Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Lonely Road into Abstraction

Gathering Light 20  40x40"   Oil on panel  © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

It is a scary business moving from representational painting into abstraction.  Within the past two weeks, three of my former students have written to tell me how very alone they feel on their transition into abstraction.  It is a great act of courage. 

I went through the journey into abstraction about five years ago. At that point, I had been painting representationally for twenty-five years and had a successful art career with seven galleries representing my work.  I considered moving into abstraction for several years but didn’t know how to make the leap. In the summer of 2009, I simply decided it was time. I jumped off the cliff into the unknown world of abstraction with no idea what I was doing or where I was going.  There were no limitations or parameters. I was free-falling. It was terrifying. Even though I had painted for 25 years by this time, I had no idea where to begin.  It felt like my own Dark Night of the Soul.  Although this term is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, this four-month period plunged me into a deep place that I knew I could get myself out of only by painting my way out and through. 

I had a somewhat similar feeling when I came home from the hospital with my first child. We had only lived in London, Ontario for a year and I knew few people there.  My mother lived 1200 miles away.  I looked at my daughter and wondered, “What do I do now?” Somehow I learned, one day at a time, and found my way through.  And somehow too, my daughter (and son), turned out to be amazing people!  

It was that sort of feeling as I plunged into abstraction—as though I was all alone at a turning point in my life. No one could go there with me. It was a solo journey.

While my family was always encouraging and supportive, few of my friends (or galleries) could understand what I was doing and were bemoaning my moving away from images that they could appreciate and understand.  I spent the next four months working 12-15 hour days trying to find my way.  By October, there was some relief. I had found a way of working I enjoyed, but it would be another few years until I really found the way forward.

Of course there are lots of artists in the past who have made this transition—all of the Abstract Expressionists came from representational backgrounds and artists before them, like Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian. Still. It is a lonely business finding your own way as an abstract painter when there are no rules, no limits, little encouragement along the way and no other artist friends who are making the journey at the same time. 

The road into abstraction for me has been bumpy and winding and has taught me hard-won life lessons: persistence, commitment, vulnerability, a willingness to get lost, self-acceptance, letting go.  Most of all, trust and courage. And while I can't accompany my artist friends on their solitary journey into abstraction, I can shine some light for them on my own path.

"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."  Henry David Thoreau

Monday, November 3, 2014

Shhh-Listen to the Painting

Gathering Light 13   60x60"  oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

I struggled with a painting I was working on the other day.   It’s a large one, 60x60”.  I kept getting unwanted lines. Nothing was blending or flowing.  I am always aware of how the painting is going, what it’s saying to me as I work on it and I try to follow that.  What I didn’t realize is that I was trying to control the painting more than I knew. As I  struggled, I talked to myself a little.  I told myself that I could always add  another layer on it tomorrow. That’s normally the way I work, layer upon layer, gradually building up the surface day by day, in thin transparent layers. I worked this one over and over, back and forth, trying to blend it, going in different directions, adding more paint.

I tried to stay in a calm meditative place but after several hours of this, I needed a break. 

I stepped back, sat on my comfy chair and took a sip of tea.  Then I turned to look at the painting again.  In the space of my moving away from the painting and sipping my tea, the painting had changed!  While I normally move back and forth to get a different perspective on my work, I was farther away here and could see it differently.  The unblended layers had opened up another way of working.  It looked like a crystal waterfall.  It needed more darks, more depth.  But I could easily change that now that I had come to appreciate what was going on and move in step with the painting.

There’s a fine line between moving with the painting and trying to form it.  This painting felt as though it had a life of it’s own.  It moved to another place ahead of me, as though it were directing the action and that I needed to let go and catch up. Not all paintings work in this magical way. But one thing that it did teach me, once again, is to get myself out of the way, to let go of expectations and plans and make room for something greater than myself to enter.  That’s when magic happens.

" Ah but, don't think you now have knowledge--the answer to how to paint", the painting seemed to whisper to me as I stood there smugly thinking I now knew a secret. In the next few days, I tried again listening closely to the next painting I was working on.  There is no formula.  What worked for three paintings in a row, now was not working and I had to let go even of those ideas. 

In Natalie Goldberg's book, "The True Secret of Writing" , she quotes the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen, "Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness."  Goldberg says, "You have it; you don't have it.  You are free."