Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Authenticity is not an Easy Choice

Lightworks 1 30x30" Oil on panel ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

I've written before about courage. Many times actually: at times when I have changed directions in my work, when I have felt vulnerable, and when I moved into abstraction in my painting.

  Before the two advanced painting workshops I taught this past month, I invited the students to send me some suggestions for topics they wished me to address in the workshop. Many wrote to say that they wished for some discussion of authenticity and truth. They wondered how to achieve that.

 Authenticity takes courage. It takes courage to show your art, to open yourself to criticism and rejection, to pick yourself up when things aren't going well. Painting teaches that. Not everyone will like your work. Some will hate it. Others will totally understand it. But opening that way, showing that vulnerability is how you find the truth of who you are. It's saying, "This is who I am." 

Brene Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection says, "Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable."
Choosing authenticity is not an easy decision. e.e. cummings wrote, "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself––means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight––and never stop fighting."

 To hold to the thread of courage when others aren't interested in our work isn't an easy task. It's difficult to keep on exploring, pushing ourselves in new directions, opening to vulnerability again and again... whew. Makes me wonder why we pursue this work.

Van Gogh had some words regarding that sort of courage. They were posted in Brainpickings, one of my favourite blogs and I read them to the students. In that post, the author quoted from Vincent Van Gogh in his letters to his brother Theo, published in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters:

"If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm — and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of “you can’t.”

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
- Mother Theresa

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Visited by Awe

 Singing the Essence 46    29.5 x 39.5" ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Sometimes there is another presence at work when we make art. Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic, calls it "eudaimonia", a word coined by the  Greeks meaning an external daemon of creativity. All artists feel this at one time or another. Call it the muse, or an angel or a spirit guide or flow. It doesn't happen for me all the time. But that creative presence has definitely visited me. I remember early on in my painting career when I made a painting that was far above my ability at the time. Of course, I painted it, but there was a sense that I couldn't have. I remember the first time it happened. The painting painted itself very quickly and confidently and when I stood back, I was shocked. Something magical had happened! At first my ego puffed up and took full credit. Only trouble was, I couldn't repeat that feat. It took another year or so for me to bring my paintings up to that level. A similar visitation occurred sometime later. Yet another year passed by where I worked hard in order to be able to paint like that on a consistent basis. I realized that these paintings were gifts. They showed me what's possible. I still have that happen, where breakthrough paintings occur that point me in a new direction, help me think new thoughts.

Delicate Balance 15   12x12"  Oil on paper ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

The creative daemon quite often visits my workshops. I see her presence when a student quickly does a painting that is beyond the level of their current work. It's like everything has suddenly clicked into place. She often arrives through play or when the artist isn't trying so hard. Often the student doesn't even realize that they've been visited. I might point it out, but they don't always believe me. Acknowledging her is important. It encourages her to come back and helps an artist realize that there's some magic happening.

"The Romans," Gilbert writes, called this daemon "your genius––your guardian diety". She goes on to say that "the Romans didn't believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius." This distinction Gilbert writes, "helps to keep the artist's ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work."

I don't have a formula for inviting him/her in, this genius. Most often I just show up in my studio and keep painting. The creative daemon will find me there if she's looking for me. I might try to hold her when she comes but she's slippery that daemon and can leave as quickly as she arrived.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mindful Play

Delicate Balance 16x16" Oil on paper ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

I've always considered play to be the driving force that leads my work. It takes me into new territory, helps me break boundaries and express myself in different ways. Mindful play is the sort of play that It involves preparing ourselves in an inner way, calming our minds and bringing ourselves into the present moment. It also involves coming to the work with an understanding of structure. It's not thinking about design, it's more that we have incorporated that knowledge and then we let it go. In the same way, we can't pick up a saxophone and become jazz musicians by blowing random notes. Jazz has structure and skill behind it and the musician moves beyond it in order to fly.

My current work as in the photo above, began this past winter after an intense year of work in preparation for a major exhibition. After the work was completed, I needed to have a respite and simply play with paint on paper. There's a freedom in working on paper. I can experiment in a different way than I do on panels or on canvas. Even though I tell myself that there's no need to feel restrained when I paint on panel--that I can add endless layers of oil and cold wax--I still find myself painting in a more carefree manner on paper. This current work involves moving into a centered place in myself to begin with, rather like the Japanese enso (circle) painters who prepare themselves in their mind--calming and focusing-- before they make one tremendous spirited swoop with their brushes.

In my own process of mindful attention, I allow for mistakes and throw away those paintings that are overworked. It's very easy to overwork them. These recent paintings require a great deal of restraint. I'm never exactly sure when to stop but my eyes seem to know when I've gone too far. Where's that fine line between play and restraint? It's a delicate balance.

This process involves opening myself and staying in that place for a while, letting energy move through me like a conduit as I paint. I don't seem to be able to stay in that space a long time. I must be aware when it's present and when it leaves and try not to hold it longer than it wants to be there. I call it mindful play. Mindful painting.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Can You Play?

Releasing Light 1:  oil on paper  16x16"  ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Each class I teach has it's own personality and demands different things from me. In the workshop I taught last week  my students were gradually moving forward in their work but seemed to be struggling. I spent the first few days teaching them techniques of working with cold wax and oil as well as the elements of design, encouraging them to make small quick paintings alongside the others that they were developing. The idea was to combine play and structure. Often students figure it all out on Day 3, but on the fourth day into this workshop, many were still stuck in the structure part. It was my job to find a new way to help them break through. Several people asked me if I'd demonstrate how to play.

I have always had respect for teachers who are able to paint in front of their classes but I am reluctant to do it, partly because I find it hard to be a performance artist, but also because I want the students to realize there are many ways of working and to find their own way.

I'm a private painter, needing the quiet solitude of my studio space in order to create. So when asked to demonstrate how I play..........well.... big intake of breath......that seemed to be the opposite of what play is for me. How do you do play when everyone is watching you? It's like singing at the top of your lungs in your car with the windows down when suddenly someone pulls up beside you.

So I tried. I can't say I was painting with reckless abandon though, as I sometimes do when I'm alone and between series' of paintings, searching for a new expression.

After my somewhat inhibited demonstration of "play," which they kindly said was helpful, I suggested that they work on two 8x10" pieces of paper (who cares about it I told them,  it's only paper), mix up their colours beforehand using three different values (so the decisions are made in advance) and work FAST--10 minutes per painting (to get their heads out of the way). I told them that they had spent the week learning about composition and the elements of design and internalized them and now it was time to let the rules go and play--they wouldn't forget what they had learned--they would now integrate it in a playful expression.

The work they produced in 20 min was terrific! Every single one had a breakthrough.

Play seems to be some mysterious entity that many of us have forgotten how to do.

Here are a few ways that I play:

-Make mistakes 

-Give yourself some limits:
             -Turn on a kitchen timer for 5 minutes and make a small painting in that time.
             -Use only 3 colours: light, medium, dark and mix them up beforehand.
             -Work on paper because it doesn't feel as precious as a wooden panel or a canvas
             -Work small because a small piece of paper feels like it's free.......almost.
-Surrender to the process-let go-who cares! 

"Dance like nobody's watching........." Mark Twain

Releasing Light : 5     Oil on paper 16x16" © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Singing the Essence 38   Oil on panel  36x36"©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a timing for things. It isn’t a mistake or a sign of weakness when a person comes to art later in life. The time hasn’t been right for them to arrive any earlier. Like late-blooming plants, they’ve weathered the heat, the winds and the fierce summer storms and now, the autumn is their time.

In nature most plants and trees bloom in the spring and summer. But some are only ready to flower in the late fall or winter. In Southern Ontario, some fall and winter-blooming plants include Chrysanthemums, Burning Bush, Amaryllis, Christmas Cactus and species of Witch Hazel. The magnificent Saguaro Cactus, which grows in the Sonoran Desert between Arizona and Mexico, can live for 150-200 years but only blooms after 35 years. And the Madagascar Palm Tree blooms with hundreds of tiny flowers only once in 100 years.

 Like the Saguaro Cactus, I bloomed late too, attending art school in my late 40s. It was the right time for me to go through that experience, as I needed maturity and confidence to handle the times where I was flattened by a critique of my work or the lack of interest in it from the teachers. I wouldn’t have been strong enough to handle that in my twenties.

I asked a number of artists for their thoughts about the gifts they brought, coming to art later in life. One woman said, “I [now] have some dependable tools to help me work through the challenges, and a broad range of skills and knowledge that I didn’t have when I was in my twenties,” she says. “I’ve benefited from the circuitous route that I’ve taken to get here. I have formal training in a smorgasbord of disciplines and these all serve to strengthen my ability to think and create. OK, maybe it does rattle me some days,” she says, that “I didn’t show up early. But honestly it just didn't occur to me that I could ever have these skills.”

Another said, "“Maybe I did whittle away a few years in my youth, but all those [life] experiences have made me who I am today and today I am making art. That is what really counts.”

We bring a richness to our art when we arrive later in life after we have done the work and taken the journey; a depth that wasn’t accessible to us when we were young. No one asks why some flowers bloom in the autumn. We’re just grateful that they do.  

An excerpt from my upcoming book: Called to Create: On Becoming an Artist Later in Life



Monday, June 29, 2015

Coming to Art Later in Life

Writing at the kitchen window at my residency in Sweden. Photo: Rebecca Crowell

I've been back from my artist residency in Southern Lapland for nearly three weeks now. Almost all of my creative time there, and since I've come back home, has been spent working on a book. The idea for this book came to me in a dream about three years ago, when I was on another artist residency, and it's been sitting there at the back of my mind for all this time.

It's a book dedicated to all those artists, who have come to art later in life, as I did. While I was in Sweden, I sent out a questionnaire to a number of artists. The scope of the project grew as those artists suggested others. I've received incredibly touching stories from people, telling me how important it is that they finally have the time to focus on their art. It's as though they are getting in touch now with part of their soul that they'd longed to connect with.

They've come to art later in life for a few reasons. Some, like me, never considered art an option. I grew up in a family where we did lots of family activities and summer camping, but art was not part of our lives. We never once visited an art gallery. The only one in our family who had some artistic ability was my oldest brother who could draw cartoons. I had this magical, childlike idea that whatever talent might be granted to a family, he had received the entirety of it. For me, art wasn't even a possibility until many years later when I took a pottery class.The excitement of the creativity that so suddenly came alive, kept me sleepless every night after class. And later, a watercolour class would do the same. Those initial artistic encounters literally changed my life.

Sometimes people have had to wait for their artistic opportunities. Some of the artists who sent me their stories told me that they weren't able to study art as they were growing up because they were discouraged, even forbidden, by their families who wanted them to be able to earn a living. So they studied other subjects, they took other jobs but always, art was at the back of their minds. They carried that burning desire to connect with art their whole lives, until now, finally, they could do that. Others came late because they had been discouraged by teachers. One woman was insulted by a teacher in her first year of art school, who told her that she 'couldn't paint worth ......". It took her most of a lifetime to come back to art after that. Some came to art through illness, and found it to be  a way of healing. They've continued to paint once they healed. 

These are heartfelt stories of the power of art in our lives that show us it doesn't matter when we connect with art, the important thing is that we eventually do. The timing must be right.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her audiobook, The Late Bloomer, speaks about there being a perfect timing for things. Not everything blooms at the same time. Her Aunt Edna told her, " It's alright to encourage the young geniuses of the world, but it's the old [ones] who know all the dance steps."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Notes from Lappland

 Rebecca Crowell and I have just finished our month-long residency in Southern Lapland. We leave tomorrow. As a sort of wrap-up, we wrote a co-blog post about our experiences here.  I'll include a few other photos here, but click on the link below if you'd like to read our stories.

At Stekenjokk.  The light was gorgeous.

At Stekenjokk, the highest place on the Wilderness Road that leads into Norway. The road is only open in early June because of all the snow. Look at how high the snow still is in this section of the road.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Art and War(planes)

In this artist residency at Ricklundgarden in Southern Lapland, I've been writing a lot and painting and the days pass in a dreamy state of creativity. It's a disorienting place for the quiet and the beauty and the endless daylight. The sun rises shortly after 3am but it's never really dark so my body is unsure what time it is. It can't form a rhythm. And in that disorientation, I feel I'm moving as though in slow motion through another world where there is no time. I paint, I write and I sit dreamily watching the clouds slowly glide across the rounded snow-covered mountains beyond the lake outside my window.

This is such a silent place. Even though I live in the countryside in Ontario, this is a more silent silence. I am moving into it. Yesterday morning the sky was grey with heavy low rain clouds. I was painting in my studio when all of a sudden, a loud booming, rumbling sound came from the sky. I ran outside to see what it was. I couldn't see anything. If it was thunder, it was much longer in duration than normal, or if it was an airplane, it was much louder and longer also. The sound finally died away and I returned to my studio, puzzled, but thinking it must have been a low-flying airplane.

I forgot about the incident.

In the afternoon, my friend and fellow artist resident, Rebecca Crowell, and I got a ride with the local taxi/school bus service out to Fatmomakke, an ancient Sami gathering site about 25km north west of Saxnas. We spent part of the afternoon at this site where Samis have gathered since prehistoric times to meet with their family and friends to trade and to celebrate. They met at mid-summer (solstice), and again in late August before the winter came. In the 1700's missionaries moved into Sami territory and eventually a church was built at Fatmomakke. While I don't know the history of that transition and the struggles involved, in the end, the Swedes and the Samis came together, each building their own style of dwelling, kåtor and log cabins, side by side. They come together to celebrate mid-summer and live in peace.

I learned on the drive home from Fatmomakke, that the sounds I heard in the sky were NATO fighter planes. The news on the internet said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered four days of air combat readiness testing, the third major military exercise staged by the Kremlin in the past three months. This surprise test coincided with NATO-led military exercises over the Arctic region that are part of the Western alliance's response to Russia's stepped-up manoeuvres over the Baltic and Northern European regions. 

A flexing of muscles. The silence and beauty and tranquility of this remote region feels violated. 

I think of the day we just had in the small village of Fatmomakke. I think of the peaceful coexistence of the Samis and the Swedes and how they continue every year to meet there to celebrate the seasons together.

The warplanes have brought me back to earth very quickly. I feel helplessly small in this  military display of strength. But it also makes me feel more determined than ever to do my small part to bring beauty, joy and peace into this world through my art.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Does This Place Know of Me: Connecting with the Landscape

Kultsjon Lake, Lapland, Sweden
 Here at Ricklundgarden in the little village of Saxnas Sweden in Southern Lapland, Rebecca Crowell and I have just finished teaching a 7-day painting workshop. It was an incredibly memorable week for us all, from a campfire in the Sami kåta to a hike in the snowy, dreamy, treeless landscape of Stekenjokk near the border with Norway, to working in the studio here at Ricklundgarden.

Ricklundgarden studio
Stekenjokk, Sweden

We saw late late sunsets that lasted long into the night, and early morning sunrises only a few hours later in this land so close to the Arctic Circle.

As a way of connecting to this powerful landscape, and as a time for contemplation and reflection, I asked the artists in the workshop to each find a quiet place to sit outdoors--a sit spot--where they would spend 15 minutes each day.  They were to return to the same spot each day at different times of day.  As part of that process, I posed a different question each day for them to contemplate as they sat in the landscape. Two of the questions were from Robert Macfarlane who wrote the book, Journey on Foot, about walking ancient pathways in Scotland. 

On the second day, I asked the question, What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?

As we wrapped up the workshop on the last day, Mena Martini, shared her emotional poem with us that she wrote in response to this question.  She has given me permission to share it here.

This place knows that I wish to die in your arms, like the little bird in Andreas' palms.
This place knows the darkness inside me, the loneliness, raw and tender as the birches' bark.
It knows my heart, when my heart is frozen.
It knows the bendings of my thoughts, the void of my prejudices, the width of my anxiety.
It knows my inner voice, shrieking and flying like a mosquito on a whitewashed wall.
It knows my chirping, in the tiny leaves,
It knows my flesh, in the peeling bark,
it knows my sleep in the watching birches
It knows my faults in the melting snow
It knows my beauty in the frozen lake
In the still frozen
Frozen lake. 

~Mena Martini

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Artist Residency in Lapland, Sweden

I am currently at Ricklundgarden, an artist residency in Southern Lapland, Sweden where I am co-teaching a painting workshop with Rebecca Crowell. This is the view out my studio window: Kultsjon Lake with snow-covered mountains behind it.  It was a journey to get here--a long flight from Toronto, a layover in Munich, overnight in Stockholm, a 90 min flight up to Vilhelmina and an hour long bus ride to the tiny village of Saxnas. We are only one hour south of the Arctic Circle here, so the days right now are about 18 hours long.  But it is twilight until long past midnight.

There are five artists in the workshop, three from Canada and two from Sweden who are working together in the bright studio of the main building. I'm ensconced in the cozy Annex next door to the main building where I have a beautiful studio overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. Paradise. 

There is much more snow here than we expected to find. There was at least a metre of snow outside my door when we arrived. But the weather has been between 7 and 12 degrees C, so the lake is opening up each day and the snowbanks are gradually shrinking and receding. I expect by the end of our stay on June 7th that the lake will be fully open but I don't imagine I'll be swimming in it.

I have written before about the author Robert Macfarlane because I love his idea of thoughts being specific to a landscape. In his book, A Journey on Foot, he philosophized about the land as he walked ancient pathways through Scotland. In the forward to the anthology, A Wilder Vein, Macfarlane wrote, "perhaps cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive; that we think differently in different landscapes. And therefore, more radically, that certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places..."

To carry that thought with us into Lapland, I will ask questions of the artists in the workshop in regards to what this landscape is teaching them about themselves. And I ask that of myself as well. I don't yet have the answer. I find it takes me a while to settle in to a new landscape, to explore it with my feet, with paint and with words. These small works below are how I have begun to explore it, with the colours that I see in the lake and the sky and the snow at different times of day and the strong shapes of the land.

"What do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?"
 Robert Macfarlane

Monday, May 4, 2015

Being a Juror for an Art Show/Being Juried for an Art Show

Gathering Light 24 40x40"  Oil on panel ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Yesterday, I was invited to be a juror for the Etobicoke Arts Group annual juried exhibition along with an artist whose work I admire, Warren Hoyano.  Although I have juried several exhibitions in the past, it has been a little while since the last time. I realize that all the teaching I have been doing has given me the clarity to be a better adjudicator and has given me the words to be better able to articulate my choices. The process also brought up for me, early memories of being on the other side of the jury process, as an artist whose work was sometimes accepted and often rejected from juried exhibitions.

Although we knew each other's work, Warren and I had never met.  In the time span of 90 minutes, we were to figure out how to work together and to choose up to 60 artworks from the 108 submitted.  As well, we were to choose from the works selected, 6 award-winners.
The task was daunting not only for the time constraint but for the excellent quality of the work submitted.  There were many accomplished works of art. Although our decision-making styles were quite different, we worked well together and never came to blows--we did consider arm-wrestling over a couple of pieces though that the other felt quite strongly about.  However, we quickly agreed on the painting that would be awarded first prize. It was beautifully rendered.  The brushwork and palette was wonderful.  The composition was strong and exciting. It was a wonderful combination of heart and head.

Artists whose work wasn't accepted into the exhibition, were allowed to remain after the jurying to ask for feedback on their work. This was a terrific idea and an important learning process. I very much enjoy speaking with artists about their work, even if some of them were rather upset that their work hadn't been accepted. Warren and I worked hard to give fair and honest feedback.  I wish that such feedback had been available when I was entering juried shows.

One of the artists whose work was rejected, told us that she was surprised because she had never before been rejected from a show!  How unlike my own experience and that of most artists! She said she was glad to be rejected because of the feedback we gave her which she found helpful. The people who were accepted into the exhibition did not get feedback, or at least, did not ask for it.  It's a much better learning experience to be rejected!

A few of the artists we gave feedback to, had added some extra pieces onto their paintings at the last minute, as though they thought their paintings weren't enough.  That they needed 'something more'. What a common idea this is.  When do we stop?  How do we decide? I always let a painting stand for a while in a place I pass by regularly so I can see it in various lights and over some time. If the painting becomes very boring, I know I need to work at it more.  But sometimes, it is finished before I think it is, and it becomes more exciting as time goes by. One of the most difficult things is learning to trust yourself.  To trust that you know when enough is enough.

Another couple of artists were working with concepts that were very important to them.  One was related to the environment, another to health issues. While concepts can be the underpinning of a painting, the artwork is still an artwork and must read as that. The artist must consider what other ways their concepts can be depicted and not to forget the fact that there must be a strong composition.  We suggested that the artists continue to work with the concepts that were significant to them, but that they work in a long series in order to develop the ideas-that they set parameters for themselves to work within that would define a body of work. Most often, one painting doesn't quite get to the depth of the concept.  A series allows for deeper exploration of an idea. Art is the best teacher. In the very creating, lessons are learned and paths can become clearer.

There were some other artists who seemed not to be sure what they were most interested in. They might like line or brushy textured areas. The thing is, they couldn't decide in the particular painting which thing it was they were most interested in-the light on the rocks the reflection in the water, the cloudy sky, or the row of trees in the background. So for the viewer, our focus was skipping between one and another as the various areas fought for attention. Of course, this may be the intention of the artist. We can't know that when we jury an exhibition. It becomes a matter of what we, as artists, like and how we think the painting works as a whole.

I was reminded of all the juried shows I had entered, and the many painful times my work was rejected. Many times I thought of quitting.  Giving it all up. Most often that only lasted a few days-sort of a self-imposed sulking limitation. Then I picked myself up, dusted off and began again. That's what it's all about. The perseverance. The effort. Not giving up.  Getting back into the studio and painting.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Helping Artists Discover Their Personal Voices-Part 3

Gathering Light on Paper:16    16x16" Oil on paper ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves    

To read Part 1, click here

To read Part 2, click here

Elements of Design

Part 3,  is about looking at your work and the work of other artists to help you discover what you like. In my workshops, I love to teach techniques of working with the medium of cold wax and oil along with the elements of design. The process of painting involves the head and the heart- free and expressive play, along with an understanding of structure. Not one without the other. I'm interested how to read abstract paintings, and understand what elements of design an artist uses to express their ideas. For each design element, I teach various ways of working with cold wax and oil. For example, when I teach the design element, Line, I teach several different techniques for making interesting lines.

And then I invite each student to consider the importance of Line in their own work, asking them to think back over earlier work and see if line appears in their work. We tend to naturally gravitate to using certain elements when we paint. 

I do this with each of the elements of design. This gives an analytical approach to understanding your own art and you begin to see your artwork in a whole different way.
So while free expression, joy and spontaneity are important in a work of art, that's not all that's important. Skill is important.  Craftsmanship. A potter needs to learn how to centre the clay, how to trim the bottom when the pot is at a certain stage of dryness, how to pull a handle and attach it to the body of the pot when they are both at the same level of dryness. These are necessary skills. In painting, among other required skills, is knowing how to stretch a canvas, how to apply gesso to the canvas, and how to mix the paint with various mediums to get the desired results. It's also an essential skill to learn the language of art-the elements of design-the building blocks of a painting.  And then, once learned, to apply them to your own work to help you understand yourself-what you like, what interests you. This understanding helps you grow as a person, and helps your art grow too. 

In art, it is necessary to impose limitations. In the book on musical improvisation, called "Free Play", Stephen Nachmanovitch says that "limitations provide us with something to work with and against". "Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."  I ask students then to choose elements they wish to work with and to limit themselves to working with those for a period of time.

Looking at the Work of Other Artists

Keep looking at the work of  important historical artists, as well as prominent contemporary painters and artists who may not be prominent but whose work you like.  This is a very important part of learning about painting, not only to educate your eye, but as a way of learning who you are and what you like. Write down what it is you like about the work of those artists. What qualities do you like: the meditative feeling, the use of bright hot colours, their sensitive use of line? And then ask yourself if you want those qualities in your own work. Or do you just enjoy that in others work but not necessarily in your own? When you come across the work of artists whose work you don't like, ask yourself specifically what it is about the work that you don't like. It's all about learning about yourself.

 Pianist Kenny Werner in his book, "Effortless Mastery", talks about technique versus creativity.  "One camp says, 'I don't want to absorb too much technique, too much language, because it will squelch my creativity'. Some people are afraid to learn too much for fear of losing their soul.  But that doesn't hold up. What could the poet or playwright write without command of language? Composer Donald Erb says that if your talent can't stand a little training, it must have been pretty fragile to begin with."

This is the final episode (for now) in my series of Helping Artists Discover their Personal Voices. I'd be happy to have your feedback on the series or suggestions for further episodes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

That Essense is Light-Åsa Bostrom Interview with Janice Mason Steeves

 My friend, Åsa Boström is a Swedish artist and writer.  She is also coordinating the workshop in Cold Wax and Oil that Rebecca Crowell and I will teach at Ricklundgarden, Saxnas, Sweden in May.  Åsa is collecting stories from artists about their creative process. Here is her recent interview with me:

Studio Practice:
Can you describe your studio practice? For example when and how you work, what you surround yourself with while working, and how you switch over to studio-mode?

When I go into my studio each morning, I begin the day with a little ritual that sets the space for my creative work.  I wrote a blog post about this last summer.

I have a comfortable old chair in a corner. A couple of big stones  and a white pillar candle rest on a small table beside the chair. My morning ritual is to sit in the chair, light my candle and meditate.

A wood-burning stove is in one corner, bookshelves filled with art books in another corner.  On the windowsill, I have beautiful small objects gathered on my walks and on my travels—some seed pods, a clay labyrinth, a small Goddess statue from Turkey, some bird bones from the woods behind my house, an eagle feather I found on Haida Gwaii, many other feathers, and several stones. My own paintings hang on the studio walls if I am working toward a show, or they might be bare if I am just beginning a new series. I mostly listen to CBC Radio 2, the Classical music station as I paint, or I work in silence. I have to surround myself with quiet—no radio talk shows or news. That is a necessary part of holding the space from which I create.

Gathering Light 15  60x60"  Oil on canvas ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creativity and Spirituality:
Can you say something about how you explore meeting points between creativity and spirituality, both in your artworks and in your practice in general? Are there ideas/concepts from spirituality that you are transferring to your artmaking, or specific spiritual practices that you are performing in relation to/that is informing your creative practice? Anything else?

Spirituality means so many different things to people. For me, it’s about the interconnectedness of life. I am interested in the meeting points of religions, not the differences. When I meditate, I might do a form of Shamanic journeying or a Christian Contemplative meditation. I don’t separate creativity and spirituality—they are the part of the whole. I find it necessary to keep working at both my spirituality and my creativity to keep a strong connection. It’s important to maintain the discipline of a regular studio practice. I work every day, very often on weekends too. I try also to maintain a regular meditation practice in my daily life and I aim for a meditative, centered place as I paint. It isn’t always easy to maintain that centered place. I might need to walk away, take a break, work on something else, come back tomorrow. Sometimes there is a creative flow that happens, where paintings paint themselves and I step back and wonder where they came from. A gift. A blessing. But most often, I find that there is a back and forth movement, where I am in the flow and then out of it—heart and head, intuition and consideration—a flow between the two.  Leonard Cohen said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”

Agnes Martin, the American Minimalist painter, waited for images to come to her. She called them inspirations.  And when each inspiration came to her, it came as such a clear image, that she was able to paint it exactly as it was shown to her, down to the size of each stripe that made up her painting. And when she finished that painting, she would simply wait until the next ‘inspiration’ came to her and paint that one exactly as she saw it.

I work in a somewhat similar fashion. Often an image of a painting will come into my mind. A vague image, not really clear. Sometimes that image becomes persistent, coming to me often until I try to paint it, as though it is telling me something or insisting. I try to paint what I see, but the harder I try to look at it, the more it dissolves. So I am left on my own to find it or to paint what I remember.  After that initial image, I get no more, and so I continue to paint variations on that initial one, growing and expanding the idea, until I have completed a body of work. And then, after some period of time, another image will come into my mind and I will aim to follow it.  I have been painting for over 30 years and in that process my work is becoming more and more simplified, more focused on distilling an essence and that essence for me is light.

Gathering Light 30 60x144"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creative Obstacles:
Can you name one of your largest challenges/obstacles that you’ve experienced on your creative path in the past, or are experiencing at the moment? Something you’ve had to cope with or find ways to regulate? How did you overcome it?

I think for me one of my biggest challenges in painting has been learning to trust. To trust myself and the process. I came to abstraction through representational painting which demands a whole different orientation. Kandinsky said, "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." I found moving into abstraction to be an enormous challenge. I had to learn to trust that the painting would eventually resolve itself, and to keep painting until it did. That was an entirely different approach than I had in representational painting, where I planned the painting in advance, leaving little to chance. I can’t say that I have fully overcome the challenge of trusting the painting and I’m not sure I want to. I like the idea of the process being a little raw, vulnerable and on unstable ground. I think it keeps me honest. I find that if the work gets too easy, then I want to shift it a little so that it feels a bit unstable and I wonder again if I can trust that the painting will resolve itself.

Gathering Light 14  60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creative Flow:

If you would formulate a formula for how you cultivate focus, flow and ease in your practice what could it be?
I might have addressed this in other answers. While I find it important in my art practice to meditate regularly, and have a little ritual to begin the day, I think that it’s a matter of just doing the work. I don’t find the work easy. It takes everything.

Creativity and Travel:
You travel regularly, both to teach and in your own creative practice. Can you say something about how you explore place and movement in your practice while being on the road? Do you have specific creative travel routines or habits?

I have been fortunate to travel to many sacred places in the world, and to go on several pilgrimages. I have also traveled to Spain and Ireland to do artist residencies. And while I have combined visits to sacred sites with the artist residencies I have attended, I find that I approach the residencies a little differently than I approach the pilgrimages.

I love to explore a place by walking it and by sitting in the landscape. Listening to the sounds in that landscape, talking with the people, watching the sky, feeling the air and smelling it. I explore with all my senses. I take  lots of photographs. I find that taking photos is a way of eating the landscape. I also write in my journal—ideas that come to me or events that happen or things people say to me. Only after I have spent a few days walking and sitting and smelling and listening, can I start to paint. In a residency, even though I spend some time in the landscape, I don’t have the time to distill or process the experiences before I begin to paint. So the quick small works I do in a residency become more like early responses to place, like sketches in a way.

Often it takes quite a while to get a sense of a landscape.  A landscape doesn’t always reveal itself right away or your experience of it. You have to connect with it in order to paint it. I remember once being on Haida Gwaii off the west coast of Canada where we visited many of the long-abandoned native villages where totem poles still stood in some cases, or had fallen over, left to rot in others. I had gone there on a painting trip with other artists. While I loved the landscape and felt the sacredness of it, I tried, but could not paint it. It felt to me like this land belonged to the native peoples. It was not my land to paint. These were not my totem poles to paint.

I haven’t had that sense in other countries or cultures. I have come away with a more universal essence from those places I suppose. When I was in Turkey, on a pilgrimage to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Sufi poet, Rumi, I did not paint on the trip, there was no time or space. I photographed and walked and opened myself up to experience the poetry and the whirling dervishes whose dance is intended to bring down light into the world. Afterward, for the next year, I created a body of work that incorporated the idea of highly patterned vessels of light.

I painted one year in Baffin Island in January before the light came back. We were in Pond Inlet, well within the Arctic Circle.  Outside was darkness, snow, an iceberg trapped in the fiord, and the bitter cold of that hostile climate.

In India, on a Shiva pilgrimage, I prayed and meditated surrounded by smoky incense and chanting in the Hindu temples. An unforgettable image was of small leaf candles floating on the Ganges just before dawn, each one launched with a prayer. I carried home these experiences, as I did those from other journeys and sacred places, and sat with them for a while, determining if I could find something universal about these experiences to translate into my paintings. From every journey and experience, I found that I have always translated that essence as light.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Helping Artists to Discover Their Personal Voices-Part 2

In Part 1 of Helping Artists to Discover Their Personal Voices, I wondered if there was only one voice we could have. I said that so much of discovering your own path, is making choices, and then creating a body of work to explore those choices.

In this post, I'd like to write about discovering what you like.

What do you most love to paint?  When my children were younger and trying to decide what to study or what direction to follow, I would always tell them to follow their giggles. When we are on the right track, there is a gut feeling that is very much like giggling. Sort of bubbly. And I advised them to follow that. And they have. It's Joseph Campbell's expression, 'follow your bliss' integrated into a bodily sensation! 

What do you want most to paint right now? It helps if you tell yourself that the choice doesn't have to be set in stone for the remainder of your life. It's a choice for now. Follow that choice.  Make a body of work around it. If you feel excited about working in black and white with strong value contrast, create a body of work with these limitations. Make at least ten paintings. It's best if you can make more, say twenty or thirty. As you go along, you'll see if the idea continues to excite you. Do you get new ideas as you go for small variations on the theme?  Really work the idea. After you've finished five or ten paintings, check in with yourself. If you're feeling bored or drained, then that's the time to reconsider changing some of the limitations.

Can you let yourself paint what you like? One of my students told me about the Icelandic artist, Georg Gudni who died in 2011. I managed to find a book of his work. In it, Gudni spoke about how he decided to turn away from what he was seeing in contemporary art. Even though he worried that it would be difficult to say anything new about landscape, he decided to go ahead. And as he did, he found that he felt deeply connected to the work and to the land. He created beautiful, ethereal landscapes of Iceland.

When I am stuck sometimes, or between series, or even when searching for new ideas, I just play. I get out some Arches Oil Paper or Multimedia Artboard, and play. I make monotypes or small paintings, applying the paint in very different ways, using colours I normally might not. I stretch myself and explore. I might never show this work to anyone.  I'm not thinking about a purpose or a product; if I will get new ideas; if I will show this work; if I will sell it. I'm just playing. When you play, you bring passion and excitement into the work and the vulnerability that comes with trying something new.  Making art is combining that raw and playful quality with the techniques and experience you develop in the craft of painting.

Don't show your work too soon as it's being developed
Not every painting or print or work in progress needs to be exhibited in a show, or posted on Facebook. It's important not to show new work to people too soon. Develop the ideas first by yourself. When I'm working on a new idea in my painting, I don't let anyone into my studio, not even my family. I don't want either positive or negative comments.  I don't want a smile or a frown or my interpretation of a response. It's like a very vulnerable baby. It's wise not to take a newborn to the shopping mall. It's also wise not to show work that is still very raw and being developed. It can be influenced too easily and you might never know where it could have gone had you let it grow wings.

Decide what you like.

Journal writing has always been an important way for me to understand myself, especially if I am going through a time of transition. It helps me to see in another way and find answers I might not have expected.

Here is a simple question to journal about if you're in the process of trying to find your personal voice. What is it that you love about painting? Why do you paint? One of my students wrote a wonderful children's story as she explored this question. The child in the story experienced every aspect of life in a very creative way-from her sense of the wind and rain to the flowers in the fields. The writing of it reconnected my student with why she loved making art in the first place.

Small, wordless sketches might be an important way for you to explore this question as well.

Give yourself the gift of some silence in your day. It's difficult to learn about what you love and who you are if there is no quiet time to discover it.


Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

~Mary Oliver

In Part 3,  I'll discuss how to look at your own work for clues about your personal voice.