Sunday, January 26, 2014

Silent Retreats and Painting

Fragile 5     29x29"  Oil/cold wax on panel © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

This early morning, I'm sitting in front of my wood stove that has been burning non-stop this winter, as I look out onto a fresh blanket of snow in the woods behind my house.  More snow is swirling through the branches and there's the promise of more to come.

It brings a profound silence that sound-absorbent layer of snow. I'm thinking about the power of silence and the Silent Retreat I did last weekend at Loyola House, the Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.  There were nearly 50 others in the retreat.  We had pleasantly cozy single rooms with carpeted floors, a desk,   a sink and a big comfortable chair.  We didn't speak at all for the weekend, not in hallways, by the fireplace in the lounge or at meals.  Having the limitation of silence made time expand. The retreat centre holds a sense of the sacred, and there is something deeply profound about sharing that space with others in silence.  The social conventions are gone-smiling and nodding at people in passing,  engaging others in conversation, making small talk.  Silence allows space in life.

In 2010, the BBC produced a film entitled The Big Silence.  Five volunteers were invited on a journey into silence, led by Father Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex.  They then went on to St. Beuno's abbey in North Wales for an 8-day silent retreat.  Fr. Jamison's starting point is simple: "Many of the world's religions believe that there is one simple path that leads us toward God.  This same path takes us to the very centre of who we are. It has been at the core of the Catholic mystical tradition for centuries.  But outside religious settings, it has almost disappeared.  It's called Silence."  As a Benedictine monk he is steeped in the Catholic mystical tradition of the contemplative life, but he is convinced that everyone can benefit from sustained, regular periods of silence. “When we enter into periods of silence, we start to see things with greater clarity. We come to know ourselves, and come in touch with that deepest part of ourselves. That is our soul”  The film follows the lives of the five retreatants before and after the retreat.  The whole 12-part series can be seen on youtube.

I have done several silent home retreats  over the years, where I stay home for a week, shutting off all forms of communication and spend the time painting, meditating, or writing. To read about one of them, click here.  Being with others in a silent retreat at a Jesuit centre, had a different quality to it which encouraged deeper contemplation.

My weekend retreat was led by 81-year-old Bill Clarke, S.J., a Jesuit priest and a lovely gentle man who humanized bible stories, inviting us to go into them and meditate there.  Other than four sessions with Bill during the weekend, our time was our own, to walk on the six hundred acres of land or to sit by the fire or in our rooms. Computers and cell phones were not permitted.

I spent my time walking, meditating and writing in my journal. Many ideas for my work and my life came to me when I allowed that quiet space for them to enter. I came home feeling nourished by the silence.

"All artists dream of a silence which they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn"
Iris Murdoch

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Coping with Difficulties: A Conversation

Rebecca Crowell and me at my exhibition at the Burlington Art Centre, December 2013

This blog is another in the series of co-blogs between myself and Rebecca Crowell. We are good friends who often discuss issues about art and painting in our private correspondence. In the hopes that sharing some of these thoughts would interest and engage others,  the idea of a co-blog was born. To read our first co-blog, which we posted almost exactly one year ago, please click here.

Rebecca: You and I have had a few emails back and forth lately about the need to develop a "thick skin" as artists in order to deal with some of the difficult things that come our way. It's funny, I can recall in detail quite a few negative things that have been said or written about my work, but if you asked me to remember even a few of the (far more common) positive remarks I've received, I'd be quite a bit more vague. Recalling negative experiences more easily than positive ones is apparently part of the human condition. See this NYTimes article. Yet as artists we will always run into rejection, discouragement, and people who don't "get" our work.. How do we develop the necessary "thick skin" to cope with this?

Janice: I think the discussion itself is really important!  It’s helpful for artists working in any creative field to know that those concerns affect us all no matter our level of skill or experience. When we post our news on social network sites like Facebook and in blog posts, it's generally the positive things that we report, like getting an exhibition, or making a sale, getting an award or an artist residency.  We don't often share the darker side of being a painter.  That comes with the territory too:  the rejections, the criticism, the times when sales are slow, the times you flounder for ideas and feel that you might just throw in the brush!  So it's a good question, Rebecca: how do we handle rejection in order to keep going?

Rebecca: Well, I think we need confidence in ourselves as artists, but that's really too easy an answer.  I know that even as an experienced (and generally confident) artist, I am still shaken by some forms of rejection in the art world. And even when I tell myself all the rational reasons why the negative thing doesn't matter, or is just part of the art world game, I can feel hurt.  So, while building confidence is important, it’s not the whole answer, and neither are rational statements about how things work in the art world. Yes, residencies and grants go to only a small percentage of applicants, galleries are overwhelmed with submissions, our way of painting will not appeal to everyone, all artists have ebbs and flows of income--we know these things. They may be helpful,  and they’re definitely the things friends and family bring up to try and help us feel better. But we can still end up feeling distressed and rejected.   

Maybe the first thing is to simply accept that we're going to hurt sometimes--we need to look that right in the face.  Sometimes we're going to feel awful, no way around it. 

Janice:   I think that it's important for  artists to discuss this with each other as we're doing here.  Knowing that others feel the same and have been through similar situations is important.  It doesn't matter your level of proficiency or how many years you have painted.  If you're an artist who keeps pushing their boundaries, exploring and growing, you're likely to run into people who liked your old work better, or galleries who don't want you to change.  In my own work, I aim to push myself to that edge of discomfort.  While it is a very fragile, exposed place, I like to see that vulnerability in my own work and I like to see that in other artist's work too, like in your new series Rebecca.  So maybe the answer can be found in courage and persistence.

Rebecca: this makes me think it is not confidence-as-an artist (in the sense of success or experience) that is needed so much as general confidence-as-a-person. Knowing from experience that we can handle all kinds of difficulties in life. This helps us believe that we are strong at the core, even while knowing there will be pain. 

It's a good thing to keep in mind because as you say, as artists we put ourselves into potentially negative situations all the time! If we’re going to keep pushing boundaries in our work, we do need to be brave. And yet our skin can't be too thick if we are to remain sensitive and vulnerable.  

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about embracing your pain tenderly, as if it were a baby. That seems to me to say it is possible to love the pain as part of being human, but it’s not a good idea to grip it tightly and hold onto it forever. 

Janice:  One thing that is hugely important in an art practice is to try to separate ourselves from our work.  We are not our work.  Knowing and believing that can take the edge off of negative comments. While it's important that we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our work and hold nothing back, we are still more than the paintings we create. Life is more than that.  Here's a cartoon I came across that says this in another way.

Rebecca: Yes, that's great! I think that is really important. It's so easy to take the bad stuff so personally.  Yet, even as we create the work there is always the need to separate ourselves, step back and assess, edit and evaluate. I wonder if that is a part of the process that needs to be strong in order to deal with all the difficult stuff we encounter in the art world.  Even while we may disagree with someone else's attitudes or beliefs about our work, the ability to be objective allows for other points of view.  

Janice:  While we know these things in our heads, it's sometimes difficult to remember them.  When we encounter rejection, the critical voice that seems to live somewhere inside our heads  jumps in and adds more disapproval. Last fall I had just completed work for my current exhibition and I was really pleased with it.  I had applied to an artist residency much earlier in the summer, and  I learned that day in October, that my application was rejected.  Although I had just completed a huge work cycle and produced a series of paintings that I loved, that one email completely threw me off.  I couldn't paint at all that day and the critic was very loud in my ear.  I got into my car that afternoon and turned on the engine.  Instead of music, I heard the voice of a man who was not the regular announcer say,  "If you hear a voice in your head that says you cannot paint, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.".  Stunned by the synchronicity, I stopped the car to write it down. It was exactly what I needed to hear. 

I think actually that it’s important that as artists, we continue to have thin and vulnerable skins that enable us to relate in a sensitive way to the world around us.  And to allow that there will be all sorts of rejections and hard lessons. The important thing is to keep working, in spite of criticism and rejection or the voice of the inner critic, which can be the harshest of all.  What makes an artist is the ability to continue. To show up for work.