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