Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice: Looking into the Light

Gathering Light 28A   60x60"   Oil on canvas  ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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 surrounds the darkest months of the year,  Winter Solstice has long been thought of as a time of death and rebirth when Nature’s innate powers and our own souls are renewed. There is a sense of longing and turning inward as the cycle of the year ends and the earth slowly begins to turn back toward the sun.  It's a good time to focus on gratitude.  

In my own life, I am grateful for  many things: my beautiful family, my friends, good health, my dog, a comfortable home and the opportunity to travel. This year, I am especially grateful for the gift of creativity.  It has been a very exciting year for me as I moved into a cycle of paintings that seemed to appear as if by magic.  We learned to work together the paintings and I, with me sometimes feeling like the assistant (to paraphrase a quotation of Richard Diebenkorn's.)  Of course, magic has taken over thirty years of diligent work to finally land at my doorstep.  But it has at last arrived. And I am grateful.

I pass along this beautiful Winter Solstice blessing, written by theologian and poet, Jan Richardson.

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Importance of Creating a Sacred Space

Gathering Light 27   60x60"  Oil on canvas ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

"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 way of leaving worries for a while outside the door, so that the space becomes a place of freedom and my painting practice, a meditation.

That's not to say that the process always flows smoothly.  I have times where nothing is going right, and I become really frustrated.  When that happens, I make some tea, sit down in my studio chair for a moment and take a break.  To put myself back in that calm space, I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and let go of what I wanted the painting to be. It is easier to do the longer I have practised it.  I can tell when I am in the space.  And from that place, I begin again.

In the romp of a book called, "Outrageous Openness" by Tosha Silver, there is a quote by the writer, Joyce Carol Oates.  She says, "I never understand when people make a fuss over me as a writer.  I'm just the garden hose that the water sprays through."

To be the garden hose, it's important to give yourself a few moments to set your space for the day, to be clear for a time. No water can flow through a hose that has knots in it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Lonely Road into Abstraction

Gathering Light 20  40x40"   Oil on panel  © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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 spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, this four-month period plunged me into a deep place that I knew I could get myself out of only by painting my way out and through. 

I had a somewhat similar feeling when I came home from the hospital with my first child. We had only lived in London, Ontario for a year and I knew few people there.  My mother lived 1200 miles away.  I looked at my daughter and wondered, “What do I do now?” Somehow I learned, one day at a time, and found my way through.  And somehow too, my daughter (and son), turned out to be amazing people!  

It was that sort of feeling as I plunged into abstraction—as though I was all alone at a turning point in my life. No one could go there with me. It was a solo journey.

While my family was always encouraging and supportive, few of my friends (or galleries) could understand what I was doing and were bemoaning my moving away from images that they could appreciate and understand.  I spent the next four months working 12-15 hour days trying to find my way.  By October, there was some relief. I had found a way of working I enjoyed, but it would be another few years until I really found the way forward.

Of course there are lots of artists in the past who have made this transition—all of the Abstract Expressionists came from representational backgrounds and artists before them, like Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian. Still. It is a lonely business finding your own way as an abstract painter when there are no rules, no limits, little encouragement along the way and no other artist friends who are making the journey at the same time. 

The road into abstraction for me has been bumpy and winding and has taught me hard-won life lessons: persistence, commitment, vulnerability, a willingness to get lost, self-acceptance, letting go.  Most of all, trust and courage. And while I can't accompany my artist friends on their solitary journey into abstraction, I can shine some light for them on my own path.

"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."  Henry David Thoreau

Monday, November 3, 2014

Shhh-Listen to the Painting

Gathering Light 13   60x60"  oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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 changed!  While I normally move back and forth to get a different perspective on my work, I was farther away here and could see it differently.  The unblended layers had opened up another way of working.  It looked like a crystal waterfall.  It needed more darks, more depth.  But I could easily change that now that I had come to appreciate what was going on and move in step with the painting.

There’s a fine line between moving with the painting and trying to form it.  This painting felt as though it had a life of it’s own.  It moved to another place ahead of me, as though it were directing the action and that I needed to let go and catch up. Not all paintings work in this magical way. But one thing that it did teach me, once again, is to get myself out of the way, to let go of expectations and plans and make room for something greater than myself to enter.  That’s when magic happens.

" Ah but, don't think you now have knowledge--the answer to how to paint", the painting seemed to whisper to me as I stood there smugly thinking I now knew a secret. In the next few days, I tried again listening closely to the next painting I was working on.  There is no formula.  What worked for three paintings in a row, now was not working and I had to let go even of those ideas. 

In Natalie Goldberg's book, "The True Secret of Writing" , she quotes the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen, "Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness."  Goldberg says, "You have it; you don't have it.  You are free."

Monday, October 20, 2014

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

Gathering Light 9   60x60"  Oil on canvas ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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, and the elements of design. My friend wanted to know how he could understand an abstract painting.  I could only tell him my story.  I told him that about five or six years ago I felt I needed to move beyond representational painting in my work, that when I visited art galleries, I found I was only interested in abstract paintings.  And while I made the decision one summer to give up images, it has taken several years of work to get to the place of knowing that the work I'm doing is where I have been wanting to go.  I told him that when a person looks at a landscape, they think, "landscape".  When they see a vase of flowers, they think, 'still life'.  They put a word or words on it. I'm interested, I said, in trying to paint something that is beyond words. A place of silence.  Light and silence.

Gathering Light 1    42x42"  Oil on panel ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

I had another delightful conversation about art the same day, with Phyllis who said she loves to make things.  She loves baking and making jam.  She also loves doing pastels and making quilts. She asked me if my travels influence my painting.  Yes, I said. I seem to gather things on a trip-ideas, thoughts, images, conversations.  They might come out as colours or feelings in my work when I get home.  They might not.  I never know. But there is always something of the place in the work. She understood me and told me how she saw the most beautiful sunrise the other day.  That sunrise inspired her to bake a cake that she would then give to her granddaughter on her wedding day. She had gathered in the light and used it to inspire herself in a way similar to what I do.  We understood each other.

Two suns rising over Iona, Scotland

Callanish Standing Stones-Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Earlier on in the trip, I visited the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and saw the Callanish Standing Stones. They are works of art that are nearly 5000 years old. They are abstract stone sculptures which  have endured.  People visit them, care for them and make pilgrimage to them.  But no one really understands why they were constructed where they are.  There are theories that they are oriented to a recurring 18.5 year lunar cycle. Like all stone circles and passage graves, they are oriented toward the light.  These ancient art forms hold a mystery. Art has the potential to elevate us out of our ordinary lives.  It can fill us.  

Callanish III-Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Friday, October 3, 2014

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 holy place and over the centuries, it has continually been reinvented and reconstructed as a centre for pilgrimage.
John Philip asked what we hoped to take away from Iona.  Some said they wanted to look again at their Christian faith in a new way through the earth-based tradition of Celtic Christianity.  Some were pastors or ministers.  One was a nun, another a monk.  Some came to take the time to consider their spirituality.  I said that I had come to gather in the light of Iona-not simply the physical light, but the peaceful, quiet spiritual energy there-and take some home with me.

Columba's Bay

I felt the blessing of the land, not only in the quiet, contemplative peace I found there, but also in the stones.  Heart-stones.  I went to Iona two years ago for a week-long retreat called Quiet Week. A couple of people on the retreat found heart-shaped stones.  I loved them and made an effort to find my own.  I combed the beaches without any success.  This year I made no effort and found heart-shaped stones wherever I walked.  It was like the earth was offering me blessings one after another.  I found at least 15 of them which I then began to give away.  I continued though to find them wherever I walked and so began to take photos of them.

My journey has continued onto the Isle of Lewis where I've spent the past week.  My friend Mary and I spent time with the famous standing stones at Callanish.  They are Lewisian Gneiss, probably the oldest rock in the world at 2.8 billion years old.  Interestingly, it's the same stone that is on Iona. No one knows the date  the Callanish Stone Circle was constructed-perhaps 5000 years ago-some say before Stonehenge.

We travelled the length of Lewis and Harris, marvelling  at the way the sun moved through the clouds to shine on the treeless, peat bog-covered hills.

Light on the hills of Harris

I am going away from the Hebrides having gathered in some light, feeling more at peace having spent time in this ancient landscape where you feel the power of the wind, the sea and the rock.

"In the gift of this new day,
in the gift of this present moment,
in the gift of time and eternity intertwined
let me be thankful
let me be attentive
let me be open to what has never happened before,
in the gift of this new day,
in the gift of this present moment,
in the gift of time and eternity intertwined."

John Phillip Newell
Sounds of the Eternal

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Importance of Silence in Art

Gathering Light 60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

 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 me a couple of weeks later.

Your eye can find rest in the big quiet places of a painting.  Look at contemporary painting in that way.  Can you find a resting place?  At least one big quiet shape?

The Irish author Colm Toibin was interviewed last Sunday by Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company on CBC radio.  It was an archived interview about his 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary. The conversation was wide-ranging.  I was interested to hear Toibin speak of the process of writing and the importance of silence in writing.  He said that  the spaces between the words are more important than the words themselves.

Shortlisted for the Griffin prize in poetry in 2014, Canadian Sue Goyette wrote about the importance of silence in writing. "When it comes to writing, she says “it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out” for the reader. She explains that when something is too specific it becomes inhospitable. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning".

Similarly in music, silence is crucial.  There's a wonderful article on the website, All About Jazz, about the Role of Silence in jazz. "If you put on some of your favourite CD's you can hear it:  how the best musicians use silence.  Great artists have impeccable technique, but as part of this they also know how to use silence.  Accomplished composers don't take all their best ideas and muddy the listener's experience by rattling on and on.  These artists know how to communicate their ideas clearly.  Listen to the space between the phrases.  Listen to how one instrument comes forward when others move into the background.  Listen to how the solos fill the listener's experience because there's not competition from other voices.  Listen to how silence is used as a colour, and not simply as the lifeless backdrop of compositions.  Silence, when used effectively, is a colour."

Big quiet shapes in a painting can be the foil against which small areas of bright colour or beautiful texture or line can truly sing.  They can't be heard if every single part of the painting is shouting.

Consider silence.  Big quiet shapes.

Monday, July 21, 2014


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 here.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

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-thirties when I began to paint. I took workshops one after another and I painted every day, for an hour or two or more if I could find the time.  Still, I had a hard time taking myself seriously.  It felt like painting was just a hobby.  I had a show in my home a few years after I began and sold everything.  Still, I didn't believe I was an artist, couldn't call myself one and didn't take myself seriously.  I painted on the kitchen table at first.  Then in a corner of the spare bedroom. Eventually I went to art school as a full time student to study Drawing and Painting.

Even when I'd finished art school, friends still phoned during the day, asking me to go for a walk, or for coffee or lunch.  When I said I couldn't because I was painting, some would laugh at me and say, "You're not serious are you?" There were  always demands on my time from friends and from family as well.

"One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop."...................... excerpt from Mary Oliver's poem, The Journey

How can you take your art seriously?

Do you have to sell your art before you can take yourself seriously?  Before others take you seriously?

I came to realize that no one would take me seriously unless I did. It became an issue of boundaries.  I set boundaries for myself to allow myself the freedom to work.  I made appointments at the end of the day or in the evening. I created a space in my house for a studio.  I called it the Studio.  I began to set studio hours that I blocked off on my calendar.  I didn't answer the phone during the day.

Gradually, gradually, it became a routine.  Friends stopped calling in the daytime or left a message.  No one asked me out to lunch. I built a bigger studio.  I organized my week around my studio time.

I still do that.

" strode deeper and deeper
into the world.
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save."..........Mary Oliver, The Journey

Monday, June 9, 2014

Expressing a Sense of Place in Abstract Art

Dry Pigments from Montserrat
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 sites in the area and let them wash over me, without the intention of hanging onto anything.

In 2010 I went to a residency in Spain called Can Serrat which is at the foot of the jagged Montserrat Mountains.  There is a monastery at the top called Montserrat Monastery, which houses a Black Madonna that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.  The Black Madonna holds the baby Jesus on her lap and in her right hand, she holds a golden globe which symbolizes the universe.  The statue is entirely encased in plexiglas except for the Virgin's hand and the globe.  Pilgrims can touch or kiss the globe and sometimes have to wait for an hour or more in a long line for this privilege.

Black Madonna-Montserrat Monastery, Spain

Before I began my work at the Can Serrat residency, I found in an upstairs studio, a number of plastic bins of dry pigment of various colours. I enquired about them and was told that I could use them.  I learned that they were pigments that had recently been used in the restoration of the paintings on the monastery walls.  I was thrilled that the actual pigments from the monastery would be part of the work I created at the residency.  I worked abstractly and intuitively, pouring and dripping the pigments that I had mixed with an acrylic matte medium. These vibrant pigments were the sort of colours I associate with Spain. As I worked, the idea of a circle or a globe came slowly into the work and I realized the connection to the Black Madonna.

"Montserrat"    acrylic on paper 70" x 88" © 2010 Janice Mason Steeves

In 2011, I was accepted into a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan, Ireland. Before I began this residency, I visited my friend Mary Quinlan in Dublin who took my artist friend, Rebecca Crowell and me to visit the megalithic passage grave called Slieve na Calliagh.  We stooped down to get through the passage and crawled into the nooks that opened off the central chamber.  It felt like a sacred place, sitting close beside the megaliths with their ancient spiral carvings, and then, outside, sitting next to the carved stones of the satellite graves.  Those spirals worked themselves into the paintings I did at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre.  As I first began to paint at the residency in Ireland, I used the hot, bright colours of Spain where I had been the year before. As I kept working though, the colours became like Ireland, much more grayed and muted.

Slieve na Calliagh Passage Grave, Ireland

Just outside of the Slieve na Calliagh Passage Grave, Ireland

Annaghmakerrig-the lake in front of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Annaghmakerrig  28"x44" acrylic on Multimedia Artboard © 2011 Janice Mason Steeves

In response to Sandy then, I'm going to say that she might take a few days early on in her travels to Ireland to simply walk the land, talk to people, go into the shops.  She'll get a sense of the place that way and a sense of the colours around her. Another suggestion is to make a colour chart of the colours around her: the sky, the rain, the stone walls, the sea. It might give her a way to focus on her environment. If possible, try not to worry about rushing into painting too early.  That sense of place will come naturally.  Another suggestion is that when she does begin to work, she should give up 'trying'.  Just paint.  See what comes and follow that.  The painting will show you the way.  Trust it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Morning Practice for Painting

A morning studio practice-lighting a candle

 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 lighting a candle in their minds to hold that inner space for themselves, leaving for the time being, their worries, concerns and baggage outside the studio door.

In my last workshop, I asked the artists if they have some sort of practice, such as my daily candle-lighting ritual before they begin their work.  Some do yoga. Some meditate.  One had channelled a poem that they read to us.  Another spoke of her gratitude practice.  She said that when she goes to bed each night, her mind often wanders to what she did not accomplish in the day.  Then she considers her blessings.  The tasks she did not complete fade in comparison to those blessings. I was surprised to learn that every single person in the workshop had some sort of spiritual/meditative practice.

Kenny Werner takes the musician/artist into deeper meditations where the focus is to let go of the need to be a good artist, to let go of the need to create a product, to let go of the need to try so hard.  The goal is to create from that place of freedom.  Werner refers to this place as 'the space'-"the place inside us where perfection exists"-a quiet mind where the ego steps out of the way.  He says, "For music to be real, it has to come from a deeper place than the 'little mind', and we can hear the difference".

Monday, May 5, 2014


New Work  each is 10x8"  oil/cold wax on panel © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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 insurmountable.  

I'm thinking of the rough winter I had-being hit by a deer as I was driving which badly damaged my car, the horrendous ice storm that devastated lots of trees on my land, and my dog who was hit by a car and had to spend the winter recuperating. We recovered; my car is repaired, the broken trees on my land are cut down and chipped up, and my dog is fully healed. I was thinking of all of this as I walked through the park this morning, smelling the cedar of the fallen trees.

I'm also thinking of a comment my daughter posted on Facebook in response to the new work I recently posted there.  She said she imagines I would be giggling as I painted this new work.  She's right. The winter is over, and I feel that I come away from it somehow changed.  Out of that winter has come new work.

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

New Work  each is 10x8"  Oil/cold wax on panel  © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Monday, April 21, 2014

"I Am in The Surrender Business"

Fragile 22 50x50"  Oil/cold wax on panel  © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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't understand what I meant.  On Sunday at about 1pm (the class was to end at 3pm), she asked me if she could pretend she was painting the figure in order to divide up the space.  Yes, I told her, do what you need to do.  It was like a lightbulb came on in her head and she was on FIRE.  In the space of 2 hours, she worked on 5 paintings with all the energy she had stored up over the weekend.  Based on a context she could relate to, she now understood what I meant and within 2 hours, had 5 exciting paintings on the go!  She surrendered to what she needed to do and I surrendered to how she needed to do it.

In my work this week, I  felt a reluctance to get into the studio even though I had recently completed two more paintings in my Fragile series that I really love including the painting above.  I kept finding all manner of other things I had to do first.  Finally, remembering the fun that my student had had last week in my workshop, I pulled out my large palette knife and began to work on small panels with a free abandon, creating thick textures and strong shapes.  As I have done so often, and seem to forget just as often, I was surrendering to play.

New Work  12x12"  Oil/cold wax on panel ©  2014 Janice Mason Steeves

I think that my large ephemeral paintings from my Fragile series, might need the balance of the small and more earthy, immediate, wild and free paintings.  Or at least, I need the balance of ephemeral and earthy. That surrender to play, has brought me back to the studio again. I had been trying to make things happen in my work, rather than surrendering to what I needed to do at the moment. I had the idea that I should be continuing the Fragile series, even though my heart needed a short break from it.  I was fighting that, until I surrendered to play, disappearing into my work and letting go of expectations.  Surrender opens us into a whole new forms of creativity and takes us back again into our other work, with new eyes.

"If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it."  Toni Morrison

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Talking About Being Vulnerable

John King at the Buhler Gallery in Winnipeg

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 the Buhler Gallery in 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 made up of five painters and two photographers.  After much conversation, good food and hilarity, Jane showed us the series of paintings in her living room that she had recently completed.  Like the narrative of her life, each of the abstract paintings represents an important stage in her life and beyond. Jane’s deeply considered rendering of each piece and her thoughtful discussion of the work was very moving.  I was touched by the vulnerability she expressed in this work.

The Qwesters with Jane Gateson's work on the wall.
This past weekend, I met with a group of friends here at my house.  We are a group of five artists, two writers and three painters.  We call ourselves the Arts & Letters Group, and take turns meeting at each person’s house every couple of months or so.  We feel safe and comfortable with each other and spent the afternoon discussing our work—where it’s going, how we’re feeling about it, what is driving us right now, what frustrates us. We listen and offer support.  One topic we were talking about was vulnerability: that edge between technical proficiency and not knowing what the hell you’re doing or where the work is going, carrying on anyway and letting that show.

The Arts & Letters Group
I heard Pinchas Zukerman, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, on the CBC program Ideas today.  He was discussing Mozart and music and said (and I paraphrase), how every great person, whether they are a musician or conductor, artist, or athlete, becomes great not only because of their technical proficiency but also because they allow the expression of their vulnerability.

In the book, The Art of Possibility, the authors talk about mistakes and vulnerability. “Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and ‘cool’, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fibre of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it.” 

Friday, March 14, 2014

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.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Goes Around-a Personal Vision

Fragile 18    29x29"  oil/cold wax on panel   ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

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 (which warmed the air making it possible to breathe in that cold), and ventured out two or three times a day for short periods to walk and observe the colours and to photograph (quickly so the battery wouldn't freeze).  The days were short: two hours of dawn and two hours of dusk with no daylight in between. The days were turquoise, mauve and indigo blue.  We stayed in the old wooden Catholic church which stood empty for several years because of the declining Catholic population in Pond.  Someone had fired up the old oil stove for us so it was cozy and warm when we arrived. I slept in a bunk bed that was jammed into the narthex, beneath a mural of Jesus in the arctic. I slept well there.  Oh and there was the time when Doris and I had to flag down the twin engine aircraft that was firing up, preparing to leave us on Broughton Island, our bags and purses still on the airplane.  Ah but enough stories......that trip was one adventure after another.

It might look like sunrise, but it wasn't!

When I came home I spent the spring and summer working on series of abstract paintings I called Iceworks.  I worked outside, pouring indigo, turquoise and purple inks onto elephant-sized watercolour paper, spraying with the hose at a certain moment to make crystalline patterns. Then I worked into that with white ink.  I had never worked abstractly before but it seemed the best way to describe my sense of the silence and power of the arctic in the winter.

Iceworks 1  Ink on paper    29x41"   © Janice Mason Steeves 1992

Iceworks 2  ink on paper  29x41"   © Janice Mason Steeves 1992

I showed the Iceworks series at the Burlington Art Centre as well as at the Inniskillen Winery in Ontario. After the exhibitions, my enthusiasm for the series dissipated and I went back to working again in a more representational way, with images in my work. 

About five years ago, at the opening of a group show in Oakville, I spoke with one of the other artists in the exhibition, who commented on my work. A complete stranger.  She suggested I take the plunge, get rid of my images and work abstractly.  I was ready for that suggestion and welcomed the nudge.  I spent  the summer and fall that year working 12-15 hour days, committed to the process, trying to find my way in abstraction.  Even though I'd been painting for 25 years by that time, I was like a fish out of water. Surprisingly I had forgotten all about my earlier journey into abstraction.

Only in the last few weeks have I revisited the work I made that summer.  Amazingly, the work is very similar not only to the earlier Iceworks series, but also to the series I'm currently exploring.
Although I have experimented with various styles of painting and mediums over the years,  my main interest has always been in studying light (and the contrast between light and dark), and my emotional response to place-the land, a sacred site, or an inner experience.  This way of working keeps coming back to me in a slow circular motion that I would not see if I had not kept working all these years.  Just showing up each day in my studio.  Painting.  Making messes. Painting. Making mistakes. Disappointments.  Successes, sadness, happiness.  Painting. Unfolding.

© Janice Mason Steeves 2009


Monday, February 17, 2014

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 and writing-trying to use my time wisely-rather than just being.  I won't beat myself up about it. I'll do a longer retreat another time.

This past weekend with my grandkids made me remember how to fully live in the moment. Our weekend consisted of swimming in the hotel pool, me floating on a swim noodle, them sliding down the water slide endless times, or figuring out creative ways to use the noodles to dive under or to blow through.  They jumped from bed to bed in the room, and built pillow walls down the middle of their bed.  We ate popcorn and candies and ordered in Swiss Chalet.  We watched the movie Frozen, about a queen with magical ice powers whose heart needed to open in order for summer to return to the land. We all went to bed at 8:30-them trying to sleep in a strange bed, me in my bed trying to stay up a little while longer and read by the light of my headlamp.  The whispering started at 6am when we decided to get up and watch the movie Turbo.  Turbo was a snail who loved speed (of all things) and dreamed of racing in the Indie 500.  He was inspired by his hero, the Indie 500 racer, Guy Gagne (who later became the villain).  In his melodious French accent ( and before he became a bad guy), Gagne would say, "No dream is too big and no dreamer too small."  We all felt like crying when Turbo actually won the Indie 500 because he tried so hard to reach his dream, even when a crash destroyed his turbo powers. Movie over and feeling hungry, off we went to breakfast where we had waffles you make yourself and too much syrup. Then, a quick change and back into the pool for a few more hours of swimming. Everything is exciting.

That's it for my weekend. I come home even more refreshed (although exhausted if you can be both at once) than spending time in silent retreat.  Maybe that sounds blasphemous.  Maybe I left my brains in room 421. Think I'll get back into the studio again this week and not apply for the coffee shop job just yet.

"No dream is too big and no dreamer too small". Guy Gagne
Maybe bad guys can say good things sometimes.