Monday, August 19, 2013

The Tao of Painting

One brush stroke     Ink on Paper, 16x20" -Janice Mason Steeves 2013

Two days before I taught my Abstract Painting workshop at MISSA on Vancouver Island, I took a 2-day class called Brush Explorations.  The workshop was taught by Lorne Loomer, a long-time teacher of brush painting who was deeply influenced by the West Coast artist/mystic, Jack Wise.

It was so enjoyable being a student for a change and experimenting with painting/calligraphy.  Our first task was to make our own brush.  Lorne provided us with red cedar bark that had washed up on a Vancouver Island beach.  We were to take the bark outside with us as we searched for a stone that spoke to us.  With that stone, we were to beat the red cedar bark into a brush, loosening all the fibres until we had a very spindly, feathery-looking object that we were to use as a brush.  My bark split into several pieces so I ended up with four brushes of various sizes.

Back inside, we dipped our newly made brushes into Chinese ink and then practised making marks on paper. As I stood, bent over my worktable and played with these brushes, I gradually developed a bodily rhythm, moving back and forth in a sort of rocking motion-over to the ink, then back to the paper, then over to the ink-back and forth, swaying as I painted.  It was very hypnotic and meditative.
I learned that given the opportunity, these brushes can speak for themselves.  I would twist and turn them on the paper, but I let them lead the way.

The images began to look like letters in a secret language.

Lorne gave us instructions to make a booklet of 10-12 drawings.  We were to choose quotations from a large selection that he had copied for us.  Then we were to paint with a quotation in mind.

"The bough sings and the ink dances"   Toni Swenson
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013

"I would like to paint the way a bird sings." Claude Monet
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013
In just 2 days, I fell under the spell of the red cedar brush.

Back at home, I bought a book called The Zen Art Book, the Art of Enlightenment by Stephen Addiss and John Daido Loori. The first chapter is called "Art as Teacher".  Loori writes, "During it's early history, Zen was influenced by the refined practices of Chinese poetry, painting and calligraphy.  The Tao of Painting, a book written around 500 C.E. is the canon on the art of painting as a spiritual path. The Taoist approach to art was unique; it involved learning to express the energy or qi of the subject.  By the Song Dynasty in China (960-1279 C.E.), the Zen arts reached a high stage of development with a novel phenomenon; the emergence of painter-priests and poet-priests who produced art that broke with all standard forms of religious and secular art. This art did not inspire faith or facilitate liturgy or contemplation.....It was not used in worship or as a part of prayer. It suggested a new way of seeing and a new way of being that cut to the core of what it meant to be human and fully alive.  Zen expresses the ineffable as it helps to transform the way we see ourselves in the world."

In my own art practice, Art is the Teacher.  Just as the brush led the way for me in the Brush Explorations workshop, so my painting leads the way for me in my studio, taking me into territory I don't always want to go, driving me to take risks and be courageous.  I have to look at my imperfections, and learn to accept them.  Art can transform. "It enlarges the universe, touches the heart, and illuminates the spirit."  John Daido Loori


  1. A wonderful post, Janice. Your expeience with Brush Explorations sounds awesome, especially the making of the brush and its eventual power over your gestures. But your statement,". . .my painting leads the way for me. . ." struck me as so true. There can never be preconcievd ideas.

    1. Thanks Sylvia, It's exciting working in that way, not knowing what the outcome will be, letting the painting led the way. But I have to say that there is part of me that still wants to know or to have some control. I guess it's a lifelong task, letting go of that.

  2. Janice this is wonderful to see again...i love the book you put together! I read and really enjoyed John Daido Loori's The Zen of Creativity, which you might also like to pick up :) Also the poem I thought you might like is Rumi's The Guest House. Hope you enjoy and have a lovely rest of summer! Sara

    1. HI Sara,
      Wonderful to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words and for the Rumi poem. I hadn't read that one before. It's amazing. Many thanks too for the book suggestion-it will go on my list!
      I hope the rest of your summer is glorious.