Friday, November 11, 2016

"Certain Thoughts Might Be Possible Only in Certain Places".

Iceland Works 1 10x10" oil stick/sand/acrylic on paper ©2016 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 2 10x10"  oil stick/sand/acrylic on paper © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
I have written before about Robert Macfarlane, the author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. In walking some of the ancient pathways in England and Scotland, he came to consider the idea "that 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...." When I travel to artist residencies in different countries, I think of that quotation. And in my workshops that are located in beautiful, natural surroundings, I give that quotation to the students to consider as they sit outdoors for a short meditation each day.

At the Baer Art Centre residency I attended recently in Iceland, I did a series of small paintings influenced by the land: the vastness of the space, the shapes of the surrounding mountains, the imposing headland or cape, the islands in the fiord, the basalt columns, the water. In fact I included some of the black volcanic sand from a nearby beach in the work. My paintings changed the longer I was there, as I connected more deeply with the landscape. I intended to continue and expand on this series once I returned home. But I wasn't able to.

Iceworks 3  12x12"  oil stick/sand/acrylic © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
Iceworks 4  12x12" oil stick/sand/acrylic © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

That shouldn't have surprised me.  I did an artist residency at Ricklundgarden in Northern Sweden in the spring of 2015. Again, the work changed quite dramatically over the course of the month I was there as I became strongly connected to the land. I did a series of small paintings that were very different for me. Very different than my normal studio practice. I loved them and decided I would continue to work on the series at home. 

Sweden Works 1  14x11" oil/cold wax on paper © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Sweden Works 2  12x12" oil/cold wax on paper© 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

But once home, I wasn't able to continue the series. The energy was gone from it. I tried and tried to keep it going but none of the work had the same vitality as the work done on location. So I gave up and threw all the attempts in the garbage bin.

This site-specificity doesn't happen for everyone. Agnes Martin in her film, With My Back to the World, says (and I paraphrase), that it doesn't matter where she is, that her work is not about the world, at least, it's not about this world.

But it happens for me. And I wonder as I consider Robert Macfarlane's quotation, if, for me at least, "certain [paintings] might be possible only in certain places?"

Sweden Works 3  12x12" oil/cold wax on paper  © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Monday, September 26, 2016

Picturing the World

There is a way we have of viewing the world that is unique to each of us. We see through our own lenses.

Several people have commented lately on how similar my photos are to my paintings. Which influences the other? 

I think of some photos I took at the Baer Art Center artist residency in Iceland this past July. I was sitting on a grassy hill right on the edge of the fiord. My camera somehow ended up in the grass beside me and I happened to take a photo while it rested there. When I saw what I'd taken, I took about 80 more shots! The colours in the grasses were violet, pink, lavender, yellow and green. It was dizzying. I felt like I had opened a door into a wonderland, where the blades of grass were huge and indistinct. But most interestingly, they were transparent, overlapping each other.

Recently, I taught a Cold Wax and Oil painting workshop in Anchorage, Alaska. At the end of the workshop, a friend and I took a Glacier Cruise on Prince William Sound out of Whittier, south of Anchorage. At the end of the voyage, we came up close to Surprise Glacier, where I saw chunks of ice floating in the water, that our catamaran slid over. I looked down, saw the depth of the ice below the surface, the light in the dark water, and began taking photos.

Gathering Light 28   60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."― Thoreau

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Yesterday I had the flight of a lifetime. Stan Steck is a pilot who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where I'm teaching a 5-day painting workshop. Retired after flying many years for the National Park Service and now a pilot with K2 Aviation, he has his own single engine airplane, called a Maule. Stan offered to take me for a flight to see Denali (formerly called Mt. McKinley). The day was cloudless with brilliant sunshine and no wind. A perfect day for flying.

We drove over the marshland, lakes and tundra which cover the 250 miles of flatland between Anchorage and Denali. Rising to 20, 322 feet, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. Stan ferries hundreds of rock climbers each year up to a base camp on Denali as well as offering flights to sightseers like me.

I was fairly nervous setting out, with the idea that we might circle this enormous mountain and land on a glacier!

The trip was beyond my wildest imaginings. We flew up glaciers and through what seemed impossibly narrow mountain passes.

We saw a thick glacier where ski planes had left their marks while delivering rock climbers to start their journeys. And we flew into all the nooks and crannies Stan knows intimately, while he reeled off the names of the peaks and passes and glaciers as we passed around and over them.  Climbing up to 12000 feet we crossed over a glacier, still 8000 ft below the top of Denali, to see the mountains that drop suddenly into a valley on the other side.

Two times this year, I've been awe-struck at the magnificence of this world. The first was seeing the configurations of the basalt columns on the far side of the Cape on Skagafjordur, where the Baer Art Center is located. Now this.

Each time, I heard Handel's Hallelujah Chorus in my mind.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Thoughts About My Residency Work

I've been very focused in my painting at the Baer Art Center Artist Residency here in Iceland these past 3 weeks. I had an idea before I came, that I wanted to paint mostly with black and white while I was here and even started some small pieces at home, anticipating the experience.

Amazingly, I started right off at that same place once I arrived, painting large black shapes. I'd seen photos on the Baer Art Center website of the magnificent Cape that rises from the ocean right outside our window. It's connected to the shore by two long, narrow spits of rocky beach, creating a lake within it's boundaries. The strong dark shape of it has stuck in my mind.

Gradually, I've settled more into the experience of being here. I began to use the black sand from the nearby beach in my work, mixing it in with black acrylic paint and applying it with scrapers.

Acrylic/pigment sticks/black sand on paper 12x12" © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

In my work, I'm trying to emulate the strength and rawness of the land. The power of the open spaces. And yet, as time has gone on, I see the softness here too, the way the fog quietly descends over the mountains, moving ever so softly across the land, completely enclosing us.

And the next day, the sun is shining here and there through the clouds, lighting up sections of the land a bright yellow green and the wind is howling, beating against the building where we're staying. There are whitecaps on the lake and the ocean, and the grasses in the field out front are bending almost flat with the power of it. Such drama.

It's a land of huge contrasts--the stark black islands in the setting sun alongside the organic shapes of the pooled water on the black sand beach, the curved beaches alongside the powerful basaltic columns rising from the water.

My work has become more and more minimal during the past three weeks, using sparse, simple strokes to depict this great ocean of landscape.

Acrylic/pigment sticks/black sand on paper 12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
Acrylic/pigment stick/black sand on paper  12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

Acrylic/pigment sticks, black sand on paper 12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Yesterday, four of our group of five residents here at the Baer Art Center in Iceland went on a boat ride from the nearby village of Hofsos, northward, up the peninsula.

There is a beautiful headland or Cape that we can see from the residency. It's connected to both shores with long, low spits of land covered with stones, almost creating a lake, except for one small opening where the stones and land were washed away in a recent storm.

Our boat ride was to take us to the other side of the Cape. Although I had seen images of that other side on the website of Neal Rentoul, who is a photographer and was a resident here in 2013, I was totally unprepared for the power of the experience.

The water was calm, the weather was overcast. Perfect for floating so close to this enormous Cape and for taking photos. This entire side of the Cape is made up of basalt columns.

It was so breathtaking. I felt like screaming. I felt like being silent. Both at the same time.

I was in awe of such majesty.

I come away transformed. My heart soars.