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".