Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wild and Silent Places in Art and Life


As I'm exploring potential wild, remote locations for art workshops, I'm learning what sort of landscape I most resonate with. According to the huge interest I've received for these potential workshops though, the idea of travel to out-of-the-way places has struck a chord with many others also.  What is it about being in wild and relatively silent locations ( in a world where wild and silent places are becoming increasingly fewer)  that draws us in?

I'm rereading Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence. After challenging herself to spend 40 days alone and in silence in a remote cabin on the Isle of Skye, Maitland, described the experience and went on to explore many levels and kinds of silence.

"I began to realise", Maitland wrote "that it was not peace and contentment that I craved, but that awed response to certain phenomena of the 'natural' world in which words, and even normal emotional reactions fail". She goes on to say, "I discovered in myself a longing for the sublime, for an environment that, rather than soothing me, offered some raw, challenging demands in exchange for grandeur and ineffability." Like Maitland, I'm also searching for these sorts of places.

Places of deep silence share a kinship with art, from painting to writing to music. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post you can read here.

Iceworks 49 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in Poetry in 2014, Canadian Sue Goyette wrote about the importance of silence in writing.  "When it comes to writing, she says “it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out” for the reader. She explains that when something is too specific it becomes inhospitable. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning".

Iceworks 54 · 12 x 24 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a post on the website All About Jazz, on the role of silence in music. As well there is another on  Classic FM blog about the importance of silence in classical music, where the author discusses Mahler's Symphony No. 9, among others.  "The final passage of the final movement, Mahler's farewell to the world (he was diagnosed with terminal heart disease as he composed it), also contains some of the most poignant silence imaginable. The final notes are marked 'esterbend' (dying away), so it's almost impossible to tell when the silence actually begins but it's loaded with such incredible thematic weight that it becomes weirdly deafening. You strain so hard to hear something that, ultimately, you just can't."

While silence is essential in writing and music, it doesn't seem important in much contemporary visual art, where paintings often shout. To achieve silence in painting, the keyword is restraint: limiting the number of shapes, the amount of texture and number of lines, allowing some areas of colour to be strong and others grey or neutral. What is it that wants to sing in a painting?

Iceworks 48 · 12 x 19 · Oil & Cold Wax on Panel © 2018 Janice Mason Steeves

There is a close relationship between the awe experienced in wild and silent landscapes and the expression of that in abstract paintings. The silence and the pace of nature help us slow down, to find a quiet inner space. And it's from that quiet inner space that creativity can happen and silence can be expressed. These are places my soul wants to go.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Art of Travel: Drawing Inspiration from the Land

I love to travel to wilderness locations such as the ones I described in my previous blog post, where one can be overwhelmed by the size of the landscape and feel for a time, completely alone, lost in the vastness. It's partly to do with the silence in such landscapes, where you can almost hear your heartbeat.

Northern Sweden

Northern Sweden

I consider the idea of visiting remote places an aid to helping artists develop a more mindful response to the land, and as well, to find a visual vocabulary to express that connection. Mindfulness is the key. Not only being mindful of your own body, feelings and thoughts, but becoming mindfully aware of nature. And then, finding ways to creatively express that connection. I find it so easy when I go for a walk to forget about where I am and think about my problems, or worries or get lost in daydreams.

Iona, Scotland

Iona, Scotland



There are many ways of developing a sense of place. One way to connect that I've discussed in previous blog posts, is to spend time in one location, a practice called Sit Spots. The idea is to choose a spot in nature that you respond to in some way and to sit in this same spot daily or on a regular basis. We only have 4 or 5 days in a workshop for this exercise. But it's a beginning. For the sit spot exercise in my workshops, I suggest sitting outdoors in the same spot each day for 20 minutes, just observing, and then, perhaps  painting or sketching in a journal for another 15 or 20 minutes, abstractly recording feelings and experiences.


Another way of relating to place is through the Japanese concept of Shinrin-Yoku, a term coined by the Japanese government in 1982, which translates as 'Forest Bathing". It involves quietly walking and exploring, with all senses open to every sound, colour and feel of the forest. In this practice, mindfulness meets nature and the goal is to 'bathe' yourself fully in the essence of the forest. You wander very slowly, breathing deeply and mindfully and stopping to fully experience what deeply interests you, the texture of the bark on the trees, a mushroom or wildflower.

Rockwood, Ontario

Today, the research database PubMed lists 85 studies on the health impact of forest bathing, including studies indicating that it significantly lowers blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels  and sympathetic nerve activity compared with city walks, while also alleviating stress and depression.1 The most provocative of these studies conclude that exposure to phytoncides, the airborne, aromatic chemicals/oils emitted by many trees, have a long-lasting impact on people’s immune system markers, boosting natural killer cells and anticancer proteins by 40 percent.

Working with this idea, I'm in the process of booking a wilderness lodge that is deep in a forest for a workshop in 2020 that includes a forest bathing program, led by a naturalist. So exciting.

But besides the idea of nature healing us, I wonder; what if we were all more mindful of this earth? What if we gave back?

"To be struck by the magnificence of nature is to be returned again and again, in all-too-brief moments, to the innocence in which we were born. Awe. Wonder. Humility. We draw them into us and are altered forever by the unquestionable presence of Creator. All things ringing true together. If we carry that deep sense of communion back into our workaday lives, everyone we meet benefits. That is what we are here for: to remind each other of where the truth lies and the power of simple ceremony."  Richard Wagamese, from the book, Embers