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.