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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Helping Artists Discover Their Personal Voices- Part 1


Whether we know it or not, when we embark on the journey of becoming an artist, we open up. We have to. It’s part of the process. And it’s in that process that we create ourselves.

The artist's voice is a mixture of style, technique, and the message they wish to impart. But that can change. It’s not fixed in stone.  Kirkegaard said, “We create ourselves by our choices”.

Many years ago I made the choice to become a painter. It was for me, a life-altering decision. It took a long time to make that decision and then more time to call myself an artist. First I chose to work in watercolour, then later, in oils. I chose first of all to paint landscapes and still life, moving much later into dark and mysterious paintings of vessels. Choice. Choice. Choice. I continued to make choices about my subject matter and as I grew as an artist and a person, so my work continued to change.  Eventually I moved into abstraction, where the world becomes very large and the choices are endless.

I had to learn to put limitations on my work in order to paint abstractly. I had to make decisions.

There is an underlying connection between our various bodies of work that says ‘this is me’. This is who I am. It doesn’t mean that each body of work has to have the same colours or lines or shapes. It doesn’t mean an artist has to choose one topic and paint that endlessly for the rest of their lives.  But what is of major importance is to make one body of work at a time—to follow an idea through until it wants to stop, or to pause for a while. Each body of work that I produce varies between 30 to 100 or more paintings.

Is there only one voice or artistic style an artist can have? I am reminded of an exhibition I saw in Barcelona in 2010. I was doing an artist residency at Can Serrat, just outside of Barcelona and spent some time visiting galleries in the city. The Tapies Museum, was showing an exhibition of the work of Anna Maria Maiolino. I wrote about this in an earlier post. Hers were complex works, developed through a variety of media: poetry, woodcuts, photography, film, performance, sculpture, installation and, above all, drawing.  In her artist statement, she explained that the connection between the various works and media was her. Her body. Her body's relationship with the media. She was the rhizome. And the various works came from that same root. If I had only seen each body of work separately, I’m not sure I could have seen the connection between them. But seen together, there was a link, some sort of sensibility, an idea, a way of handling materials that was particular to Maiolino.

 A couple of years ago, I came across a video of Jim Dine speaking about his retrospective at Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 2009. I have always loved his intense and wide-ranging creativity.  One of the main objectives in his art practice, he said, is to explore his own unconscious. He intuitively goes wherever his intuition takes him, whether making sculptures of his childhood love, Pinochio; or writing poetry on walls and objects and then photographing it; or drawing self-portraits on museum walls and then washing them away at the end of the exhibit. There is a thread, a link that runs through his work—the nervous line he makes, and the odd, dream-like nature of the images he repeats in his drawings and sculptures. It’s a quality that is hard to define: the essence of a person perhaps.

I think one of the things I enjoy most about teaching my Abstract Painting Workshops, is trying to help each student discover that voice, the thread that connects. It's often easier for someone else to see this than to see it yourself.

It's like a puzzle trying to figure this out. I ask students to bring in images of their work to show the class. Looking at those images, as well as watching each student paint in class, I try to help them make connections, to figure out what they are most interested in, and work with them to further develop their interests.  One student for example loved texture and filled the entire surface of the painting with texture. There were no shapes in the painting, no value contrast, just bright colours and lots of texture. So the challenge was to offer the artist some suggestions to focus the painting, to make some choices, to continue to work with texture and maintain the importance of it, but to find a way to limit it, to contain it, to give it space to sing.  It’s important to work with the natural interest of the artist and to encourage them to develop that interest and refine it.

Our personal voice is with us all along. It's who we are. It sticks like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth. We can't escape it. That doesn't mean we can't improve on our work, or change or grow. It just means that there is a certain way that we are—the way we move, the cadence of our speech, the way we dress, the way we laugh. I can see this right from the start in my classes. I have students do an exercise on shape and value contrast on the first day. The instructions are very simple with definite rules and limits, and yet everyone does the exercise in a unique way. It is incredible to see. And I point that out to them—the beauty of that. Even if they can improve these drawings, there is some unique part of them that is different from the person sitting beside them and my goal is to take that uniqueness into account as we continue through the workshop.

In Part 2, I’ll write about finding out what you like and how that is crucial to finding your personal voice.