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.