Monday, March 19, 2018

Searching for New Paths

Iceworks 48  12x15" Oil/cold wax on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves
Just a week ago, I was interviewed by Rebecca Crowell for her podcast: The Messy Studio. It was a very casual interview, especially because her "recording studio" in New Mexico where I was visiting her, was a blanket fort on the floor beside her bed!

As I listened to the podcast last week when it was posted, I was reminded again how important the idea of play is in my own art practice. Click here to listen to the interview. Rebecca has observed that my work has a conceptual component and asked which comes first, the idea or the painting. I responded that it's always play that comes first, staying open to what wants to come through. No direction. No purpose. No worrying about whether anyone would like the work or not. Simply playing with materials.

I realize I've written about play several times over the years. It still fascinates me: that state of not-knowingness. Of being open to the fertile empty state of possibility.

There is a wonderful essay entitled "In the Space of Art"  written by Mary Jane Jacob from the book "Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art". She writes, "In art as in Buddhism, creative potential resides in that nothing place, that nowhere of emptiness; an open space without attachment to outcome, with an aim to guide the process but the goal (the answer) kept at bay...for as long as usefully possible."

She goes on to say, "Practice is about trying, developing, cultivating, improving. Practice connotes repetition: to practice, to perfect. Practice becomes one of the rituals of life, continual acts of doing. And sustaining a practice-not just surviving in the business of art, but living in the space of art-means to know that the process is of greater value than the product, that the making...and even arriving at the making...exceeds the thing made, that the experience outweighs the material form."

Richard Serra in the book, "Spark: How Creativity Works",  freed himself from the constraints of making art by approaching it as play. He said, "I'm interested in the notion of play; [I'm] not interested in the end, [I'm] interested in the activity itself; [I'm] interested in not worrying in a self-conscious way about what I have to make."

In my studio, I follow the work (play) to see where it leads. It inevitably leads to new ideas and to a new series of paintings. But it starts slowly. And as it moves along, I discard the ideas I find don't hold my interest, and follow the ideas that continue to feel playful. After a time of playing and gradually creating a series, I sit back and ask the work what it wants to say. What is it about? I listen to it. There's always an answer. Often it surprises me. So Rebecca's question about which comes first, the painting or the concept has a very clear answer. It's always play that leads the way.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Mindfulness in Art: Trust

Iceworks 44  12x15"  Oil/cold wax on panel  ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceworks 45  Oil/cold wax on panel ©2018 Janice Mason Steeves

Last fall I started a series of blog posts based on John Kabat-Zinn's 7 attitudinal foundations of mindfulness from his book: "Mindfulness for Beginners".  I thought it would be interesting to look at the relationship of  these 7 fundamentals to painting. Trust is one of them.

 In a personal story, as some of you know, I had two consecutive knee replacements in 2017.  Much of 2016 and most of 2017 was spent in pain and then later, healing. By the fall of 2017, I was back in action. However, during the healing process, I had a bit of a crisis of faith. Faith in myself to continue to create.

Normally I have pretty continuous creative ideas. They arrive like pictures in my mind. Unlike Agnes Martin who had  a separate vision for each painting,  I seem to get pictures in my mind of a series of paintings.......or maybe it's just an idea to follow. I'm not sure. But I do get visual creative ideas. During my artistic hiatus with operations and healing this past year and a half, I had none. Zero. I also wasn't working in my studio. I had no desire to. I did have guilt about it though whenever I passed by the studio area in my house, and looked in. Most often, I didn't even look in.

I thought that perhaps I was done for as an artist. That this was a clue that I was to retire-hang up the brushes.

And then I went to Iceland, to teach a workshop and to stay on for another 2-week artist residency. I had previously done an artist residency at the Baer Art Center in July 2016, when I was in the throes of great pain while waiting for the knee replacements. Both times I found the residency inspiring and restorative. I didn't expect the series I began there to continue once I was at home. In the previous residencies I've done, I turned aside the residency work and resumed where I left off in my studio practice. 

This time was different. Very gradually, I began to work in the studio again, slowly at first, feeling my way along. Playing with ideas. Working with the images I'd produced in the residency, adding quiet  panels of colour. Gaining back my confidence. 

Still. I wasn't getting any inner pictures. 

Slowly, slowly, in the last three months, I began again to get pictures in my mind. I can't begin to express the joy I had when this happened. It was a long slow journey back to the studio. Unlike some who have had an artistic hiatus for health reasons, but who yearn to return to the studio, I had none of that. No desire at all.

Normally, I have good advice for those of my students who struggle to schedule their work time in the studio. But could I follow my own advice? No. Could I push myself to get into the studio? No. Sometimes it just takes time. Sometimes it means surrendering to what is.

I can see now that I needed the time away from my studio to heal. To watch all 156 episodes of the West Wing, countless movies, and to read tons of murder mysteries. 

There was a part of me that hoped that my creativity would return.

Perhaps it was that that saved me. That desire.

Perhaps it was just the timing of my body's healing. I needed to learn to trust in that. Trusting not only that I would return to painting, but that my paintings had a life of their own. That they had their own plan. I needed also to trust that path. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Following A Series: In Search of Poetry

How does a series come about? What is it that makes an artist want to follow a few paintings along to see where they lead? Is it simply making the decision to do so? Or is it something exciting about them that sparks other ideas?

The current series I'm working on began at my artist residency at the Baer Art Center in Iceland in 2016. It took a few days to settle into the residency. As I walked the treeless farmland that hugs the coastline of Skagafjordur where the residency is located, I became fascinated with the dark and imposing cape. It would be an island except for two long bands of stones that join the cape to the mainland on either side, creating a freshwater lake in the centre with a black sand beach.  Seen from the water, the cape is a breathtaking expanse of basalt columns that have formed into overlapping layers which flowed into various curved shapes as the volcanic columns were cooling long ago.

I didn't interpret this landscape directly, but I was certainly inspired by it as I tried to paint it in an abstract way.

I painted every day gradually letting the work change as I focused on one element or another or as the landscape grew in me.

I continued this series in the fall of 2017 when I came back to the Baer Art Center to teach a workshop and to stay on for a 2 week residency.

When I came home, I wasn't sure I could maintain the energy for the work without being in the landscape. But then as I continued to look at these pieces, I wondered if I could work with them in another way by adding on panels that would describe the colours of Iceland. I'd made a colour chart when I was there and decided to use it to help me remember the colours I'd seen.

And then, I began to play with the colours alone, using various sizes of panels. Pursuing what I find interesting, following the feeling of the work.

The work became even quieter. Barely a whisper.

I've been following where these paintings have led me. In search of poetry.

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.     
Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Where Do Creative Ideas Come From?

Last week I visited my artist friend, Rebecca Crowell in New Mexico. Rebecca and her husband Don Ticknor have bought a property  north of Santa Fe, which Don is renovating and restoring. 

Rebecca and I will be teaching a painting workshop in northern Spain in September and we needed time together to work on it. We spent part of each morning throwing ideas back and forth about the format of the workshop and came up with some creative plans. I realize that so many ideas I have come from books I've read about art and the creative process or TED talks or the podcast ON Being with Krista Tippett or simply talking to people. For example, in my workshops that take place in beautiful landscapes,  I often have my students choose a 'sit spot' outdoors, where they sit every day for 15 or 20 minutes to simply observe. This idea came from an outdoor workshop my daughter took with Jon Young, author, wildlife tracker and naturalist, who developed the daily sit spot practice to help people connect with nature. To this practice I added the idea of asking inner questions while you sit outdoors.  Robert Macfarlane in his book called the Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, suggests that some thoughts or forms of imagination are particular to a place, and when in a powerful landscape, one might ask themselves questions such as: What does this landscape know of me that I cannot know of myself?

Such questions and other creative ideas come from everything we do and see and read, from people we talk to and visions we might have. Creativity is about curiosity, following that curiosity, and making connections between things.

As I flew from Denver into Santa Fe, I was curious about the circles in the land below. I took photos from the window of the airplane. The grid of farmer's fields with the various greys and browns were so beautiful in late January. I noticed that many of the fields were square, with a perfect circle inscribed in the middle. I later learned that these shapes were due to the circular irrigation/spraying wheels. They reminded me of paintings I had done at the Tyrone Guthrie artist residency in Ireland several years ago that were informed by the circles inscribed on stones and in passage graves. Connections. More ideas.

Ireland 22x32" Acrylic on paper ©2011 Janice Mason Steeves

In the afternoons in New Mexico, Rebecca and I went sightseeing. This is an area rich in history and creativity, and the home of two of my favourite artists: Georgia O'Keeffe and Agnes Martin. We wandered around the areas where they lived and worked.

Rebecca at Plaza Blanca near Abiquiu, NM

 O'Keeffe was inspired by the landscape of New Mexico and she painted what she saw. But Agnes Martin was not. She said in the documentary, With My Back to the World, that she could have painted anywhere, that she was not inspired by this life, but by the life beyond. She claimed to see visions of  grids that she should paint, which were so specific that she could create an exactly measured grid from her visions. When each painting was completed, she would simply wait for another vision to come.

This is similar to the story of the poet Ruth Stone, as told by Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk. Ruth Stone felt that she had to catch her poems as they came through the air. Once she was in a field and when she heard one coming, she had to race to the house to get a paper and pen to write it down before it sailed past. She caught it just in time but backwards as it flew, so that she wrote the end first and then the middle and then the beginning!  It coursed through her life, she said in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards ceremony, like a constant verbal stream heard above the thrum and buzz of everyday existence. “It just talked to me, and I wrote it down,” she said. “So I can’t even take much credit for it.

Many artists find inspiration in the land as Rebecca does. She's inspired by the various landscapes she's travelled to in the last number of years as an artist and an art teacher. She doesn't describe a particular landscape, but creates an amalgam of the various places she's travelled to and what she brings home with her that has stayed in her heart.

40x40"  © 2018 Rebecca Crowell

We visited the artists Debra Fritts and Frank Shelton who live near Abiquiu. Debra is a ceramic sculptor who creates stunning, mythological female figures that seem to be seeking or yearning. She is a story-teller, weaving life stories into her dream-like sculptures. Frank's current work is created from canvas drop cloths that he cuts, manipulates and layers to create breathtaking minimal pieces. He writes, "my process of working may best be described by paraphrasing a quote from the late Israeli artist, Moshe Kupferman. '...I first put in emotion and expression. Next, I cover it up. Then, I put in silence...' While the process and product are important to me, I feel both are dead without passion. It is the passion that sustains me as an artist and human being."

Frank Shelton and Debra Fritts in their gallery near Abiquiu, New Mexico

I can sit at my desk for a year and nothing happens, whereas sometimes a waitress handing me a sandwich can just touch me very, very deeply and suddenly everything will open up, the heart will open up. It’s very mysterious how the heart opens up, it can be just a glance, a gesture or just someone passing on the street and it happens that it touches me and everything changes and suddenly I feel I want to speak of something. Leonard Cohen
"If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often. Leonard Cohen

Monday, January 1, 2018

In 2018 May You Pause to See the Wonder.

Walking the dog through newly fallen snow.
There's silence in the world.
 I don't notice it at first.
Head down.
Thinking of things I must do.
The dog runs ahead,
scooting under the low branches of cedars lining the path.
Chasing rabbits.
I hear the squeak of cold dry snow under my boots as I walk,
the swoosh of my sleeves against my down coat.
He runs over to me, wagging,
then bounds back onto the path,
delighting in the cold and the snow.
We walk farther into the woods
along a narrow path I've made over time.
My pace slows.
My thoughts become still.
I lift my head.
The sun is low,
slanting through trees
making long blue shadows.
I stand there.
In awe.
Breathing in the silence.


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mindfulness in Art: Patience and Slowing Down

My workshops are filled with (mostly) women, who are in the 50-75 year-old range. They are coming to art with a vengeance and an impatience, having recently discovered or rediscovered their creativity after years of working in other jobs. On the one hand, it's a huge pleasure to teach them because of their burning desire to learn. On the other, many appear to be under an enormous amount of pressure. Time pressure.

There is a sense that they don't have time to waste.

Christine Brutin

Linda Virio

Sharon Helleman

How can I teach them to slow down, to have patience with themselves, with the process?

One exercise I do, if I'm teaching in a beautiful location, is to have the students go outside first thing in the morning. I ask them to pick a spot where they will sit for 20 minutes each day while asking themselves some contemplative questions. Then they come quietly into the studio and do 4 small paintings.

Anne Jackson

One of the women in the class I taught last week, found a quiet spot to sit for the 20 minutes each day in the forest behind my studio. In the silence of the woods, she was able to make a connection with an old tree nearby. She wrote this heartfelt poem:

From the Forest 

Moss-softened with years,
this tree, enduring and naked
after its leaves have blown,
gossamer light and free,
back to the ground of our being,
Stands. Tall.

Roots reach toward scorching,
feed saplings and silently call through the field,
I am here.
We are here.

As limbs stretch toward sky,
seeding the clouds,
prompting the rain
to grow and maintain 
this forest,
this tree
receives me.    

Patricia Pidoux 

Another way I begin the day is by reading from poets such as John O'Donohue or Mary Oliver or David Whyte.

But then we begin painting, and mindfulness gets lost in the pressure of things.

How can we hold onto that?

Oxanna Adams

"I am not the endless chatter in my head. I am the me who recognizes that chatter is happening. I am not the me who is impatient in the grocery line or at the stoplight. I am the me who recognizes and acknowledges that impatience. If I take a breath and change the chatter to "This is me waiting calmly," that is what the experience becomes. Practising this simple awareness allows me to be present in all moments, to fully inhabit my life." Richard Wagamese, from the book Embers.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mindfulness in Art: Non-Judging

Iceworks 28 12x30" Oil/cold wax/sand on paper on panel © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Mindfulness for Beginners, identifies seven fundamental attitudes of mindfulness, all of which apply to painting. They are: non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go.


It's so easy to judge ourselves every step of the way in painting whether we're a beginning artist or a more advanced one. One of my recent students berated herself continuously for two and a half days of my three-day workshop. She was extremely frustrated that her work wasn't going as she had planned, even though she'd only been painting for a year, and was new to the cold wax and oil process I was teaching. I urged her to be more gentle with herself but she seemed unable to stop.

Finally, on the third day, when she was totally frustrated and ready to listen, I suggested that she work very quickly, without thinking or judging, giving herself permission to make 'bad' work. I also recommended that she silently thank the work and the process for teaching her about painting.  Finally, she found some release. Whew! At last she was able to let go, and in the remaining few hours of the workshop, pumped up with renewed energy, she produced some exciting work.

"When there's a crack in my mirror, I can't see myself as I am––all I see is the crack. The crack tells me that there is something wrong with me, that I'm not enough and that this is how others see me too. It's not a question of finding a better mirror. It's about seeing beyond the crack. I am not, nor ever will be, perfect. But I don't need to live for approval. I need to live for acceptance and joy in the unique, worthy, loveable, beautiful, sacred being that I am and to celebrate the same thing in others. That's seeing beyond the crack. I'm learning to love my imperfections; in the end they make me who I am, in all my flawed glory." Richard Wagamese from the book, Embers.

Iceworks 32 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper ©2017 Janice Mason Steeves

Iceworks 34 12x12"  Oil/cold wax/sand on paper © 2017 Janice Mason Steeves