Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Breathing in the Spirit of Place

How do we access the felt experience of place and recreate it in our artwork?

I love doing artist residencies because I can spend a few weeks in one place, getting to know it a little. In order to sense the land, I go for long walks alone, so I won't be distracted by conversation. I smell the air, listen to the particular sounds of the place, notice the colours and the light.  I take lots of photographs so I can keep those images in my mind. Sometimes I collect things: stones, feathers, odd bits and pieces. But mostly stones. I come home with my suitcase loaded with stones. For me they hold the energy of a place.

The spirit of place is called the genius loci. In her book The Soul of Place, Linda Lappin writes, "Most people today might define the term 'genius loci' as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. In other words, a guardian spirit with it's own personality, able to interact with human beings." 

Lappin goes on to say that, "Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of multiple habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds or other sources of food..........That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it."

When I was at an artist residency in northern Sweden a couple of years ago, I didn't realize how I was becoming attuned to the landscape until I made a colour chart one day. I looked at the world outside my studio window and made colour swatches of what I saw: the silver-blue of the lake under grey skies, the raw sienna of the bogland emerging from the snow, the colour of the pine trees on the distant shore.

And when I looked at the way my paintings had changed during the residency, I could clearly see the effect that the land and the light was having on me. 

The same occurred at my artist residency in Iceland in July  of 2016. Below are a couple of photos from there.

And three of the small paintings I did there:

I feel the genius loci present in each landscape, and work with it for a time while I'm there.

Once I come home, I seem to incorporate the images and the resulting  paintings, while influenced by a place, are not so site-specific.

Rebecca Crowell has done a lot of travelling to teach workshops in the past few years. In her recent blog post, she talks about how she is "attempting an integration of these experiences", rather than expressing the spirit of a particular place.

It's what I'm also doing, returning to my studio, invigorated by new experiences, having fallen in love with a new landscape, it's sights and colours. I return with some relatively site-specific paintings, and then I abstract these ideas. 

These paintings below are recent ones (each 12x12"), still influenced by Iceland:

"I know mountains because I have stood on precipices and breathed. I know prairie because I have lain on my back and been absorbed by the sky. I know the ocean because I have immersed myself in it and felt the pull of the current. If I want to know life, I need to experience it's wonder and breathe it in with every breath. If I want to know possibility, I need to see its immensity and allow it to absorb me. If I want to know faith, I have to surrender to it and feel it pulling me in its unseen direction."
Richard Wagamese from the book, Embers.


  1. Amazing Janice. Thank you for sharing Your insights. Beautifully written and heartfelt as usual. Thank you!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your account of being in the landscape and I am equally pleased to have been introduced to your painting - beautiful work - thank you