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


  1. Hi Janice - I love your piece here 'Gathering Light' - many of your pieces seems to be about light and color (of course). I have just been painting for about 2 years and from the beginning knew instinctively that abstract was the only thing that interested me. My frustrations were mostly about materials. I think it would be a much more difficult to be a successful representation artist and then make the switch. I was interested in what was pulling you towards abstraction? Why did you feel you had to move into abstraction? Because there are many artists who never do. For myself, I feel abstraction is so much more interesting and mysterious than representation art. Each piece is an alternate universe of which there are an infinite number. So the exploration of the mystery never ends.

    I believe this is my first comment here, I love your work and so appreciate your deeply felt words about your process. So supportive and inspiring for all of us working alone.

  2. Hi Melanie,
    Thanks so much for your words. I wrote a blog post recently that was more about my move into abstraction. Here's the link to it if you'd like to read it:
    Very best,

  3. Janice, Thank-you for sharing your progression from traditional art to abstract. It is a big step to change and I have found people continue to encourage what I was painting and act puzzled with what I am painting now. Letting go of the old is a transition unto itself.

  4. Thanks a lot, so very interesting (regards from Sweden)