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Living with Creative Cycles

The blank panel

I barely painted all of 2020. I could feel the anxiety and fear of Covid in the air all around us as well as the violence and the political unrest. The uncertainty. The confusion. Some artists were able to block it all out and paint prolifically. I could barely get into my studio. I felt so stuck. I tried making myself....."just  go into the studio for an hour ..........just clean it up..........paint".  All the advice I give my students. Nothing worked. I found creativity though through teaching workshops.

In 2020, I translated my Workshops in Wild Places travel workshops into Stays Home workshops and taught them on Zoom. In those workshops, I suggested nature connection exercises to artists from all over North America and as far away as Australia. It occurred to me that one small contribution I could make to honour the earth is to teach nature-based painting workshops, where artists connect with nature where they live; the backyard or a nearby park or hiking trail. The experiences are then translated into abstract paintings for which we have group feedback sessions. These classes have been particularly exciting and inspiring to me. With being housebound and living in the country, I've spent much more time in the woods behind my house than I have ever done. I appreciate them more. I need them for my well-being.

 "We Are Made for These Times" says Clarissa Pinkola Estes in an article in Moon Magazine   Originally published in 2001, and again in 2016, the words are just as, if not more powerful than they were earlier."Ours" she says, "is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach".

The year turned eventually into 2021, and vaccines began rolling out, and I had an upcoming exhibition prompting me to get into the studio. I was beginning to relax slightly and by February, ideas for paintings began to come to me. I love how that happens. The process is part effort, and the bigger part is mystery. Where do ideas come from? How can we open to ideas for our painting?

“There are things you can’t reach. But

You can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.

And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around

As though with your arms open.”  Mary Oliver

"Standing around as though with your arms open".  Open to ideas, to inspiration, to the wonder of nature, of life. Although there are well known artists from all fields (mostly men) who write about their process, and talk about never being blocked, I wonder how much of that is a masculine thing, a society thing.....always needing to be productive, never stopping for a break or a rest, working long hours. I believe if we're sensitive to it, that work comes and goes in cycles. I can feel when a body of work is about to end. The energy goes from it and if I try to hold onto the series, like trying to grasp a kite that has flown free, there is something missing from the resulting work. I find the best answer is to let it go, to surrender to the cycle. I seem to handle that best by doing a lot of meditative walking in nature, or reading, teaching art workshops on zoom, or searching for remote locations for Workshops in Wild Places when travel restrictions are finally lifted.

Stephen King says:  “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Jack London says: "Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”  

Sort of a caveman-like approach to gathering ideas.

Agnes Martin talked about waiting for 'inspiration'. Sometimes she had to wait for months.

Earth Poem: Dreaming Oil on panel 36x36" © 2021 Janice Mason Steeves

Like the cycles of the seasons and any natural cycle of growth, which creativity surely is, it goes through many phases, from inception and gestation, to birth, growth, decline, release, death and rebirth. There's a timing for all the phases; the expansion (inhalation), contraction (exhalation) and the beautiful pause between. When people are lamenting their creative blocks they are usually referring to these times when the process needs to rest, to replenish, to gestate- so much creative work is done when externally it seems like nothing is happening. During Covid this past year though, I found that it was the anxiety, the fear in the air that blocked me.

As the year has progressed and through that gestation time, my work took on a new form, flowing with the rhythms of the earth, the cycles, capturing a meditative quality, floating free from restrictions.

Earth Poem: Breath  36x36"  Oil on panel  © 2021 Janice Mason Steeves

Can you relax into waiting,

Giving yourself permission to sit quietly,

To walk in the woods,

To trust this liminal time ,

This time of death and rebirth?


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