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


  1. Amazing artworks Janice. I love them all.
    It is sad that you cannot continue the series, but I supposed that part of their strength is that you were able to transmute in painting the unique energy of these places.

    1. Hi Louise, I thought it was sad at first, and also frustrating, but then I realized that I was capturing, for myself, an essence which could be held for a while and then must be let go.

    2. Hello Janice, I can relate to the sense of place! For me it is also a sense of people and season. I have come to accept it and know that I will likely always be a painter that is in a state of transition. My work tends to have definite mark making, just as your does. The joy is the different story your mark creates. Forever growing! Be well.

  2. The paintings in this post are amazing.