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


  1. Thank you for sharing these experiences, Janice. It is a gift to interact deeply with people we meet on our journeys. " paint something that is beyond words." nails it for me.

  2. Thanks Geri and Barbara. I appreciate your comments. Yes, it is a gift to interact deeply with people we meet on our journeys, even if only for a very short time.