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.


  1. Excellent thoughts about opening up to the unique aspects of the place and also, as you say, no need to push or try too hard. Take it all in and trust what emerges in the work. You will be surprised and delighted by what the painting tells you about the place. And I love the contrasts between the 2 paintings you posted here Jan--Spain and Ireland--so different in color and mood yet both with circles.

  2. I just began reading the writings of Robert Motherwell. In the introduction, one of his influences philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was quoted, "the higher the degree of abstraction, the lower the degree of complexity." Wonderful post.

  3. Very nice reflection. Shows that sense of place is an inner state - we internalize a setting that moves our senses and imagination.

    1. HI Dea, thanks for writing. Yes. I find that if a setting doesn't move me in some way, then I'm not interested in painting it.

  4. It is interesting how each artist approaches this sense of place and internalizes their response in such unique and personal ways. I just posted a blog post on sense of place and feature a woodcut print artist.