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Showing posts from 2014

Winter Solstice: Looking into the Light

In my work this past year, I have been focusing on light, preparing for my exhibition in January at Gallery Stratford, in Stratford, Ontario.  I write this on the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.  

Ancient people knew about light.They spent hundreds of years building stone circles and passage graves, orienting them to the sunlight or moonlight at solstices and equinoxes. Light was sacred to them.

Inner light and the oneness of the world were ideas sacred to the monks on Iona.  Besides spending time this past fall visiting a passage grave in Ireland, and walking the ancient stone circle of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, I attended a retreat on the island of Iona in Scotland. It was here that Celtic Christianity was brought into Europe.  I decided to metaphorically gather some of that light--from Iona and from the passage graves and stone circles-- and bring it home to translate into paintings.  I call my exhibition, Gathering Light.

The idea of mystery and creativity surr…

The Importance of Creating a Sacred Space

"To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so, where you do not know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody or what they owe you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be." Joseph Campbell

In an earlier post, I wrote about my own process of lighting a candle as I begin my day in the studio .  And in my workshops, I have a little ritual of beginning.  I start each day with a meditation or a poem. I read poems by Mary Oliver or David Whyte or John O'Donohue among others.

At home, I like to start each day slowly and quietly.  When my children were little, I would wake up before them to have a few quiet moments before the hectic day began.  And in the same way, I like to approach my day of work in the studio in a quiet, thoughtful manner: lighting a candle, meditating sometimes and/or writing in my journal. It's a wa…

The Lonely Road into Abstraction

It is a scary business moving from representational painting into abstraction.  Within the past two weeks, three of my former students have written to tell me how very alone they feel on their transition into abstraction.  It is a great act of courage. 
I went through the journey into abstraction about five years ago. At that point, I had been painting representationally for twenty-five years and had a successful art career with seven galleries representing my work.  I considered moving into abstraction for several years but didn’t know how to make the leap. In the summer of 2009, I simply decided it was time. I jumped off the cliff into the unknown world of abstraction with no idea what I was doing or where I was going.  There were no limitations or parameters. I was free-falling. It was terrifying. Even though I had painted for 25 years by this time, I had no idea where to begin.  It felt like my own Dark Night of the Soul.  Although this term is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiri…

Shhh-Listen to the Painting

I struggled with a painting I was working on the other day.   It’s a large one, 60x60”.  I kept getting unwanted lines. Nothing was blending or flowing.  I am always aware of how the painting is going, what it’s saying to me as I work on it and I try to follow that.  What I didn’t realize is that I was trying to control the painting more than I knew. As I  struggled, I talked to myself a little.  I told myself that I could always add  another layer on it tomorrow. That’s normally the way I work, layer upon layer, gradually building up the surface day by day, in thin transparent layers. I worked this one over and over, back and forth, trying to blend it, going in different directions, adding more paint.

I tried to stay in a calm meditative place but after several hours of this, I needed a break. 

I stepped back, sat on my comfy chair and took a sip of tea.  Then I turned to look at the painting again.  In the space of my moving away from the painting and sipping my tea, the painting had …

"Why do you paint abstractly?", the elderly man asked.

One thread that ran through the whole month of my recent trip to Scotland was related to art.  Of course that would be the case.  Being an artist is a way of living, of seeing, of being in the world.  When I told people I met on the trip that I was an artist, they naturally asked about my work.  It was a good exercise in trying to describe my non-objective work.
One lovely elderly man named Jock engaged me in a lively conversation.  When I mentioned to him that I am an abstract painter, he told me he liked high realism.  That comment set the stage for an interesting conversation.  He was very curious about why I wanted to paint abstractly.  He asked intelligent questions and gave me the gift of focusing intently on our conversation.  I told him that my work is about light, that I'm interested in painting the essence of light.  I described my earlier representational work-landscapes, still life and vessels. My abstract work had come from a solid background in drawing, composition,…

Inspiration in an ancient landscape

Pilgrimage on Iona to Columba's Bay
As I write this, I am sitting in the attic room of a B&B in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland.  My high windows overlook the harbour where I'll leave from very early tomorrow morning to cross The Minch on the ferry, to get to mainland Scotland. The sea is calm and pink in the light of the setting sun. The wind changes here by the hour.  Yesterday the wind was so strong I could have spread my arms and flown across The Minch.  Parents had to hang on to their children!
I travelled last week to Iona to attend a pilgrimage/retreat led by John Philip Newell, author and poet who is internationally acclaimed for his work in the field of Celtic Christianity,
The island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, is the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity.In 563 AD, Columba, with thirteen followers, landed at the south end of the island, at St Columba's Bay, to establish a monastery. Since then the island has always been revered as a ho…

The Importance of Silence in Art

Michael David Rosenberg, the musician known as Passenger, sings, "See all I need is a whisper in a world that only shouts."

In the workshops I teach, I find that one of the most common problems with paintings is that they shout. Most have too much going on: too many small shapes, too much texture, extremes of colour, too many lines, too much, too much. One thing I say most often as I walk around the classroom working with students individually, is 'make bigger shapes'.  But not only bigger shapes. Quiet shapes.  Where can your eye go and rest in the painting?
That isn't a consideration in much of contemporary painting or much of contemporary life.  Ours is a noisy world both visually and auditorily.  Ours is a world that shouts.  People are afraid of silence.
I wrote a blog post 3 years ago about planning a retreat in my own home, where I shut off the computer and the phone and spent a week alone and in silence.  I wrote another post about the effect it had on …


I envy my musician son, Andrew Mason that he can play with other musicians to create music.  Most often visual artists don't collaborate.  As a painter, I work alone in my studio.  Once in a while though, I have the opportunity to create with another artist.  Rebecca Crowell and I don't paint together but we taught in June at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in North Carolina, in adjoining studios, and collaborated on a few class discussions.  Next year, we are considering co-teaching a workshop.  And right now, we have collaborated to write a co-blog which we began in March.  In 2011, Rebecca and I were fortunate to be invited to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre artist residency in County Monaghan, Ireland.  We wrote about that experience in our co-blog this past March.  Today we wrote a second instalment of our blog, this time about our experience at the  Cill Rialaig Project residency in County Kerry, Ireland. We went there together in the late fall of 2012. I invite you to read about that…

Do You Take Your Art Seriously?

By far the majority of students in my painting workshops are women over 50.  Most have had long and accomplished careers and many are either retired or planning their retirement.  With more time now, many want to return to their love of painting or come to learn how to paint abstractly or to develop new skills.

One thing I often hear is how difficult it is to create a space to work, to be serious about creativity and to make the time for art.  It's surprising to me, all these years after the feminist movement, to hear many of these accomplished women talking like this. You'd think that now when the children are grown and gone, and (perhaps) a regular pension is coming in,  that there would be much more time for creativity.  There are lots of things that seem to interfere.  Many regularly babysit their grandchildren or do volunteer work or are the main caregivers for aging parents.

Can you take your creativity seriously?  Who will give you that time and space?
I was in my mid-…

Expressing a Sense of Place in Abstract Art

Yesterday I received an email from Sandy Lambert, an artist who was in one of my painting workshops recently.  She is going to be painting in Ireland in September and was wondering if I could suggest exercises, an approach or technique to help her express a sense of place in her paintings.

 Before Sandy's question, I hadn't spent time considering how I approached painting when I am in another environment.  It has just happened spontaneously and unconsciously.

 Mine is a very tactile or kinaesthetic approach.  I particularly think of artist residencies in response to her question because the residencies I have attended were each 3 or 4 weeks in duration.  That length of time gave me the opportunity to get some sense of the place as well as time to work on a small body of work.  I don't ever seem to settle quickly into a place.  I find that I need to walk the land and explore for a few days to get over jet lag and flow into the rhythm of a new place.  I like to explore site…

A Morning Practice for Painting

My son,Andrew Mason, is a musician in Toronto.  He recently recommended a book to me that he had read during his  music studies.  The book is called Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within by Kenny Werner.  Written in 1996, this book is just as relevant today as it was 18 years ago.   Effortless Mastery is about learning how to find the 'space', the 'flow'.  Werner  gives meditations and suggestions as to how a musician might find that 'universal' space within themselves from which to create. Visual artists will find the suggestions helpful in their own creative work.

In my own artistic practice, I light a candle each morning as I come into my studio.  I do this to set my intention and to hold the space for my work for the day.  I have the candle near my studio door so I can remember to blow it out and feel gratitude for the day's work as I leave at the end of the day.  When I'm teaching a workshop,  I invite the artists to imagine l…


Very early this morning I walked my dog at a nearby park.  The Eramosa River widens at this spot and becomes a lake which except for one sandy beach, is almost entirely surrounded by limestone cliffs.  The walking trails around the lake are cut through a forest of cedar and white pine.  At that quiet hour of the morning I had the park to myself.  I love to walk through the area called the pothole trail where there are deep circular pools carved out of the limestone by receding glaciers eons ago.  Right now the trail is very difficult to walk through.  The ice storm we had at Christmas felled trees and branches all through here.  The park employees haven't had time to clear this area yet.  In some areas you have to jump over logs and in others, find new ways around the fallen trees.

I'm recounting this story because this trail of fallen trees and branches makes me think of our lives and how we all have troubled times now and again, where the obstacles can seem threatening or i…

"I Am in The Surrender Business"

In his book, Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovitch, an improvising musician,  wrote, "I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a single breath, of both transience and eternity. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh".

Last weekend, I taught a cold wax and oil painting workshop in my studio with eight artists, some of whom were very advanced.  I always teach the elements of design in my workshops-a good refresher for those who have studied them and an intro for those who have not.  One artist who is an accomplished figurative painter, had great difficulty dividing the painting surface into shapes.  I tried in various ways to help her understand what I was after, drawing some pictures for her, showing her the work of other artists, and explaining in various ways.  Yet she didn…

Talking About Being Vulnerable

In the deep cold of winter in the past week before the spring thaw, I was privileged to have some heart-warming conversations with several artists about their work.  These were soul-searching conversations about  what our lives are about.  In Winnipeg, I visited my friend John King’s current exhibition called Calligraphic Influences at theBuhler Galleryin St. Boniface, Manitoba. He spoke about his work in a very reflective and passionate way, explaining how that series of work came to be, and how he came to understand what it was about. His paintings, while very joyful and playful, revealed some of John’s deep concerns about life, fragility and vulnerability. Art teaches us about who we are.

That same day, a group of seven of us met for lunch at the home of Jane Gateson.  The group meets for lunch and discussions now and again, and have dubbed themselves The Qwesters (the questing westerners). I get to attend a session when I’m in town, which we call our AGM!  The group this day was ma…

A New Blog: Conversations on Art

Rebecca Crowell and I have just launched a co-blog we call Conversations on Art.  We will post discussions on art from time to time as well as continue to write our own blog posts.  Our first post on this new site is called Two Friends/Two Irish Residencies-Part 1.  We thought that we would discuss our shared experiences at each residency as a way of introduction.  I invite you to read our first post:
If you wish to receive those posts by email, please sign up on that website by putting your email address into the box on the right column of the post.
Please feel free to send us suggestions for topics for our 'conversations'.
Hope you enjoy the read.

What Goes Around-a Personal Vision

Sitting in my somewhat beaten-up but oh-so-comfortable studio chair the other day, considering a painting I was working on, I began to think of earlier work I had done that had some similarity to this new work.  I pulled out an old slide album from 1992.  I documented my paintings with slides in those days.  In 1992 I made my first foray into abstraction, spurred on by a trip to Baffin Island in Canada's arctic.

I had the good fortune that year to travel with the well-known Canadian landscape painter, Doris McCarthy.  We travelled to Pond Inlet in the month of January when the sun had not yet returned to the arctic.  The thermometer in the window of our church/home remained at a steady -40C (which is the same as -40F)....maybe it was frozen at that temperature.  The wind chill took it to a place that was beyond reckoning.  Doris was 82 years old then and as fit, strong and hard-working as a woman 20 years younger.  We bundled up in our down jackets with real fur trim on the hoods…

Time Out

I had intended a much more intellectual post today.  Oh well. This is what came out instead.

At Christmas I gave my young grandkids a gift certificate to be traded in for a night at a hotel with their Grammie.  Saturday was the day that they cashed them in. We had enough stuff packed to stay a week, including bathing suits,  swim goggles, swim noodles, a beach ball, and an enormous bag of snacks-not all of which their mother would have approved. I had come off a week where my work was not going where I'd hoped. It was one of those weeks where I thought I might ditch it all and apply for a job at Tim Horton's coffee shop where I'd wear a baseball cap at work and serve double doubles. I won't go into it here.  Suffice it to say, I really needed a break. Three weeks ago I did a silent retreat at Loyola House, the Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.  While it was an extraordinarily nourishing experience in many ways, I realize now that I spent a lot of my time there thinking …