.  The circles I've seen here in North East Scotland have a recumbent stone at the head of the circle, flanked by 2 standing stones.  These circles are oriented to the rising or the setting of the full moon.

I began to ask my cousins for stories of my grandparents that they had heard from their grandparents.  My grandparents were born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada in the early 1900's. My cousin Carol and I went to the Old Meldrum archives to try to research more about them. I am reminded of my earlier post from Cill Rialaig.  I took photos of a 'stone circle' that an Irish sculptor had created in the ruins of a house at Cill Rialaig. The artist wrote on 7 long narrow stones made of red Kerry slate to honour Sean O'Conaill, a famous Gaelic storyteller who had lived here.

They die untold
Untold we die
This land gave us stories
Story Shapes our soul
Once she spoke
Now she whispers
Keep listening.

The idea of stories was on my mind in Ireland and I find myself searching for my own family stories here amongst my cousins in Scotland.

My great grandparents lived in this house and they both eventually died there.
View of the house from the road

Carol and I drove up to this house and I introduced myself to the people who have lived in it for the past 35 years.  They kindly showed us inside, and took us up to one of the upstairs bedrooms that had the original pine panelling-something directly from the past-that I could touch.

My cousin Ian gave me a photo of my grandfather, and is also sending me the old fiddle that my grandfather used to play.  I didn't know he played the fiddle.

John Robertson

 I will go home from here with stories.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. 
—Barry Lopez

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cill Rialaig -Last Day

Endings and beginnings.  As I pack up, I also wrap up in my mind what I take away from this place.  One of the biggest lessons I've learned is about the gift of letting the day unfold as it will,. My friend Rebecca Crowell wrote a wonderful post about learning to follow her intuition.  Of course this is always the case in painting abstraction where you have to trust that what you do will eventually resolve itself into a painting. But this journey to Cill Rialaig has helped with that lesson.  In some cases, I've been forced to stay in the moment as in driving a car with a stick shift on the wrong side of the road on steep single-track roads with no guard rails, around corners where you can't see what's coming.  I am totally in the moment then!

It's been important to give in to the beauty of the day and to the rhythm of life here.  Some days have been grey, overcast and windy  where the studio skylight is pelted with rain and small bits of hail. It was good to stay inside and focus on my work those days. But many  days have cleared at some point to glorious, blue skies and it was impossible to stay indoors.  Giving in to the rhythm of the weather has been important.  I love that changeability.  My cottage looks out onto the Ballinskelligs Bay and the islands of Scariff and Deenish.  I have taken hundreds of photos of those islands with the changing skies over them. The light and sky change by the hour. Yesterday a cloud nestled right down on Cill Rialaig and I couldn't see the islands at all.

I wrote in a post from home  just before I left that I was looking forward to experiencing that thin place between the worlds. I can feel this at some of the ancient sites.  The trip here has been expanding in many ways.  That's the blessing of travel--the way it cracks open my mind and breaks me out of my daily life and routines, forces me to try out new ways of living, and keeps me in the moment.  Simply following the unfolding of the day has been important.  It brought us to the ancient hermitage site up the road, just when the biggest rainbow I'd ever seen, shone over the bay.  Our spontaneous decision to stay for the night after we'd seen Rebecca's artist friend, gave us time the next day to visit the Irish artist Charles Tyrrell, whose work Rebecca and I saw in Dublin last year at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He lives at the far end of the Beara Peninsula in a very remote place.  Getting there was a journey itself , stunning views and terrifyingly narrow, steep roads but it was a delight to visit his home and studio and chat about painting. He was most generous with his time and his conversation.

 Later that day we had time to visit the incredible stone circle at Uragh.

My work has moved in directions I would not have expected but then I came here with the idea of letting it move and change with the energy of the place, working mainly in black and white.  Although this work is not about the land in a direct way, it is heavily influenced by the land.  How can it not be, with the stunning views on clear days and the wind and rain sometimes lashing at the cottage on others?

Cill Rialaig November 2012 © Janice Mason Steeves

Rebecca leaves for home on Friday and my journey continues to Scotland. I will miss this rather primitive little cottage with it's paint-splattered concrete floor, the steep ladder to the bed/loft area and  the old plastic radio with it's big dial tuned to the RTE Lyric station.  This afternoon I'll walk up to the hermitage site where I've been so many times now and sit for a while in that prayerful place.   Thank you to all who are involved with making Cill Rialaig available for artists.  Thanks to this land and to the ancestors.  Go Raibth Maith Agat.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cill Rialaig Artist Residency Week Three

The adventure of being in Ireland continues.  I begin to get into a routine of life and then it changes.  I had a wonderful visit from my friend Mary Meighan, who leads Celtic journeys in Ireland.  We walked up to the ancient monastic site just up the road from Cill Rialaig.  After spending some time in the site, Mary offered a Celtic Blessings to us for our work, blessings upon the ancestors of the land  that they might guide us and blessings to the people at home who helped us be here.  Mary and I also visited other ancient sites that day.  Part of the journey was to talk to people about where the sites are.  We searched for the holy well of a female saint and asked for help from construction workers, from the women who work in the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre and from a woman in a white hairnet who works at the Skellig Chocolate factory.  Everyone is more than eager to help if they can.  The woman in the chocolate factory knew of St. Finian's holy well across the road on St. Finian's Bay but not the other well that Mary was searching for. But she phoned her daughter, who did know.  Sadly the well isn't accessible any longer.  Part of the enjoyment in finding these ancient sites are the people you meet on the way and the stories they know.

My time here is a balance of painting and hiking and seeing the land around this area.  I often feel guilty if I'm not painting.  Yet it's the hiking, the driving the narrow winding roads, finding the ancient sites and just sitting and looking out over the sea that is deeply feeding my soul.

Rebecca and I did a strenuous hike up to the top of Bolus Head at the very end of the road that passes through Cill Rialaig.  The road ends and turns into a grassy, wet path dug deep with sheep hooves.  We had to climb a stile to make the final leg of the hike to the top.  At the top we were given  magnificent breathtaking views out over Finian's Bay and the Skellig Islands to the right and then to Ballinskelligs Bay and out onto the Atlantic beyond.  The winds were stronger up here and it was much cooler but the day was as usual very changeable.  It was gorgeous and warm at the top but on my way down, just as I neared my cottage, showers came and I was wet by the time I got home.

Today we are in Eyeries, a tiny village on the Beara Penninsula to visit Rebecca's artist friend Sally Bowker who is at the artist residency called Anam Cara.  The GPS said our trip would take 2 hours, We finally arrived 5 hours later, tired from trying to stay on the narrow winding roads while craning our necks to see the spectacular views along this section of the Ring of Kerry.

This morning Rebecca and I are off to visit the Irish artist, Charles Tyrrell, whose work I saw last year at the Royal Hibernian Gallery in Dublin.  Large abstract minimalist work. He has a studio near the little village of Allihies about 7 miles away.  And then we have many stone circles and standing stones to see before we get back to Cill Rialaig.  We may spend another night away rather than drive in the dark on the winding cliff roads.

My friend Mary Meighan's mother told her, "When God made Time, He made plenty of it."  Mary said that Celts believe in "the fullness of time, not the scarceness of it".  I'm heading out today with that attitude.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cill Rialaig Week Two

Each day, I catch my breath again and again with the beauty in this part of Ireland-the light, the changing sky. Rebecca and I are driving and hiking in this incredible part of Ireland.  Our travels have taken us to the vast Inny Beach in the nearby town of Waterville, where we walked the length of the beach and  created an Andy Goldsworthy stone sculpture using the lines on beach stones.  

We drove to Valentia Island over a mountain on a single-track road edged with high grass-covered stone walls.  Some kind of terror in that effort!  But the views from the top were out of this world and the island was like a fairy land, with enormous ferns and palm trees here and there.

And almost everywhere we've gone, we've seen brilliant rainbows shooting out of low-hanging clouds.  Breathtaking.

On the way home from Valentia Island,  we stopped at the beach at Finian's Bay.  It was about 5:30pm, the sun was setting and the sky was clear and golden.  The tide was out and a local dog was playing in the surf.  But the magical part was that off in the distance were the sacred Skellig islands, the setting sun making them floating castles of gold.

I'm doing some writing here but not as much as I'd hoped to do.  I've mainly been focused on painting and working with the limited palette I'd set out to use.  It's been an exciting journey seeing how the land and the weather is influencing my work. I'm not sure how these pieces will translate into my work at home, or even if they will directly change my work.  But surely it will to some degree.

Matisse said:  " I am made of all that I have seen".  

And so I am much richer for all that I have seen here in County Kerry.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cill Rialaig Artist Residency-End of Week One

I just walk out the door of my cottage and the sights change each hour with the weather.  The cottages are perhaps 200 metres above sea level affording a spectacular view down Ballinskelligs Bay to the east and out onto the Atlantic to the west.  The clouds are the main attraction.  They change hourly creating patterns of light and shadow on the islands and peninsulas.  Sheets of rain can be seen approaching from many kilometres away.

This has been such an exciting week.  We had Hallowe'en here and although no ghosts or goblins visited the cottages, we got together with three of the other residents for a Hallowe'en party in the meeting house.  We lit a huge peat fire, drank some wine and chatted until midnight.  The light in the sky when I came up to the meeting house before our party, was so spectacular that I took a few photos with my camera braced on a nearby stone wall.  The photos captured the heart of Hallowe'en at Cill Rialaig!  it looked very spooky here.

I've been painting small works on paper using mainly black and white.  I wanted to limit the colours I used to try to capture the essence of my experience here.  It feels like I can capture the strength and wildness of the land and weather by using this limited palette.

The highlight of the week so far happened today. Rebecca and I decided to hike up the one-track road that goes past  our residency.  There is an important archeological site about 2km along.  Some concrete stones help you over the sheep fence.  It was  a hermitage in about 600AD.  Today there are only the ruins of what would have been perhaps 6 or 7 round huts and surrounding the huts are the remains of a stone wall.  There are two standing stones there.  Each is carved with a circle intersected by a cross.  As we were wandering around the site late  this afternoon, it started to rain and then we witnessed the most spectacular rainbow I have ever seen.  It was breathtaking right from the beginning.  I took a photo of one of the standing stones, with the rainbow behind it.  As time went on the rainbow became ever more intense in colour and grew wider and wider as it moved out onto the bay.  The sky darkened and the rain continued.  The rainbow shone into the bay like a bolt of lightening from  beneath the dark grey blue cloud and connected the sky and the water.  It was intensely magical.  It felt like a magnificent gift from the hermit monks who lived here, at the edge of the world, communing with God.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cill Rialaig Artist Residency-Week One

We arrived in the blinding sun, driving our small rental car up the single-track road. Rebecca yelled when we got near the top of the road because neither of us could see ahead as we crested the hill.  The edge of the cliff was on her side of the car!  My artist friend, Rebecca Crowell and I are doing an artist residency here at Cill Rialaig in the small cliff-top stone cottages about 3km outside the little village of Ballinskelligs.  Part of the pilgrimage here I'm sure is the difficulty finding the place.  There are no signs and people give directions as though you've lived in the area all your life.  "Go to the right past the Abbey,  then turn left at the intersection and left again just before the Skelling Ring road". After several wrong turns and chats with local farmers, we finally found the one track road narrowed in with bushes and grasses, giving us an exciting 3km drive up to Cill Rialaig.

While we were lost and driving on the Skellig Ring Road, we rounded a corner to the breathtaking sight of the Skellig Islands which are about 6 miles off the coast.  The larger one, Skellig Michael, once an ancient monastery site, rises like a castle from the silvery sea.  I think we are too late in the year to take the boat trip out to see this World Heritage Site.  The seas can be rough and wild in late October.

The landscape is out of this world.  These remote cottages of Cill Rialaig  are on a cliff overlooking Ballinskelligs Bay and the islands of Deenish and Scariff.  Yesterday was cloudless with a brilliant blue sky, so you could see far across to the town of Waterville at the foot of the bay.

Today the wind howls outside my door and rain occasionally pelts against the skylights in the studio part of the cottage. I can feel a breeze inside my cottage!  I think it will be the cold that I'll have to battle mostly this month.  The room heaters I am told are on but they're set on timers that switch off after breakfast.  So I'm now depending on the stove that burns peat logs.  We buy them from a man who comes through occasionally and charges 6 Euro a bag.  It's a lesson, learning how to light a fire with peat logs and no matter how adept I am at lighting a wood-burning stove, it takes me many tries to get this  peat one going.  Seems they use fire starter and wood kindling!!!   Rebecca suggested that we need to think of this as camping!

The most heavenly thing though is that the shower is hot and the water has good pressure.  So I might be spending an inordinate amount of time in the shower instead of looking for liminal spaces as I mentioned in my last post.

Other than the cold though, this is what I was looking for-the wild remoteness of the place.  Seven cottages have been restored but several are still in ruins so you can imagine what a cold and hostile life it was for the people who lived here.  A previous artist created a memorial to those people by carving words onto slabs of slate that he/she placed in a circle inside one of the ruins.    

The words, written on stones  are in a circle…the meaning can change depending on where you begin to read:

They die untold
Untold we die
This land gave us stories
Story shapes our soul
Once she spoke
Now she whispers
Keep listening.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cill Rialaig Artist Residency in Ireland

I'm heading off in two more days, to Ireland for my artist residency at Cill Rialaig. The Cill Rialaig Project, which opened in 1993, was founded by Noelle Campbell Sharp as a place where artists, writers and musicians can spend a period of dedicated time developing their own work. There are seven cottages, each with studio space, that were restored from the ruins of a deserted pre-famine village, circa 1796.  Situated on Bolas Head, a remote peninsula in County Kerry, the cottages sit on top of a cliff face overlooking Ballinskelligs Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

 I'm going to meet up in Killarney with my dear friend Rebecca Crowell , an artist from the U.S.  We'll rent a car to get to this remote residency.  It's a 3 mile hike into the nearest town of Ballinskelligs so it will be convenient to have a car, and especially wonderful to have two of us to share the driving in case one is frightened of driving a stick shift on the left side of the road!  I can't even think about it.

I've heard from other artists who have been to Cill Rialaig before me and have read wonderful descriptions of the wild, remoteness of this place.  It has been described as a thin place, where the boundary between time and the timeless dissolves.  I came across the writing of  the UK poet Sue Hubbard, who spent time at Cill Rialaig and in conjunction with the artist Donald Teskey, published a book of poems and drawings inspired by the place, called The Idea of Islands.  
Here is a brief excerpt from her poem; Cill Rialaig

"A drunken wind blew all night,
banging at doors, rattling windows
ill fitting as old men's teeth.

Now that it's day,
I understand the loneliness
of storms as the distant island

beckons in the mist
like a half-remembered dream.
This is the edge of the world."

I'll do some painting and drawing as I explore my experience of this place and I expect that part of the experience will be to write as well.  There are ideas and words lurking in my head that want to be written.  I've decided to work mostly in black and white for this period of time, drawing and painting and working between the two.
After Ireland, my travels will take me to Scotland where I'll visit with my relatives near Aberdeen.  Then I move on to the island of Iona.  Situated off the coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, Iona is another of those liminal places where the veil is thin.  It has a deep spiritual history and thousands of pilgrims visit every year.   St. Columba arrived from Ireland to establish a monastery there in 563.  Iona quickly became a centre of learning and is often associated with the distinctive practices and traditions known as Celtic Christianity. It is thought that the Book of Kells was produced or begun here. Iona is now a centre for those of a variety of Christian faith traditions who choose to learn, pray and work together for peace and justice in the world. 

 I'll stay for a week in Iona at the monastery, taking a program  called Winter Quiet Week which will be a time of contemplation and reflection with guided teachings and meditations.  

"Is this place really nearer to God?
Is the wall thin between our whispers
And his listening?  I only know
The world grows less and less-"
(Iona by Kenneth C. Steven).

From a website on Druidry:
"If you feel the call of Iona, then answer that call and make the journey to her.
She is like a very old Crone, rocky and barren and eternally loving and gentle
and tough and wise. She is very old. She is very holy.
There is no other place on earth quite like Iona.
Like all Shamballah places, Iona shall always be.
Iona is a Grail-lit Isle. Iona is deathless.
On Iona one finds the Rainbow which bridges Heaven and Earth."
Philip Carr-Gomm

I look forward to an adventure in liminality-at the margins-where the ocean meets the land, where the sky meets the sea, where the land ends- the thin place between worlds.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Speaking of Silence Series: The Process

Silence 11  24x24"  oil/cold wax on panel ©  2012 Janice Mason Steeves

In painting this series, I work (mostly) without using any tools or brushes.  I choose the colours I intend to work with, mix up many gradations and have them ready on the palette.  I wear latex gloves on my hands.  I've been going through many many pairs for each painting because I either have to wipe them carefully each time I change colours, or put on a new pair. Then I  put my fingers into the paint, rubbing my hands together to spread the paint evenly on my palms and fingers.  Sometimes I even mix the paint right on my hands…dipping say into one colour and then into another colour and then blending them as I rub my hands together.   I love the intensity of the physical contact with the paint and with the surface.  There is a quiet patting sound as I apply the paint.  The sound of silence perhaps.  I began my art career as a potter so getting my hands into my work comes naturally and it feels like the energy moves into the work more directly, without the intervention of the brush or other tools.

I work so intuitively that I never know how each painting will progress.  Sometimes I work a contrasting colour on the initial layer, letting that set up before I work other layers over top. But often I don't plan in advance and simply choose the colours I want to work with that day and begin. I have the panel flat on my worktable at first, gradually applying the layers and colours, blending and mixing them together.  Then as the painting progresses, I set the panel up on the easel and work on it more there, where I can get the distance from it to see how the composition is working. It goes up and down from the table to the easel and back countless times.  It's a physical process especially if I work on 60x60" panels!  There comes a time when the paint surface is quite thick, and it needs to set up overnight or for a few days.  So I set it aside and work on another painting in progress.  When I work on it again the next day or subsequent days, I find I can't just work on an area or section.   Most often I have to rework the entire surface to have the colours blending as I want them to.

I'm working in silence right now in my studio. Painting Silence and working in silence.  Often I listen to classical music as I paint.  Sometimes jazz.  But this series seems to demand that I paint in silence.

A friend mentioned to me that the paintings seem to be about breath.  Painted breath.  I love that idea.  Breath caught in an image, like your warm breath making fog on a cold winter day.  

Another friend came into my studio and before I told her what the series was called, she whispered, "These are so quiet.".  

 Silence. Breath. Another word for inspiration.

My show, Speaking of Silence, opens in Vancouver at Granville Fine Art, on Saturday, September 15th at 2pm.  The show runs until September 27th. I will be flying out for the opening.  Very excited!

“After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no long expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity.” 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Painting for an Audience: Part 2

Silence Red 1    36x40"  oil/mixed media on panel©2012  Janice Mason Steeves 
In my last blog post, I wrote about painting for an audience and how difficult I find that. 

Interestingly, since writing that post, I've started to read a book called Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.  My need to paint in privacy I learn is very much an introverted way of being and creating in the world.  My introverted self just doesn't want to paint in public. This book is helpful to me in understanding this.

Cain writes, "From 1956-1962, an era best remembered for its ethos of stultifying conformity, the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of studies on the nature of creativity. They assembled a list of architects, mathematicians, scientists, engineers and writers who had made major contributions to their fields and invited them to Berkeley for a weekend of personality tests, problem-solving experiments and probing questions.  One of the most interesting findings, echoed by later studies, was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts.  There's a surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts' creative advantage-an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation."

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer, believes that working alone is the key to designing revolutionary products.  Working by himself late into the night, and going into the office early in the morning to begin again in solitude, he developed the patience he needed to create and innovate. 

Kafka couldn't bear to be near even his adoring fiancee when he worked:
"You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write.  Listen, in that case I could not write at all.  for writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind…That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough."

I don't expect to produce serious paintings when I'm teaching and demonstrating in my workshops.  I also don't expect the artists in my classes to produce their best work when they take one of my workshops.  The classroom is filled with the stimulation of learning new techniques and ideas. It's filled with the excitement of other artists sharing their work, and their knowledge, and simply the energy of other people in the class. I can't make the class become 'night enough'.  So we learn what we can and bundle up our creative ideas to take back home where we can open them up and work on them in a quiet place of our own.

"Artists work best alone.  Work alone."  Steve Wozniak.