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

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Yesterday, four of our group of five residents here at the Baer Art Center in Iceland went on a boat ride from the nearby village of Hofsos, northward, up the peninsula.

There is a beautiful headland or Cape that we can see from the residency. It's connected to both shores with long, low spits of land covered with stones, almost creating a lake, except for one small opening where the stones and land were washed away in a recent storm.

Our boat ride was to take us to the other side of the Cape. Although I had seen images of that other side on the website of Neal Rentoul, who is a photographer and was a resident here in 2013, I was totally unprepared for the power of the experience.

The water was calm, the weather was overcast. Perfect for floating so close to this enormous Cape and for taking photos. This entire side of the Cape is made up of basalt columns.

It was so breathtaking. I felt like screaming. I felt like being silent. Both at the same time.

I was in awe of such majesty.

I come away transformed. My heart soars.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Week 1 at Baer Art Center Residency

I'm settling into my residency at the Baer Art Center in Iceland. It's been nearly a week now and my eyes and mind are filled with many sights that are so different from the part of the world where I live (in the country outside of Toronto, Canada).

The residency is located on a farm near the town of Hofsos in Northern Iceland on the shores of a fiord called Skagafjordur. The owners breed Icelandic horses. One of the most exciting things our group of five residents has done, was to hike up into a nearby valley, after being dropped off part way up. We passed through a couple of cattle gates and across a small river to where the horses are allowed to run free for the summer. They were curious, and cautiously came toward us and surrounded us, allowing us to pat them.

Yesterday, we drove around the north part of the peninsula, through three tunnels, that connect formerly isolated towns. One of the tunnels was a one-way road, built in 1967, narrow and scary. The other two are newer, just completed in 2010. One of the tunnels is 4km long and the second is 7km. The traffic there was also one way, with travellers going south having the right of way. Travellers going north have to pull into one of the passing places inside the tunnels.  

We continued south to Akureyri, at the bottom of that fiord, where there is a small but wonderful Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum.

Akureyri is a beautiful and hilly city, the second largest city in Iceland. It was a hot day for Iceland, and we strolled around the city center in shirtsleeves. After a dinner of Arctic Char we drove an hour and a half back to Baer, inland, along the #1 Highway through the Oxnadalur valley.


My work is slowly changing as I explore black and white acrylics, ink, pigment sticks and various other supplies I brought along with me.

I'm looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Getting Ready to Go

Potential art supplies to pack

I'm wondering what to pack for my artist residency at the Baer Art Center in Iceland that's coming up in a week.

It's the art supplies that are the problem really. What do I pack? What will I work on? How can I know? Do I limit myself in advance? It won't be easy to get more art supplies once I'm there.

 It's not only the opportunity to travel that I'm looking forward to, but to be allowed an entire month to spend on my painting and my writing is a huge gift. I like the freedom an artist residency allows me, to explore new ideas, new ways of working.

"We travel, initially to lose ourselves and we travel next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate", says Pico Iyer in his essay, "Why We Travel". "Yet for me", he goes on to say, "the first great joy of travelling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle."

Travel, with it's heightened levels of awareness, mindfulness, receptiveness, leaves us ready to be transformed.

Part of me wants to plan in advance what work I might do, and another part wants to be open to the experience of Iceland. It's difficult to choose what materials to take. I like the idea of working within some limitations. I had serious limitations placed on me after my recent eye surgery. I couldn't read for 2 weeks and for the first 3 weeks I had to hold my head up for 1/2 hr and then put my face down for 1/2 hr of every hour  to hold the gas bubble in place against my retina. I found that those limitations forced me to be creative in how I spent my time. 

Just as those medical limitations encouraged my creativity, I imagine that limiting myself to a certain size of paper or certain colours will encourage me to work in a different way on the residency.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book, "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art", says, "Sometimes we damn limits, but without them art is not possible. They provide us with something to work with and against.  In practising our craft we surrender, to a great extent, to letting the materials dictate the design. Limits yield intensity.  Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits.  Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Art of Stillness

About six weeks ago I had eye surgery for a retinal detachment. A bad fall I had in my home just two days before the operation, further detached the retina. I was terrified of losing my vision. During the retinal laser surgery two days later, the surgeon inserted a gas bubble into my eye to help hold the retina in place, a standard procedure for retinal detachments. It totally obscured my vision and from the inside it felt like I was looking out through glasses where one lens was smeared with vaseline. The procedure for the first week was to keep my chin elevated during the day so the gas bubble would float against a particular part of my retina. For the second and third weeks, I was to keep my face down for 1/2 hour every hour. That meant lying on a massage table I’d borrowed, timing the half-hour transitions with a cooking timer. While I can now keep my head up, I'm not able to drive until the bubble dissipates and walking is a challenge with my distorted depth perception. So I have mostly been confined to the house or short walks around my field.

During the recovery period, which lasts about 4-8 weeks depending on the surgery required, I intended at first to watch lots of movies. I wasn’t allowed to read or do emails or any kind of work for the first 3 weeks. The first day, I overdid it a bit and watched the entire first season of House of Cards. At the end of that day, I felt slimy and filthy, in need of a shower from all of the negativity, conniving, mistrust and backstabbing. I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my recovery time watching movies that affected me like that. I am reminded of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the Power of Positive Thinking, curing himself of lymphoma by watching movies that made him laugh. I figured that he wouldn’t have been watching House of Cards!

Like Norman Vincent Peale, I decided to immerse myself in positive thinking. I listened to TED talks, Hay House podcasts, Youtube videos by Joe Dispenza and Deepak Chopra, and audio books by Wayne Dyer among others. Time began to slow down. I watched movies in the evening on my laptop, sitting up for 1/2 hr and then putting the laptop under my massage table when I had to lie down for 1/2 hr. You get creative when you’re bored. That positive and creative use of time has been very enriching. 

I took notes on the podcasts and audiobooks I was listening to, hoping to use some of these thoughts in my workshops and in the writing of my book about becoming an artist later in life. I was filled with ideas. But I wanted to move into an even quieter space inside myself. I always have the need to produce something, to learn something, to make use of my time, even if I have to lie face down every half hour.

I decided to reread Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness and I started to slow down even more. I wanted to allow myself to be unproductive for a time. Sitting on my porch on a warm afternoon, simply staring at the field in front of my house requires a lot of slowing down. Like my paintings that became meditative and minimal over the past few years, I am also learning those qualities. Dragging out a few cushions for comfort, I sat sometimes on the tire swing we put up for my grandchildren. Simply rocking on it.

When do we allow ourselves such contemplation? When do we slow down enough to sit and daydream?

One thing I bring away from this gift of stillness, as my eye is healing, is the necessity of reinstating the Quiet Weeks I used to schedule for myself twice a year that I’ve written about in previous blog posts. I would clear a week of any other activities, stay home, turn off the computer and spend the time painting, reading or just staring out onto the field.


Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

~Mary Olive

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Acceptance and Rejection

This week I learned that I was accepted into the Baer Art Center residency in northern Iceland for the month of July 2016. It's difficult to get into this residency and so I was thrilled to find out that I was one of ten artists accepted: five for June and five for July.

It makes me think of all the times I have experienced rejections in my art career. Early on, I found rejections from juried shows devastating and I used to withdraw from artmaking for a bit to have a little sulk. A week or so later, I'd recover and realize I was going to paint anyway.

For years, I painted representationally and had sell-out exhibitions every year. Smugly, I figured that I'd always have sell-out shows! But then I experienced growing pains.  My work gradually changed and I experimented in many directions in painting, eventually settling into abstraction. Along the way, I had my first exhibition that sold absolutely nothing. Nothing. Not only nothing at the opening, but nothing for the whole run of the show. I was devastated. In reaction, I decided I'd quit painting for the year, in an "I'll show you sort of who-cares attitude". A bit misplaced I'd say. When I told my galleries, they all, to a one, said, "Oh I think that's a great thing for you to do!" What? No one was sorry to see me go. They just moved on. That was a bit of a reality check I'd say.

With this same who-cares attitude I decided to spend part of the year traveling. I went deep into my line of credit and funded two major trips: one to China with Chinese botanists to see the tree peonies in  the hills of Tibet, and another to southern India to visit the temples sacred to Shiva. Both were transformational trips that helped me grow as an artist and a person.

My work continued to change until it settled into the work I'm currently doing which is a search for light.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Authenticity is not an Easy Choice

Lightworks 1 30x30" Oil on panel ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves

I've written before about courage. Many times actually: at times when I have changed directions in my work, when I have felt vulnerable, and when I moved into abstraction in my painting.

  Before the two advanced painting workshops I taught this past month, I invited the students to send me some suggestions for topics they wished me to address in the workshop. Many wrote to say that they wished for some discussion of authenticity and truth. They wondered how to achieve that.

 Authenticity takes courage. It takes courage to show your art, to open yourself to criticism and rejection, to pick yourself up when things aren't going well. Painting teaches that. Not everyone will like your work. Some will hate it. Others will totally understand it. But opening that way, showing that vulnerability is how you find the truth of who you are. It's saying, "This is who I am." 

Brene Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection says, "Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable."
Choosing authenticity is not an easy decision. e.e. cummings wrote, "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself––means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight––and never stop fighting."

 To hold to the thread of courage when others aren't interested in our work isn't an easy task. It's difficult to keep on exploring, pushing ourselves in new directions, opening to vulnerability again and again... whew. Makes me wonder why we pursue this work.

Van Gogh had some words regarding that sort of courage. They were posted in Brainpickings, one of my favourite blogs and I read them to the students. In that post, the author quoted from Vincent Van Gogh in his letters to his brother Theo, published in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters:

"If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm — and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of “you can’t.”

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
- Mother Theresa