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.”