Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Case for Coming to Art Later in Life: Part II: Late-Blooming

Pathways 2  11x15"  Mixed Media on paper  © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a timing for things. It isn’t a mistake or a sign of weakness when a person comes to art later in life. The time hasn’t been right for them to arrive any earlier. Like late-blooming plants, they’ve weathered the heat, the winds and the fierce summer storms and now, the autumn is their time.

In nature most plants and trees bloom in the spring and summer. But some are only ready to flower in the late fall or winter. In Southern Ontario where I live, some fall and winter-blooming plants include Chrysanthemums, Burning Bush, Amaryllis, Christmas Cactus and species of Witch Hazel. The magnificent Saguaro Cactus, which grows in the Sonoran Desert between Arizona and Mexico, can live for 150-200 years but only blooms after 35 years. And the Madagascar Palm Tree blooms with hundreds of tiny flowers only once in 100 years.

 Like the Saguaro Cactus, I bloomed late too, attending art school in my late 40s. It was the right time for me to go through that experience, as I needed maturity and confidence to handle the times where I was flattened by a critique of my work or the lack of interest in it from the instructors. I wouldn’t have been strong enough to handle that in my twenties.

A few years ago with the idea of writing a book about coming to art later in life, I interviewed a number of artists for their thoughts about the gifts they brought as they began to paint later in life. Here are a few of their comments: One woman said, “I [now] have some dependable tools to help me work through the challenges, and a broad range of skills and knowledge that I didn’t have when I was in my twenties,” she says. “I’ve benefited from the circuitous route that I’ve taken to get here. I have formal training in a smorgasbord of disciplines and these all serve to strengthen my ability to think and create. OK, maybe it does rattle me some days,” she says, that “I didn’t show up early. But honestly it just didn't occur to me that I could ever have these skills.”

Another said, "“Maybe I did while away a few years in my youth, but all those [life] experiences have made me who I am today and today I am making art. That is what really counts.”

"I know that if I had not always held on to the idea of making art one day and becoming an artist I might not have made it this far." said another artist. "I know that all sounds rather melodramatic, but I had some tough times in the past and I think [that holding onto that dream] got me through."

"Painting at this stage of my life", said another, "has provided me vehicles for focus, mental agility and excitement once I retired from a pioneering career. I would not be good at golf or cards, though many people are. I would not be happy watching TV and the aquarium, as my dad did when he retired. That really sounds like Retirement, an exhaling and withdrawing from the public arena. The word that better captures my sense of this period would be Inspirement, a continued breathing in, waking up curious about the lessons, not the score."
We bring a richness to our art when we arrive later in life after we have done the work and taken the journey; a depth that wasn’t accessible to us when we were young. No one asks why some flowers bloom in the autumn. We’re just grateful that they do.  

"The flower unfolds

Only when it knows

It is strong enough

To withstand the wind

And the rain." 
-Christopher McGeowan

Pathways 3  11x15"  Mixed Media on paper © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Case for Coming to Art Late in Life-Part 1

The Way 20x21" oil on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There are a lot of us out there who have come to art later in life. My workshops are filled with women (mostly) who are between the ages of 50 and 75 (The baby boom generation). Probably most are between 60 and 75. And what interesting people they are! They bring their life experiences with them to their art––their heartaches, joys, achievements, worries, and gratitude. And they are, for the most part, committed artists. They are embracing art like it's finally their time. It's what they've been waiting their whole lives to do. They come with their souls on fire.

"and there was a new voice 
which you slowly
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save." The Journey by Mary Oliver

 It doesn't matter how old you are if you have passion for life.

That passion can carry us a long way. And while recognition is important in the way of sales, or exhibitions, most older artists don't so much need the money, except to take workshops, buy art supplies and travel. Many are retired and have a pension. There's a freedom that's been earned.

Lunch hour conversations during my workshops are deep and rich. In one especially intense lunchtime  conversation, a woman cried as she talked about her daughter who was born with a serious handicap. She mentioned that after 30 years of constant caring, she finally had time for herself and her art as her daughter was now in a care facility. She was so open, trusting and vulnerable that the rest of the group shared their life stories with the same depth. Two shared that their sons had been suicidal, another talked about how she had been scarred by being adopted into an abusive family.

These are the stories that we bring to our work as we come as mature artists. This is the depth we bring.

"I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.........." I will not die an unlived life––Dawna Markova

It's important to acknowledge the wealth of experience we bring to our art and how important it is to remain vulnerable and open, to really show ourselves. This is not the time to hold back.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is,
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"  The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

The Way 2  16x24"  Oil on panel  ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Monday, November 5, 2018

Painting Place

Of the Camino  3  20x21"  Oil/earthen pigments on panel

In the workshop I recently taught in Spain, I gave a slide show where I presented a survey of my work from the past 12 years of my 35 year art career. I hadn't seen the slide show for a while. The last time I'd presented it was for a talk at a public gallery a few years ago in conjunction with my show.  It's a good exercise to look at the development over time of your work now and again. I realized again how important place is in my work. Place and light. Both. And travel.

Of the Camino 1  8x40" Oil/earthen pigment on panel

 While I love coming home, I equally love to travel as you might know from my recent introduction of Workshops in Wild Places. I expect my work will continue to grow and change as I travel to the various places where I've organized workshops. Connecting to place is something that's done with the heart. Not all places resonate with my heart. I'm happy to see them and take photos, but not all places make me squeal with delight to be there. The workshops I'm planning are in places that make me squeal (silently) with excitement!

Pigment (soil) found on the roadsides in northern Spain

Once I got over the awe of walking into the16th Century stone village in Spain where we were staying for our workshop, I felt that kind of squealing excitement. Grinding up the soft coloured stones that we found on a riverbank and collecting the richly pigmented soils gave me the same thrill! Working with the pigments was magical and made me feel a deep connection to the land.

It reminded me of the time I was at a month-long artist residency near Barcelona. I had gone with few supplies, hoping to find some materials to work with. I intended to make some connection in my work or in the materials I hoped to find, to the Black Madonna in the Basilica of Monserrat in the nearby mountains. I had such incredible luck. In the residency I found a shelf with small plastic bins of various pigments. I asked about them and found out that these pigments had recently been used to paint the Basilica. Not only that, but the pigments had been donated to the residency for the artists to use!

Pigments from Basilica Monserrat

In Castrillo, I was enamoured both with the earth pigments we came across which I began to use in my work, and also by the very idea of the Camino. It's a journey of light, of enlightenment, of transformation, of walking mindfully. It's a pilgrimage to integrate the disparate parts of our lives into a whole. A similar integration takes place on the physical plane in this village, where the walls and homes are made of stones cemented together and the road through this small town is made up of individual stones carefully embedded side by side, on which you need to walk mindfully in order not to fall. Castrillo and the Camino seem to be carrying a similar message of unity, of integration. I've been processing these ideas since I've been home. I find that I work very intuitively at first, just flowing along, letting the work lead the way. And then I sit back and ask it what it's telling me. These are the words that came to me and these are the images that came to me.

Of the Camino 2   Oil/earthen pigments on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Painting Workshop on the Camino

You feel the energy of the Camino right away at the retreat centre in the small village of Castrillo de los Polvazares. I've just returned from teaching  a workshop in Northern 

Spain with Rebecca Crowell. Even though the Camino is about walking a sacred journey, about contact with the earth, I felt an ungroundedness, a sort of lightheadedness, an open vulnerability.  Basia Goodwin, one of the owners of the retreat centre, Flores del Camino, talked about the idea of the Camino being divided into three stages of personal growth, corresponding to the three distinct geographical regions. The first is the physical part, which is all about the difficulty of walking, the energy required, the blisters, the aching muscles. The second third is the mental/emotional part where the pilgrim is walking through the vast, treeless plains of the Meseta. There is much time for thinking about self, about life, about the reason for the journey. In this expansive place, doubts, fears, regrets and sorrows come up to be examined. The body is broken down and reformed. The last third of the journey is the spiritual part, where the pilgrim walks up into the mountains, literally taking an upward journey. Flores del Camino is located right at the transition between the mental/emotional stage and the spiritual stage.  Pilgrims come to this little village in a very open, vulnerable state, ready for the final and more spiritual leg of their journey. These stages of personal growth on the Camino could be compared to Jung's concept that "The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it." I felt that same vulnerability, reforming and letting go, just by being present in one place on the Camino for 3 weeks.

With only one week at the retreat centre for the workshop participants to experience this place, I devised a couple of exercises to help them connect with the land more quickly than they would have if they had taken the time to walk the Camino. One exercise that I do very often in my workshops (only those held in beautiful places), is having the students do sit spots. I've written about Sit Spots before in a blog post I wrote about a workshop in Sweden, (as well as in other posts) where Mena Martini, one of the participants wrote a deeply felt poem about place. Sit spots involve choosing a place to sit outdoors in a quiet place and simply observing. Connecting with a place simply by being present in it.

Another exercise that I used was for participants to write a 'Word Painting", where they sit outdoors to write about what they see in a descriptive way, that a person reading it would get a good idea of what artist sees. I borrowed this idea from a book written by Linda Lappin, called The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook, where she gave this exercise to writers. I thought it would be a great way for visual artists to connect to place as well. And it was! The writings from the students were deeply beautiful, descriptive and poetic. It would help them take some of Castrillo and the area, home with them.

Of course, we also connected with the place through some lectures given by Basia and Bertrand, where they presented some information on the Camino, did a slide presentation about the Petroglyphs,  and gave us a small workshop on sacred geometry.

Bertrand also led us on a day-long excursion in the area, where we walked quietly up a dirt road in a wide-open valley to see the sun rake over the nearby petroglyphs at dawn, clearly delineating the ancient carvings. Each person sat alone and silently to honour this sacred site

After breakfast, we collected some coloured soil beside the road, found rocks alongside a river that would easily grind up into pigment, and visited the Cruz de Ferro the Iron Cross, a sacred place and the highest point on the Camino where pilgrims leave stones or other objects they have brought from home. Some leave prayers, blessings, their names on stones. All are left in a reverential fashion.

In the end, and back at home, many of the students wrote to say how the experience of being in this tiny stone village on the Camino was life-changing, in ways they could not describe. It was the same for me. This experience will stay with me a very long time.

Friday, September 14, 2018

About Place: A painting workshop on the Camino

Rebecca Crowell and I are staying in a gorgeous retreat centre on the Camino de Santiago called Flores del Camino. It's in the small stone village of Castrillo de los Polvazares with a population of 100.  Voted one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, the streets are cobblestone and each of the unique earth-coloured stone houses is joined to the next in rows that wind through the town.

There are no yellow arrows or brass shells embedded in the village road marking the way of the Camino, as there are in larger cities. It basically consists of one-street and the  Camino resumes at the edge of town.  Paying attention to the moment doesn't stop though when you come into the village because walking the uneven cobblestone streets is an exercise in mindfulness itself!

The owners of this retreat centre, Bertrand Gamrowski and Basia Goodwin are committed to supporting pilgrims who are walking the Camino, offering them a place to stay as well as offering dinners (payment by donation) for those staying at the local albergue. Bertrand and Basia also offer workshops and lectures on various aspects of the Camino, the nearby petroglyphs and sacred geometry and will offer a couple of lectures to the students in our workshop to help us more deeply connect with place.

I am struck with the integrity of the pilgrims and the commitment of Basia and Bertrand. After walking the Camino, both felt called to Castrillo, leaving their jobs and their lives in London, England to move here. Now their two small children will grow up in this beautiful village, speaking Spanish and feeling comfortable with pilgrims coming and going through their home.

Way-marker for the Camino just outside of Castrillo de los Polvazares

As we learn more about the village, the Camino and this centre, Rebecca and I are rethinking our workshop. We're looking at a more spiritual focus, where we take the importance of the Camino into consideration. How can we not? It's the very essence of this retreat centre and of the little village.

To learn more about the area, we drove yesterday on a circular sightseeing route that Bertrand laid out for us. His tour took us to see petroglyphs and other beautiful sites. On our drive, Rebecca and I fell in love with the soft stones we found that we could grind up for pigments, and we collected local soil from this hillside below. We stopped to look for soft stones by a couple of rivers and when we spotted a patch of bright yellow soil on the roadside, we turned the car around to scoop some up! We mix the earth with a binder to make it into paint. 

Red hillside

Smashing the soft sandstone. What fun!
Painting made with natural pigments

One focus of the Camino and of all pilgrimages is the connection between heaven and earth, between the spirit and the body. It seems right then that one aspect Rebecca and I will explore in our workshop is to have students create pigments from various local soils, symbolically connecting the spirit of the Camino with the physicality of the earth to better identify with place.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Behind the Scenes

For the past six months I've been focused on organizing a travel workshop program. I've been researching remote locations in small comfortable lodges where there is immediate access to the land. The idea is for artists  to spend time on the land and through various contemplative activities, discussions, and creative exercises, to develop an artistic response to the environment. The idea began in January of 2018 when I was meeting with my good friend, the artist  Rebecca Crowell in her home in New Mexico. We thought of the idea of continuing to teach together, as we will be doing in our upcoming workshop in a retreat centre on the Camino in northern Spain. We had such fun planning that workshop that we thought we'd try to do the same in another location, but in New Mexico this time. We searched for possible retreat centres but couldn't find any that were suitable: one had only outdoor toilets, one said to beware of scorpions on their website (yikes!), another has a long dirt driveway and suggested the need for 4-wheel vehicles. The last we looked at (among many others) had very little land to explore and when we later learned that it was for sale, we abandoned our efforts. 

I came home and asked myself where in the world I'd like to go and thought of my bucket list. Mongolia was on that list so I began looking there first. Fairly quickly, I discovered a luxury resort called Three Camels Inn in the Gobi Desert. I emailed them and began a dialogue with their contact in the US. Once I had an itinerary and a price, I mentioned the idea to Rebecca as a potential workshop location. She thought it was way too expensive for our group of artists. I had to agree. But when I put out the idea on my blog post and on Facebook, we were overwhelmed at the positive response to Mongolia. Not only to Mongolia, but to all of the workshops.

Three Camels Inn, Mongolia

After our concern about the cost of the Mongolia trip, I moved on to research potential places in Scotland with the idea of teaching a workshop myself in an art centre there. I have visited Scotland a number of times and have family there. During this research, I found a magnificent castle/hotel on the ocean south of Glasgow. I contacted the owner and began a back and forth negotiation that ended up in booking a workshop there for September 2019 which Rebecca and I will co-teach.

Dunskey Estate, Scotland

Energized and encouraged by all this excitement, I then went on to research inns in Newfoundland. Not such an easy task. While there are hotels in larger centres in Newfoundland, there are few inns in the countryside that are large enough to hold 9 people along with space for a painting workshop. I finally found the Doctor's House, a magnificent inn on the shores of Trinity Bay, about an hour north and west of St. John's. Registration is now open for this workshop and there are only 2 spaces still available.

I've found other exciting venues: in Tofino, BC (Storm-Watching) for November of 2019  and Nova Scotia (Forest Bathing and Star-Gazing) for September 2020.

Long Beach Lodge, Tofino, BC

Trout Point Lodge, Nova Scotia

But what most excites me about these locations is that I'm interested in inspiring artists to create a whole new response to the environmental crisis that goes beyond facts, pessimism, arguments, and blame, and instead offers up what nature means to our spirits; the love of it. With this in mind, my initial workshop idea has developed into a program I've called Workshops in Wild Places. It offers the opportunity to travel to remote locations throughout the world to experience the beauty, energy and power of the wild landscape, to deeply and joyfully connect with it, and then–– through a facilitated contemplative and creative process–– translate that response into abstract paintings. 

You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. Thich Nhat Hahn