Thursday, June 15, 2017

Coming to Art Late in Life

In healing from my second knee replacement lately, I haven't been able to stop thinking about my last workshop here in my studio at the end of April. It was the most intense group of women I have yet had the privilege to teach. Our lunchtime conversations immediately delved into a depth that I hadn't experienced before.

There is a passion in people who come to art later in life, a richness, a depth that is earned through living long enough. They share a strength of purpose, a deep need to connect with their creative souls.

My workshops are filled with older adults, by far the majority are women, who are generally in the age range from 50-75. These are baby boomers, who are redefining old age and creating a new term which some call Second Adulthood. Their children are grown and gone, their parents have passed on, and they are retired or are near retirement. All of a sudden, they have freedom they have never had before. This is especially true for women who, in this generation, have fulfilled the role of caretaker, no matter if they had other jobs. They put themselves last on the totem pole of the family. This is now their time.

They come with stories to tell. Stories about how their kindergarten teacher held up their work in class and said, "This is an example of bad art." They have carried that criticism deep inside for their whole lives.  There are stories of how their parents discouraged them from becoming artists or how they never had any confidence in themselves. Stories of how art helped to heal them from trauma or how art helped them find themselves after devoting their lives to others.

I'm thinking of connections with the book I am currently reading called All the Good Pilgrims by Robert Ward that he wrote after walking the Camino. He shared stories of the pilgrims he met along the way. Ward often asked others what their purpose was in walking the Camino.  At various points on the journey,  he asked himself the same question. It bothered him that he could find no clear answer within himself.

He stayed one night in a nunnery in the city of Leon. During the day, Ward had been pondering again the question of what makes a pilgrim with others he had become friends with on the journey. After Vespers at the nunnery, one of the nuns stayed behind to chat. Her simple reply when Ward asked her the question was, "A Pilgrim is someone who is looking for something."

I wonder if artists aren't pilgrims. Looking for something. Coming at last to art.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"If we go for the easy way, we never change."

In my abstract painting workshops, I aim to teach more than technique. I'm trying to combine head and heart, structure and freedom, teaching the techniques of cold wax medium and oils through the elements of design and composition. Along with structure, I stress the importance of play, working quickly, and intuitively.

The idea is to encourage an artist to see things differently, to open them up to other possibilities, to change the way they design their paintings. It's not an easy thing for them to do. Although many students are looking to grow and learn, which is why they sign up for a workshop, or do art mentoring, many have developed ways of painting that are easy for them to do, that feel good.

I like to challenge students in my workshops. It isn't easy. I encourage students to paint with their heads for a couple of days, learning about structure and design, a shortened version of what artists were required to do in the days of Ateliers. This was the classical way of learning to paint and draw, just as a musician learns scales, and how to read music before they can play. For the remaining days of my workshop, students are invited to play, to work more intuitively, to incorporate head and heart into their work.

I hear good comments about my workshops: how they change the way people work, change the way they see, and even, change their lives. But many of these artists, then, soon after, instead of slogging it out in their studios, finding their own direction, get discouraged at the work involved and go on to another workshop where the focus is different. They work in that style for some time. And they may go on again to another workshop and yet another. Gradually, with all the confusion of different teaching styles, they often end up going back to working the way they did before any of the workshops.

It's difficult to grow and change. There has to be strong commitment behind the intention. The hard work needs to be done in the privacy of your own studio/workspace, where you struggle alone with finding your own voice.

It's also hard to commit to change when the artist posts their older work or unfinished work on Facebook where they get a few 'likes', or they sell a piece of the older work. While that can be rewarding, it also encourages stagnation and the effort required to grow and move forward dies.

"If we go for the easy way, we never change.” – Marina Abramović

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Not Being Able to Paint

I've never  had much down time between the various series I've painted. One series of paintings generally followed another, with only short breaks between them, except for a couple of times I stopped my studio work for minor health issues. I always felt it was a simple matter of discipline and drive as well as that mysterious hook that kept pulling me back into the studio. The creative process always kept me full and enriched, no matter how much painting I did in a day, or even if the work was going nowhere.

Until now.

For the past 2 1/2 years I've been troubled with very sore knees; bone on bone said the orthopaedic surgeon who recommended total knee replacements for both knees. Wanting to avoid surgery, I pursued a number of alternative routes until I could stand the pain no longer. I've just recently emerged from knee replacement surgery, wondering why I didn't do it sooner.

During this long process, I've learned to have great compassion for people suffering from chronic pain, and also more compassion for people who can't get themselves into their studios.

In her book Morning, Noon and Night: Living the Creative Life, singer/songwriter Judy Collins said, "I am not myself when I am away from the work, in spite of appearances. Perhaps I look the same to my friends, to my husband, but I  know better. I am suffering from a malaise that tells me I will never write anything again. It is a terrible, deep, frightening feeling. I feel lazy and useless. All my accomplishments mean nothing. I can't catch the dreams, let alone the inspiring winds of creativity."

She goes on to say, "There is talent and there is the discipline to get the talent to pay out. I have to harness the talent, use the discipline and I then find that, surprise, there is a pleasure in the discipline.     Discipline is freedom disguised as a cell. It holds its own secret. The cell is its own door, and discipline is the key."

Sometimes, discipline is required, but other times, rather than berating ourselves or feeling guilty for not showing up in the studio, we have to surrender to what's happening in our lives, in our bodies. That's hard. But it happens. It happened to Lisa Boardwine, who told me her inspirational story when I interviewed her for the book I'm writing about coming to art late in life, called At Last: On Becoming an Artist in the Afternoon of Life. Lisa used to market her paintings by doing outdoor shows and festivals. At the end of one show,  she was walking through the parking lot to her car.  All of a sudden, a car that was driving through the parking lot went out of control and started speeding toward her. It slammed into a parked car, pinning Lisa against a building. Her right foot was crushed and her left shoulder broken, injuries that required several surgeries and months of physical therapy. Even though she was unable to paint for a long time, Lisa would often go into her studio just to feel the creative energy there. She sat in her wheelchair, simply holding tubes of paint in her lap. As she healed, she finally became strong enough to stand at her easel to paint. About her painting at that time, Lisa said,"It was like discovering art a second time in my life." She had to surrender to the healing process.

Currently I also have to surrender to what's happening in my body, knowing that I'll be back in my studio soon, able to create again. I've always felt like I have a creative dragon living inside of me. When I make art, the creative dragon is happily fed and content. When I'm not making art, the dragon feeds on me! Right now, it just needs a time out. Like I do.

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Certain Thoughts Might Be Possible Only in Certain Places".

Iceland Works 1 10x10" oil stick/sand/acrylic on paper ©2016 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceland Works 2 10x10"  oil stick/sand/acrylic on paper © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
I have written before about Robert Macfarlane, the author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. In walking some of the ancient pathways in England and Scotland, he came to consider the idea "that cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive; that we think differently in different landscapes." And therefore more radically, that "certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places...." When I travel to artist residencies in different countries, I think of that quotation. And in my workshops that are located in beautiful, natural surroundings, I give that quotation to the students to consider as they sit outdoors for a short meditation each day.

At the Baer Art Centre residency I attended recently in Iceland, I did a series of small paintings influenced by the land: the vastness of the space, the shapes of the surrounding mountains, the imposing headland or cape, the islands in the fiord, the basalt columns, the water. In fact I included some of the black volcanic sand from a nearby beach in the work. My paintings changed the longer I was there, as I connected more deeply with the landscape. I intended to continue and expand on this series once I returned home. But I wasn't able to.

Iceworks 3  12x12"  oil stick/sand/acrylic © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
Iceworks 4  12x12" oil stick/sand/acrylic © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

That shouldn't have surprised me.  I did an artist residency at Ricklundgarden in Northern Sweden in the spring of 2015. Again, the work changed quite dramatically over the course of the month I was there as I became strongly connected to the land. I did a series of small paintings that were very different for me. Very different than my normal studio practice. I loved them and decided I would continue to work on the series at home. 

Sweden Works 1  14x11" oil/cold wax on paper © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Sweden Works 2  12x12" oil/cold wax on paper© 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

But once home, I wasn't able to continue the series. The energy was gone from it. I tried and tried to keep it going but none of the work had the same vitality as the work done on location. So I gave up and threw all the attempts in the garbage bin.

This site-specificity doesn't happen for everyone. Agnes Martin in her film, With My Back to the World, says (and I paraphrase), that it doesn't matter where she is, that her work is not about the world, at least, it's not about this world.

But it happens for me. And I wonder as I consider Robert Macfarlane's quotation, if, for me at least, "certain [paintings] might be possible only in certain places?"

Sweden Works 3  12x12" oil/cold wax on paper  © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

Monday, September 26, 2016

Picturing the World

There is a way we have of viewing the world that is unique to each of us. We see through our own lenses.

Several people have commented lately on how similar my photos are to my paintings. Which influences the other? 

I think of some photos I took at the Baer Art Center artist residency in Iceland this past July. I was sitting on a grassy hill right on the edge of the fiord. My camera somehow ended up in the grass beside me and I happened to take a photo while it rested there. When I saw what I'd taken, I took about 80 more shots! The colours in the grasses were violet, pink, lavender, yellow and green. It was dizzying. I felt like I had opened a door into a wonderland, where the blades of grass were huge and indistinct. But most interestingly, they were transparent, overlapping each other.

Recently, I taught a Cold Wax and Oil painting workshop in Anchorage, Alaska. At the end of the workshop, a friend and I took a Glacier Cruise on Prince William Sound out of Whittier, south of Anchorage. At the end of the voyage, we came up close to Surprise Glacier, where I saw chunks of ice floating in the water, that our catamaran slid over. I looked down, saw the depth of the ice below the surface, the light in the dark water, and began taking photos.

Gathering Light 28   60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2015 Janice Mason Steeves

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."― Thoreau

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Yesterday I had the flight of a lifetime. Stan Steck is a pilot who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where I'm teaching a 5-day painting workshop. Retired after flying many years for the National Park Service and now a pilot with K2 Aviation, he has his own single engine airplane, called a Maule. Stan offered to take me for a flight to see Denali (formerly called Mt. McKinley). The day was cloudless with brilliant sunshine and no wind. A perfect day for flying.

We drove over the marshland, lakes and tundra which cover the 250 miles of flatland between Anchorage and Denali. Rising to 20, 322 feet, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. Stan ferries hundreds of rock climbers each year up to a base camp on Denali as well as offering flights to sightseers like me.

I was fairly nervous setting out, with the idea that we might circle this enormous mountain and land on a glacier!

The trip was beyond my wildest imaginings. We flew up glaciers and through what seemed impossibly narrow mountain passes.

We saw a thick glacier where ski planes had left their marks while delivering rock climbers to start their journeys. And we flew into all the nooks and crannies Stan knows intimately, while he reeled off the names of the peaks and passes and glaciers as we passed around and over them.  Climbing up to 12000 feet we crossed over a glacier, still 8000 ft below the top of Denali, to see the mountains that drop suddenly into a valley on the other side.

Two times this year, I've been awe-struck at the magnificence of this world. The first was seeing the configurations of the basalt columns on the far side of the Cape on Skagafjordur, where the Baer Art Center is located. Now this.

Each time, I heard Handel's Hallelujah Chorus in my mind.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Thoughts About My Residency Work

I've been very focused in my painting at the Baer Art Center Artist Residency here in Iceland these past 3 weeks. I had an idea before I came, that I wanted to paint mostly with black and white while I was here and even started some small pieces at home, anticipating the experience.

Amazingly, I started right off at that same place once I arrived, painting large black shapes. I'd seen photos on the Baer Art Center website of the magnificent Cape that rises from the ocean right outside our window. It's connected to the shore by two long, narrow spits of rocky beach, creating a lake within it's boundaries. The strong dark shape of it has stuck in my mind.

Gradually, I've settled more into the experience of being here. I began to use the black sand from the nearby beach in my work, mixing it in with black acrylic paint and applying it with scrapers.

Acrylic/pigment sticks/black sand on paper 12x12" © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

In my work, I'm trying to emulate the strength and rawness of the land. The power of the open spaces. And yet, as time has gone on, I see the softness here too, the way the fog quietly descends over the mountains, moving ever so softly across the land, completely enclosing us.

And the next day, the sun is shining here and there through the clouds, lighting up sections of the land a bright yellow green and the wind is howling, beating against the building where we're staying. There are whitecaps on the lake and the ocean, and the grasses in the field out front are bending almost flat with the power of it. Such drama.

It's a land of huge contrasts--the stark black islands in the setting sun alongside the organic shapes of the pooled water on the black sand beach, the curved beaches alongside the powerful basaltic columns rising from the water.

My work has become more and more minimal during the past three weeks, using sparse, simple strokes to depict this great ocean of landscape.

Acrylic/pigment sticks/black sand on paper 12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves
Acrylic/pigment stick/black sand on paper  12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves

Acrylic/pigment sticks, black sand on paper 12x12"  © 2016 Janice Mason Steeves