Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mindfulness in Art: Patience and Slowing Down

My workshops are filled with (mostly) women, who are in the 50-75 year-old range. They are coming to art with a vengeance and an impatience, having recently discovered or rediscovered their creativity after years of working in other jobs. On the one hand, it's a huge pleasure to teach them because of their burning desire to learn. On the other, many appear to be under an enormous amount of pressure. Time pressure.

There is a sense that they don't have time to waste.

Christine Brutin

Linda Virio

Sharon Helleman

How can I teach them to slow down, to have patience with themselves, with the process?

One exercise I do, if I'm teaching in a beautiful location, is to have the students go outside first thing in the morning. I ask them to pick a spot where they will sit for 20 minutes each day while asking themselves some contemplative questions. Then they come quietly into the studio and do 4 small paintings.

Anne Jackson

One of the women in the class I taught last week, found a quiet spot to sit for the 20 minutes each day in the forest behind my studio. In the silence of the woods, she was able to make a connection with an old tree nearby. She wrote this heartfelt poem:

From the Forest 

Moss-softened with years,
this tree, enduring and naked
after its leaves have blown,
gossamer light and free,
back to the ground of our being,
Stands. Tall.

Roots reach toward scorching,
feed saplings and silently call through the field,
I am here.
We are here.

As limbs stretch toward sky,
seeding the clouds,
prompting the rain
to grow and maintain 
this forest,
this tree
receives me.    

Patricia Pidoux 

Another way I begin the day is by reading from poets such as John O'Donohue or Mary Oliver or David Whyte.

But then we begin painting, and mindfulness gets lost in the pressure of things.

How can we hold onto that?

Oxanna Adams

"I am not the endless chatter in my head. I am the me who recognizes that chatter is happening. I am not the me who is impatient in the grocery line or at the stoplight. I am the me who recognizes and acknowledges that impatience. If I take a breath and change the chatter to "This is me waiting calmly," that is what the experience becomes. Practising this simple awareness allows me to be present in all moments, to fully inhabit my life." Richard Wagamese, from the book Embers.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mindfulness in Art: Non-Judging

Iceworks 28 12x30" Oil/cold wax/sand on paper on panel © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Mindfulness for Beginners, identifies seven fundamental attitudes of mindfulness, all of which apply to painting. They are: non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go.


It's so easy to judge ourselves every step of the way in painting whether we're a beginning artist or a more advanced one. One of my recent students berated herself continuously for two and a half days of my three-day workshop. She was extremely frustrated that her work wasn't going as she had planned, even though she'd only been painting for a year, and was new to the cold wax and oil process I was teaching. I urged her to be more gentle with herself but she seemed unable to stop.

Finally, on the third day, when she was totally frustrated and ready to listen, I suggested that she work very quickly, without thinking or judging, giving herself permission to make 'bad' work. I also recommended that she silently thank the work and the process for teaching her about painting.  Finally, she found some release. Whew! At last she was able to let go, and in the remaining few hours of the workshop, pumped up with renewed energy, she produced some exciting work.

"When there's a crack in my mirror, I can't see myself as I am––all I see is the crack. The crack tells me that there is something wrong with me, that I'm not enough and that this is how others see me too. It's not a question of finding a better mirror. It's about seeing beyond the crack. I am not, nor ever will be, perfect. But I don't need to live for approval. I need to live for acceptance and joy in the unique, worthy, loveable, beautiful, sacred being that I am and to celebrate the same thing in others. That's seeing beyond the crack. I'm learning to love my imperfections; in the end they make me who I am, in all my flawed glory." Richard Wagamese from the book, Embers.

Iceworks 32 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceworks 34 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Mindfulness in Travel and in Painting

Iceworks 35   12x22"  Oil, cold wax on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

John Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Mindfulness for Beginners describes mindfulness in this way: "Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

I don't pretend to be an expert in Mindfulness but I do find two occasions when I am naturally more mindful: when I travel and when I paint. When I travel, especially when I travel to artist residencies where I have an uninterrupted month of time to explore myself, my surroundings and play with ideas, I find I am very present. I photograph, I walk, I listen to the land. I make note of the way that the colours and the light change from moment to moment. I watch storms come and go. 

"And that's why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy.
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road."
Pablo Neruda

I am much more mindful when I travel than I am when I return home. Except for in my studio.

In the studio, I try to allow for mindful and non-judgemental listening to my work: giving a painting or the beginning of a body of work, the space to speak to me. While I encourage working quickly in my workshops, in order to engage the interplay of no mind and mindfulness, I mean for artists to work somewhat differently at home where there is more time to sit and listen to the painting. Often after I've worked for a while, I'll sit in the comfy chair in my studio and spend time not thinking. Just sitting. Quietly. No music playing. Trying to feel where my work will go next. Listening with my body. It means being mindful of how you feel in your body as you work.

"ME: You always repeat things three times.

OLD WOMAN: Just the important things.

ME: Why? I hear you the first time.

OLD WOMAN: No. You listen the first time. You hear the second time. And you feel the third time.

ME: I don't get it.

OLD WOMAN:  When you listen, you become aware. That's for your head. When you hear, you awaken. That's for your heart. When you feel, it becomes a part of you. That's for your spirit. Three times. It's so you learn to listen with your whole being. That's how you learn."
Richard Wagamese from his book, Embers

Sunday, October 15, 2017


After I finished teaching my cold wax painting workshop at the Baer Art Center in northern Iceland, I stayed on to do a two-week residency. When I left home, I had some idea of what I wanted to paint in those two weeks. I was going to paint the subtle colours of Iceland day by day in a very minimal way.

However, after doing several of the minimal paintings, I had no interest in doing more.  As usual, the paintings led the way and it seemed that that was not what I was going to paint. 

So I started again where I'd left off last year when I did a month-long residency at Baer.  The paintings soon morphed into different forms, taking on the textures and colours around me, particularly the textures on the rocks I found on the stony beach in front of the Art Center.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Gradually changing.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

At home, I've begun to make diptychs and triptychs of the gestural work alongside new minimal paintings, combining them into a different form that speaks (I hope) of both the power and texture of the land as well as it's spacious silence.

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

We don't know where our work will take us. To be a painter is to surrender to the process.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Inspiration from the land-Artist Residency, Iceland

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about breathing in the spirit of place. Some places however, resonate with us while others do not, for whatever reason. I remember travelling once by sail boat to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii), off the west coast of Canada. We anchored at the abandoned Haida villages along the way and took a dingy into shore to walk the land. I had brought along painting supplies, fully intending to sit and paint along the way. I found that I couldn't. Perhaps it was the energy of the land that had a long and sad history. I never did any work from that trip.

I resonate with Iceland––the space and the solitude here on this remote horse farm and artist residency in Northern Iceland.

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness… True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation." Wendell Berry 

In the painting workshop I taught here two weeks ago, I had a goal of trying to encourage resonance with the land. I'm not sure if one can do that but I thought I'd try to teach what works for me. I asked the students to walk the land in solitude and I read them this quotation by Irish poet and priest, John O'Donohue:

"It makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house....whether you believe that you are walking into a dead geographical location which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in an totally different form.  And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. That was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn't just matter, but that it was actually alive. Landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude and silence where you can truly receive time." 

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

" I'm outside, standing or sitting on a stone. I look around, toward the horizon, at the amplitudes and the mountains. Some stand close by, others further away. Automatically, the mind starts roaming or perhaps gliding around. I go into the distance, into eternity, where the mountains have impenetrable tranquillity, where they cease being mountains and become aeriform. I enter and pass through them. What exists in the mountain exists also outside of it, and in the surrounding quietude both dread and gloom reside. And in the air all all the thoughts of the world can be accommodated." Georg Gudni, Icelandic artist. From his book, The Mountain.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Iceland II

Baer Art Center, Northern Iceland

Group photo courtesy of Oxanna Adams

In July of 2016, I did a 4-week residency at the Baer Art Center in Northern Iceland. This year, I'm back for another 3 weeks. I taught a cold wax and oil, abstract painting workshop and I'm staying on for a 2 week residency. The workshop was made up of 4 Icelandic artists, one from Switzerland, one from the US and 3 Canadians. What an international group!  The enthusiasm was high, the laughter contagious and the food superb.What a week! 

I learned only the week before the workshop was to start, that the  Gamblin cold wax medium I normally use, couldn't be shipped by air from London, UK because it's designated as a flammable solid! I had checked this out in March and was told there was no problem, that the wax could be ordered and shipped to Iceland in 4 or 5 days! 

Big panic! I looked up several recipes online and found one that used solvent-free gel as well as beeswax and Odourless Mineral Spirits.  Steinunn Jónsdóttir, owner of the Art Center was to buy the odourless mineral spirits (which also couldn't be shipped by air). The only problem was that in Iceland, OMS is $70 US/litre. We needed 12 L!!

Quite a lesson in resourcefulness. Steinunn found an alternative: Odourless White Spirits

We made the wax, using a recipe I found online
Cold wax medium

1/4 cup bleached beeswax, 1/2 cup odourless mineral spirits or equivalent, 1 tablespoon alkyd medium. 
We used Gamblin solvent-free gel.

 It wasn't quite the same as the Gamblin wax. It was quite a bit softer. Perhaps it was the Odourless White Spirits that made the difference. In any case, we were undaunted. We made it and worked with it. And some terrific work came out of the workshop.

We laughed, we walked the land, we did a little touring, and we shared poems.

Here's the most enthusiastic one, which became a mantra for the rest of the workshop. It was chosen and read by Dassa Hauksdóttir:

“Being Positive” by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir

"Go Mountains!
Go Clouds!
Go Moss!"