Janice Mason Steeves is a visual artist who lives on 15 acres west of Toronto, Ontario in Canada. The luminous, serene nature of her paintings caught my eye. Her inspiration from nature, and wild places caught my interest. She works in oil and cold wax.
HW: Can you briefly discuss your childhood/formative years as they relate to your development as a creative adult?
JMS: I grew up at the edge of town in a large prairie city in central Canada. My brothers and I were given lots of freedom to roam where we wanted as long as we were home for meals. I had no exposure to the creative arts as a child except for what we learned in school but I’d say that my creativity developed through using my imagination as I played in nature.
I had no interest in studying art when I went to university. I wanted to learn about, understand and help people. I attended the University of Manitoba, eventually earning an MA in Clinical Psychology.
By 1984, I was working part time in school Psychology and had two young children. A friend suggested that we take a night school class in watercolour at a local college. It was a major life-altering experience for me. The watercolour instructor opened a door into a world of creativity and wonder and I skipped through. I never stopped painting from that day onward.
In 1986, I applied to study Art Therapy, thinking to combine my skills and interests. I applied for a leave of absence from my work in psychology, and negotiated a revised Art Therapy program using my existing credentials. Just 2 months before I was to begin the program, the school informed me of massive changes to their program. I was very frustrated and angry that all the changes made it impossible for me to take the program. I had to drop out. When I gathered myself together, I decided to take my leave of absence anyway and see if I had the discipline to work at painting on my own. I never went back to psychology.
Over time, I took many art workshops and eventually went to art school as a full time student. I loved going to art school in my 40s. I sat at the front of each class, wide awake and full of questions during slide shows, unlike the young students dozing off behind me. Graduating from art school gave me a huge boost of confidence and solidified my commitment to an art career.
HW: What personal qualities do you think you have that have helped you achieve your creative goals?
JMS: Curiosity, a love of learning, perseverance and an appreciation of awe in the world.
HW: What have been your biggest creative challenges and how did you deal with them?
JMS: Making art, every painting is a creative challenge. That’s one of the things I love so much about making art. And when the wind is blowing from the right direction and the stars are in certain positions in the sky, it’s possible to make a deep soul connection to your creativity. A window opens. Your painting simply flows. It doesn’t happen all the time. But when it does, you remember.
HW: What have been the biggest rewards?
JMS: The surprise of the journey; that by following my bliss (as Joseph Campbell would say), I would have such a full and joyous life.
HW: Did you have a mentor? If so, who was it and what did they provide you?
JMS: I didn’t have a mentor in the traditional sense. There was a much older and well-known Canadian landscape painter named Doris McCarthy who inspired me and who I was lucky enough to travel with. We travelled to the high Arctic in January before the light came back, to paint and to experience the cold and the dark. Doris’ dedication and drive certainly inspired me. I feel grateful though to have mentors in the broader sense of the word, from my children who encourage me and offer welcome advice, and the support of friends, students, and collectors. Because I didn’t have a mentor in the traditional sense, I developed an Art Mentoring program where I offer advice to guide individual artists, helping them move their work forward.
HW: What advice would you give young artists/creatives?
JMS: Make a dedicated studio space in your home if possible, even if you can only find a corner of the basement.
Make a studio schedule for yourself, working at least 2-3 mornings a week
Don’t show your work to others too early, whether early in your art career or early in the development of a particular painting. Their words, whether positive or negative can change the direction of your work in the fragile beginnings of your painting career.
Learn to trust your own judgment. Trust the big ideas that come to you and act on them.
The very most important thing is to love what you do.
HW: Your work is very connected to nature and remote locations. Please describe routines, exercises or practices that influence your creative process.
JMS: As my painting developed, I realized the importance of place in my work, influenced especially by travel. I took artist residencies in various countries. This is an inexpensive way to travel, meet other artists and have dedicated time to work on projects. I was awarded artist residencies in Spain, Sweden, 2 in Ireland and in Iceland.
About 10 years ago, I moved into abstraction to better express myself. As the artist Sean Scully writes: “The depiction of the real world somehow obstructs access to the spiritual domain. And it is that domain I am trying to gain access to with my paintings. That’s what I’m always trying to address. And that’s why I paint abstractly.”
My art sales dropped dramatically at first which led me to teach painting workshops. I loved teaching. I’ve taught cold wax and oil painting in Canada, the US, Sweden, and Iceland. The majority of my students are older women who, like me, started out to become artists late in life, after raising children and/or pursuing another career. I’m writing a book about this phenomenon as the baby boom generation ages. I’ve interviewed 140 older artists for this project.
While visiting an artist in New Mexico, I came up with the idea of teaching a workshop that would combine nature connection exercises to inspire abstract paintings. I came back home fired up with the idea of teaching painting workshops in remote places where artists could connect more deeply with nature. I found a castle on 2000 oceanside acres in Scotland and a remote outpost in Mongolia. I floated the idea of these travel workshops in a blog post and was overwhelmed with the positive response. I hooked up with a travel agency and Workshops in Wild Places was born!
Besides teaching artists how to create strong paintings, my goal in these workshops is inspiring artists to create a new response to the environmental crisis that goes beyond facts, pessimism, arguments, and blame, and instead offers up what nature means to our spirits; the love of it. I search for small, remote inns with easy access to the land for my workshops. In the workshops, I suggest outdoor exercises so the artist has a greater awareness of nature, a deeper connection through mindful walking, awareness and listening exercises, acknowledging that the earth is alive. My intention is to help artists create an intimate relationship with nature and then to use this relationship as a point of reference for creativity.
Of course, an artist must create paintings from their own connection to the land, from their own experience. I can only offer suggestions for the direction of their work. To assist, I give students a 3-page handout which asks questions to help direct their focus. I ask questions about visual ideas: observe what calls you, what is predominant for you in the landscape, where does your eye go, what are the colours of the landscape; physical ideas: collect some objects from the environment that might have meaning for you, record the weather; sensing ideas through mindfulness: how do you feel in this environment, feel the energy of the place (the genius loci), what can you smell; in the studio: what do you want to express: the silence, the calm? How can you express those feelings? Then I invite them to freely play on small sheets of paper in order to develop those ideas and I discuss the importance of composition for their larger pieces.
I have an abundance of really exciting ideas for when we’re able to travel again.
I am offering a workshop to St. Ives in Cornwall in late September 2021, where we’ll meet up with a local artist who gathers earth pigments and makes paint out of them. We’ll collect some of our own pigments and learn to make paint from them. This will be followed by a 5-day painting workshop. We’ll stay and work in a beautiful hotel on the beach in the small historic village of St. Ives, known for the quality of its light. There are 5 spots available.
In early October we’ll travel to a small historic stone village on the Camino in northern Spain. We’ll stay in a retreat centre in the village of Castrillo de los Polvazares with out trips to visit petroglyphs in a remote valley, and a tour of a small cave on the Mediterranean that houses neolithic wall paintings. At the retreat centre, we’ll have 5 full days of painting from the inspiration. There are 3 or 4 spots open on this trip.
In November, I will teach in Morocco. We’ll meet in Marrakech and tour the city for 2 days and then head inland on the ancient caravan route to the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Staying in a small riad, with our studio nearby, we’ll make out trips to an oasis and visit to a Kasbah. This trip may have one place available.
Other ideas in the works for 2022 include a mountain retreat in western Crete; an inn in a former lighthouse keeper’s house on Quirpon island on the north tip of Newfoundland along Iceberg Alley; and a joint workshop with a creative writing teacher in the Burren in Ireland, and farther out, into 2023, a workshop at a renovated former monastery in Umbria, Italy.
While Workshops in Wild Places can’t travel right now, we can deepen our relationship with the natural world where we live. I offer a Zoom workshop/retreat, to explore our wild selves in relation to the beauty and mystery of the world around us. Artists will create abstract paintings and receive feedback on their work. The workshop will take place in the artist’s studio and in a place in nature near their home. A creative writing instructor will discuss climate change and suggest a creative writing exercise. While Zoom seems to be a distant sort of format, I’ve found that the artists develop a deep bond in the group and with the earth.
For travel workshops in 2021, go to Workshops in Wild Places: workshopsinwildplaces.com
For zoom interactive workshops: Janice Mason Steeves website: janicemasonsteeves.com
To learn more about my upcoming travel and online workshops, please sign up for my mailing list when you visit one of my websites.