Creative Retreat

Ocean study; watercolor

Recently I created an Art Immersion experience for myself. Immersion in a creative practice facilitates personal growth and artistic exploration, allows for the flow of ideas in unplanned directions, and provides time for making a body of work. My goal was to create plenty of time to paint without limitations on subject matter, style, or medium. I wanted to reconnect with the joy of creating. To have time where painting and art were my primary activity, but with enough other things to explore to keep my mind fresh and active. A time with limited outside pressures.

Tide coming in, June; Watercolor

For four and a half weeks I lived by the ocean in southern California. Distractions were limited, other than those I chose for myself, and there was an abundance of inspiration.

Rocks at the jetty, July; Watercolor

I am an “ocean” person. Ocean time is always treasured. It is where I center myself, and find peace. It inspires my creative soul. As a result it was a perfect place for me to focus on my art practice.

In the field, portable supplies

While planning my stay I thought a lot about what supplies to bring. I wanted only the essentials, but enough to provide flexibility. I brought art supplies allowing me to work in watercolor, oil, or acrylic, depending on which media resonated. A few books on art, other inspirational materials, and a list of museums, galleries, and possible places of inspiration were gathered. I researched art styles in the area, located design and architectural places of interest, as well as nearby Botanical gardens.

I expected to work mostly in oil and cold wax, in an abstract style. Surprisingly, I did very little of that. Sketching, primarily in watercolor, and overwhelmingly focused on realism resonated with my location and mindset. Watercolor’s portable nature was perfect at the beach or on a hike overlooking the ocean. 

Painting on site

There is an immediacy about painting on site that provides impressed memories and visual nuances about the subject. Sights, sounds, temperature, and smells create a palpable impact. Watercolor is forgiving, and comes fairly naturally to me. It allowed me to concentrate on learning about the ocean as subject matter, and express the “Water-ness” of the subject with a liquid medium. It is a “quick” medium so I was able to create a new painting each day.

South End Strands Beach, June; Watercolor

Upon arrival I began a practice of painting the ocean or beach every day. In the beginning I focused on what it is about the water that makes it look and “read” like the ocean. I walked, observed, and painted at various times of day, in different types of weather, lighting, tidal levels, and currents. I watched the tide pools and rock formations influence the flow of water. Waves have shape, light, colors, values, and motion. The more I looked, the more I saw; the more I painted, the better I was able to interpret what I see onto paper. 

Kelp, Oil and cold wax

Initially the exercise of simply understanding the look of the ocean was consuming. Over the weeks I found myself increasingly thinking about more abstract concepts, such as: the visual movement of light and form, the description of “mood”, and how to express how I feel about the ocean. Some of this was developed in a few small, abstract oil studies.

Study, Receding fog bank, July; Watercolor

Over the weeks the ocean and atmosphere changed. When I arrived it was the middle of “June gloom”. A delight. The overcast, cool, foggy mornings and cloudy days were respite from the heat and sun I left in Tucson. However, it was challenging to paint such different lighting, and islands that disappeared while I was working. In July the mornings began as cool and lightly overcast, then became sunny. The tone and look of my paintings changed in response. 

Wave study, July; Watercolor

This retreat was a time for focused artistic exploration of subject, concept, and expression. Ideas changed and developed. I looked at a lot of art in museums and galleries. I reconnected with my past as an artist, returning to my original medium: Watercolor. I hope that this renewed energy and connection to a creative practice guides me as I explore future work. I am inspired, observing more, and feel connected to my identity as a creative person. 

Sunny Morning, Salt Creek beach, Watercolor

For anyone considering a similar artistic retreat I recommend the experience. Consider your goals, research and choose a destination that resonates with you personally. Once on the retreat, allow for change and flexibility, and open yourself to what the experience has to offer. 

Finding Time for a Creative Practice

Tree Study, pencil

I teach Creative Expression sessions at a destination health and wellness resort in Tucson. These are individual sessions, focused on the unique needs of each guest. We discuss their creative life, and hopes and goals for the same. We consider their personal life demands, creative interests, and past creative activities as we explore options for a visual arts practice or experience. These guests come from all kinds of professions and backgrounds, and are generally very successful in many aspects of life.

Tree Study

One interesting facet of this job is seeing the drive humans have toward creativity. These are people actively seeking ways to enhance creativity in their everyday lives. They describe a longing to explore imagination, to connect more closely with their internal and external world, and to express themselves in fresh ways. Most lack formal art training, and often see that as a barrier to using the visual arts. With support they begin to explore the many, varied ways an art practice can occur.

Occasionally I work with trained artists who have lost their way over the years. They often describe a deep sense of loss about their disconnection with a creative life. 

Personal considerations vary from those who have just retired or lost a spouse and want to use their days in a personally fulfilling way, to those in the middle years of raising children, working full time, and running a household-with or without help. The amount of available time varies, and often drives the type of creative activity that is reasonable to attempt.

Tree study, pencil

Remember to set yourself up for success. If time is limited, space is tight, and days are full it is best to pay attention and choose accordingly. A short, portable, quick practice may best support your creative drive and not lead to further frustration.

Tree Studies, pencil with watercolor

Years ago, while working full time as an attorney, raising two pre-teens, and running a household I still had a personal need to engage in an art practice. There simply was almost no time. My solution was to carve out 10 minutes a day, with a sketchbook and a pencil. Every day I stopped at a park on my way to the office and drew a tree, a different tree each day. Eventually my daily tree drawings filled an entire sketchbook. Many days I simply drew what I could see from the parking lot. It was not a glamorous art practice, and was not shared with anyone. 

However, that simple art practice provided several important things. First, I had private time for myself and my art life. I was an artist, each day, for a specific amount of time. It provided a quiet transition space between family and the office. Drawing provided an opportunity to focus intently on something outside of my head, turned off the list of things to do, and allowed a few minutes of what is called “flow”. Ultimately I got really good at SEEING and drawing many different kinds of trees! I had time to experiment with drawing styles, and when I looked at art I felt engaged with other artists.

Foliage study, pencil

I interviewed a woman, Norma Hendrix, who was running a busy non-profit arts organization and was also a part-time musician. She described a similar practice. Every morning, before getting out of bed, she opens her sketchbook and does one blind contour drawing. She gets out of bed having connected with her personal art life at least once each day.

There is tremendous value in even the most limited kind of regular creative practice. I believe those tree drawings were a vital part of my mental health, and my development as an artist. I encourage anyone longing for a creative practice with limited time and resources to create a practice that is sustainable in even the smallest ways.

(All drawings by the author)

Tree Study, pencil

The Value of Creative Synergy: Lea and Jim McComas

Jim and Lea McComas at home with their two dogs, and her art quilt behind

Synergy: the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. (Oxford Languages, online dictionary)

Jim and Lea at the Depot Art Gallery in Littleton, CO where Jim won Best of Show in the All Colorado Art Show with “Reflection”

I first interviewed this married couple in 2016. It is the only time I have interviewed two people at the same time, and I admit I was skeptical. However, this extraordinary couple has a creative dynamic that enhances and balances both of their work. That dynamic was on display throughout the interview, and as I have gotten to know them I have seen it ever since. They provide enriched perspectives and obvious mutual support, with ongoing encouragement when challenges arise.

Lea with her long-arm sewing machine, and an art quilt hanging in her studio

Lea McComas is a fiber artist (and Special Ed teacher) who has received national and international acclaim for her artwork.  She teaches fiber art workshops, and has written a book on her complex quilting and thread rendering techniques. Jim is a fine art oil painter focusing primarily on the human figure. He is also a retired pilot. They live high in the mountains above Golden, Colorado on several acres of land.

Jim at work, using Lea as his model

Over the years we have become friends. On my recent visit to Denver they invited me to see Jim’s new studio building. The space, a renovated barn, is on several acres of wooded land adjacent to their home property. Jim is working intensely on his oil paintings, recently beginning a new series inspired by a solo ballet performance he attended. He is winning awards and recognition for his work.

Jim’s new painting studio, studies for the ballet series on the easel

Last fall the Clinton Library invited Lea to create a quilt as part of an exhibit commemorating women’s right to vote. Her detailed piece is 8’ x 13’ and features figurative depictions of significant women throughout the history of America.

Lea was recently interviewed by the Denver Art Museum. A portion of her commissioned quilt, partially completed, is visible behind her. 

What continues to strike me about this couple is the creative energy and encouragement they provide each other. They offer genuine enthusiasm, insights, and admiration. Deep discussions about artistic goals, techniques, and resources are a core part of their marriage. They prefer to work nearby each other, and plan to expand the studio to allow her to work in that building as well. “We actually like each other” they agree.

There is a palpable energy when they interact. Each has studied art, art making, and their specific craft with a passion that drives success. Neither has an art degree, but both are extremely well educated in art history, techniques, and principals. They provide honest, thoughtful critique for each other through the creative process, and can rely on their feedback to be deeply considered, and part of an ongoing conversation about their work.

Not all artists are married to someone who shares their passion with equal intensity. However, seeing the value Lea and Jim provide each other is a strong reminder of the power of synergistic energy derived from interactions with other creative people. Creative energy grows when it is nurtured by other creative energy.  This is the nature of synergy. We see it over and over in the support groups creative people maintain around their discipline. Musicians play together, artists develop painting and critique groups, scientists attend conferences of like-minded researchers. 

View from the McComas property.

Research shows that creative ideas commonly grow in small, consistent steps that build on tiny improvements on existing ideas. Rarely do they bolt into existence from a vacuum. When we discuss our ideas with other supportive and knowledgeable creatives we increase the likelihood of inventive ideas arising. Ongoing conversations help us advance a concept or idea, and allow us to realize that at some point actual progress has been made.

Lea and Jim at the studio, doors open, relaxing under the stars. Lea’s quilts on display.

If you are not in a personal relationship with a co-creative, you can surround yourself with peers. Form your own group, offer support, and be open to receiving support from like-minded individuals. The dynamic that results intensifies everyone’s creative energy, and offers much needed support when creativity is strained. Be cautious when selecting these people. They must be willing, and able, to provide feedback and comments that are trained enough to be of value, honest without being hurtful, and knowledgeable enough about your personal goals to help you on your creative journey. But well-chosen, supportive peers can help you advance your efforts and encourage you to persist when the going gets tough.

A Creative Burst

“Transitions Series: Patience” Oil and Cold Wax, 12×12″

It has been several months since I posted here. Fortunately much of my creative time has been spent working in new directions, both in my painting and on a new creative interest: ceramics.

Transitions Series: Possibility” Oil and Cold Wax

As the vaccines were becoming available in January, and we ushered in a new Administration, spring was approaching in this warm desert city. A budding optimism was taking hold and I began thinking about the nature of change. There was a tiny but growing sense that things were moving in the right direction. I still felt I was inside, looking out toward the world with hope, rather than that the world had fully opened. But I was inspired to paint my experience of this time. It soon became clear I was beginning a new series which is entitled “Transitions”.

“Transitions Series: Hope” 12 x 12″, Oil and Cold Wax

Imagery came in the form of separated spaces, apart but also together and influencing each other. During most changes we proceed in a direction, aware of both the now and the different future. The work expresses my experience of being “here”, looking toward “another”, and bridging the transition of “passing through”.  

Of course life is full of transitions, and during this phase of inspiration I was more aware of the process of change all around me. It is not surprising that my interests expanded and I felt inspired to connect with life in a more immediately tactile, 3 dimensional, and social way. I started a beginning ceramics class at a nearby studio and am very attracted to the wet clay and the sculpting aspects of hand building ceramics. For now I am enjoying learning this new creative method.

“Transitions Series: Vision” 10 x 10″, Oil and Cold Wax

The struggles of the past year are not forgotten, but a sense of growth, opportunity, and even delight has given my creative life a boost. It was important to continue to pursue creative work even (maybe especially) when times were tough, but there has been quite a bit of joy in this new creative burst. I am grateful, and pursuing this phase with less attention given to writing and more to the practice of making. I think the nature of creativity benefits from grabbing inspiration with gusto when it presents. 

“Transitions Series: Coming Together” 8 x 12″, Oil and Cold Wax

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Repost: Drawing and a Creative Practice

“Field Study, Agua Caliente Wash” pencil and watercolor
“Three Pots” blind contour drawing, pen on paper

I recently realized several of my earliest posts have disappeared. This article originally posted in late September 2020. It discusses some of my favorite creative practices: Drawing, and Blind Contour Drawing. It was written well into the pandemic, with no vaccines offering glimmers of hope, but the quick, fun exercises apply anytime you want to access your creative energy.

“Field Sketch, Chiricahua National Monument”

Like many creative people, I am reflecting on the challenge of remaining engaged with my creativity as social unrest, in all its forms, drags on. I am aware of an exaggerated ebb and flow of creative energy. 

“Waterfall, Canyon Ranch” pencil

Sometimes the extra time available for art motivates me for focused work, and drives me to the studio. There is time to experiment, work through themes, and explore new techniques and concepts. All of which feeds creativity (until it doesn’t).

Other times I struggle to get into the studio, feeling an almost physical irritation and anxiousness as I crave new stimulation, sights, and experiences. I feel a need to crawl out of “my own life” and connect with the external world for inspiration.  

I know that continuous engagement in creative practice is one of the best ways to “jump-start” flagging creativity. Luckily, I love drawing. It is a low pressure, quick and easy way to explore visual ideas, exercise eye-hand connections, and to maintain an art practice on even the busiest or least inspired days.

Drawing experiments, mixed media

Drawing and sketching transforms a brief break into a full creative experience. With the simple tools of a sketchbook, pen or pencil, maybe watercolors, it is possible to immerse yourself into the world differently, and quickly access that lovely sense of “Flow”. 

One of my favorite quick creative exercises is Contour drawing.  This is simply drawing your subject with one continuous line on a page, while not picking up your drawing tool. The goal is to examine the edges of your subject and describe them in one fluid line. BLIND Contour drawing adds the further challenge that you are not to look at your paper while making your drawing. It is fun, and makes you to engage with your subject, and your drawing, in a unique way.

“Potted Plants” blind contour drawing, ink on paper

Blind Contour drawing forces me to truly explore the subject matter in a quick, visual manner. I am primarily engaged with the act of really SEEING the subject, studying specific relationships of size, form, shape, line, etc. while making the one continuous line on a page. The goal is not an accurate representation of the subject, but to coordinate what my eyes see with the movements of my hand.  

The resulting drawings often have a unique freshness and lyrical line quality that I very much enjoy. Marks interact without the restrictions of tight representation. This is drawing for drawing’s sake, and is extremely freeing. 

“In My Garden” blind contour drawing, ink on paper

These quick drawings take very little time, from a minute to a couple of minutes each. When finished, I have had an “authentic” creative experience.  Sometimes they form the basis for a painting; sometimes the reward is just the drawing. Either way, I recommend you spend a few minutes a day drawing, whenever and wherever you have time. It is so enjoyable, and I think you will feel a boost of creative energy.

“My Brother’s Garden” pencil on paper

Creativity Interview: James E. Scherbarth, artist

Jim Scherbarth is a visual artist living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We first met in 2018. He works in a variety of media including oil and cold wax paintings, mixed media on paper, and weaving. 

HW:  What was your background and education with regard to your art and creativity in general?

JS:  Early in life my family environment was not really a creative one, although later in life both my parents had creative aspects to them. Some of the guiding principals I incorporate into my approach come from them.

I was in Viet Nam in the ‘70’s. I spent a semester at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, so that helped me reconnect with my art. But that decade was very difficult for me. I had lost my way. For a decade I was trying to find it again. My GI Bill ran out, and I never returned to a formal school.

Artist Jim Scherbarth

I’ve just always been a creative, found it best to keep my hands busy. I like to make things. I like to tinker. I like to explore. And create. I like working with fiber; I did some weaving. 

“Vessel #73A (Home), hand woven telephone wire and fibre, 2020

H:        I’m hearing a lot of what they call “self taught”.

JS:        Oh, definitely. I’m an avid reader. If I don’t know something I get a book, or go online, to learn. To find out. Or l seek out the person I need, doing exactly what I’m interested in, and I’ll learn from them. I’m Self-Motivated. I’m a continuous learner. I hope that never stops.

“Life Goes On”oil and cold wax, 36×36”, 2020

We learn from so many people, our teachers, our parents, our friends, the stranger that just walked by and impressed us, imprinted on us. Or made us aware of something we hadn’t noticed before. It’s from awareness I guess.

We tend to think that creativity is for the few anointed ones, where in reality I strongly believe we all are creative. The real task, I think, today is to help people engage with their own creativity and bring it out. It’s there

They told us you can’t make a living at that. It’s not a career. Poppycock. If you want it badly enough, you can make it happen! I’m living proof. I didn’t get back to my art until I was 60 years old.

Some of Jim’s painting supplies

In 1980 I had to be a responsible adult, earn my own way. I worked for the telephone company, and spent 30 years there, doing very little art. Slowly but surely it started to creep back into my life. The more I got to travel and see other cultures, other people, other art, the more and more I wanted to get back into it. In 2007 I up and left the corporate world, with the personal “condition” that I get back to my art. Then the question was, “What is your art, Jim?” What do you do? 

I wanted something. I wanted to be a “real artist”. And to me that meant painting. So I spent more time with my paints. I spent a lot of time researching other artists, reading about their work, reading what they wrote about their process, their thinking behind or supporting their work. 

“Anticipating Monet” oil and cold wax, 30×30″, 2018

In February 2010 I came across some paintings that, online, I thought were remarkable. They spoke to me. I was very excited to learn that this artist lived only 2 ½ hours away from me. Her work was hanging, right that very moment, in downtown Minneapolis. So I jumped in my car and ran down to see the work, and instantly knew I had found something that I could relate to. I wanted to be able to create, to work, like that. It spoke to me! 

Her name is Rebecca Crowell, and a few months later I drove to Wisconsin to her studio. Without missing a beat, from the beginning to the end, she always spoke to us (her students) as an equal, and always referred to us as an artist. It was significant. It was the first time anyone unrelated to me saw me, treated me, and respected me, as an artist. No questions asked. It was very impactful.

I find 99% of artists are the most generous of spirits.

HW:    Can you talk about your creative process? 

JS:   I’ve only had this working studio for about 4 years, so it’s a real gift. It is my Church. It is my Sanctuary. I love spending time there, even when I’m not very productive. Just being there. 

Jim pulling an oil print

As far as always leaving a problem to return to the next day, that’s not an issue! There are many unresolved things every day, and that’s what brings us back in. That challenge. I can either pick up where I left off the other day, or can immediately start something new. Go to one table, or go to my easel, or work on something I left.

HW:    What are your most significant sources of inspiration?

JS:  Like so many of us, I respond to Nature, landscape, the environment we live in, and all the variations to that around the world. That is one reason to travel, to see all the wondrous places and vistas, and colors and textures. That all informs the work. 

HW:    You also mentioned about language. You talked about the ancient Irish alphabet.

JS:        The Ogham alphabet. It’s an ancient alphabet, no longer used. It was first used to write the old Irish language, and most of the remaining existing examples are etchings on the standing stones of Ireland, Wales, and on the Isle of Mann. Nowhere else in the world. Instantly I knew I had something I was going to be able to work with. I was standing in this beautiful landscape with these ancient beautiful stones. Marked with this language. 

“Celtic Code II” Oil and cold wax

That ancient language is 20 or 25 characters, basically hash marks. I didn’t want to use that literally, like a saying spelled out in Ogham. But I wanted to imply some type of mysterious message in the work. So I decided I would break it down to its basic element, which is a single mark. A line. 

If you blow that line up a little it becomes a rectangle. If you blow it up more it becomes the stone itself. If you use that mark repeatedly in different directions you start to build pattern textures. 

Experimenting with that: What can I say with that? What can I do with that? led me to a body of work, The Ogham Series. Twenty-some paintings and I still feel there are more to come.

HW:    Thank you, that was a really good description of how something can be an inspiration, not a literal copying of it. How it can be used in other ways.

HW:  Have you experienced “Creative Block”? If not, why do you think not?

“Envelope Collage #1” sympathy card envelopes, pen, pencil, 2018

JS:  No. I can’t say that I have ever felt Blocked, in the sense that it was ever just cut off, or stymied. I sometimes run out of an idea, or the energy on a certain direction. But then I just start making marks on something, or tearing something apart and gluing it back together. Or just anything which generates the next thought or next action.

HW:    And does that take an hour, or three months?

JS:        To get through that period? No, maybe an hour. Who’s got three months to waste being blocked? Maybe some people do, I don’t. I don’t. 

If this isn’t working, just do something. Do something. That’s how I don’t get blocked. Even if that means go out and take a walk. Get some Nature time, fresh air, and thinking. Then the head is full of ideas and we don’t have enough time to execute those ideas! 

“Vessel #72 (Hope Stone)” handwoven telephone wire, fibers, 2020

HW:    How often do you go to your studio?

JS:        I try to go to my studio every day, when I am in town. 7 days a week. Including Sunday, the studio is my church. Painting time is precious. I will go every day somewhere between 3 to 5 hours. Somewhere around 3 hours I start to get tired, and when I’m tired I start to make poor choices. So part of my discipline is to work about 3-5 hours, then I have permission to leave until tomorrow.

HW:  What have been the biggest rewards of your creative life?

JS:   Knowing that I am an artist. It’s given me purpose. The rewards are so many, and many of them are very intangible. It’s priceless. It is. 

Jim experimenting with color and shape

A little bit of bee’s wax (used in his painting process) has opened up my world! It’s taken me all around the country, meeting other people, taking other people’s workshops. It’s taken me to Paris, where I taught a workshop. It’s kind of mind-boggling! In a very wonderful way! So it’s all very rewarding. I don’t see any down side to any of this. I just don’t. I’m very blessed. 

HW:    What advice would you give young artists/Creatives?

JS:   For anyone, for any age, for any endeavor: Just do it. Just show up. And give it your best. Where you find you lack knowledge or experience, find out how to get that. Seek out the people who can help you. Read the books that relate to that subject or that endeavor. 

The immediate end-game should be to show up and do the work. And improve, and explore your reality and expound on it. Just grow

“Wee Creature” hand woven telephone wire, 2020

Update:  2020 brought significant changes to our lives.  For me it was not only the Covid confinement to my home, but a major health challenge as well.  I closed my studio and now work on my dining room table.  This does not allow me to paint with oil and cold wax presently, so I shifted gears, returned to the basics and began drawing and collaging on a smaller scale.  I’ve also resumed hand weaving telephone wire and fibers into small “soft” sculptures.  I believe inherent to the creative process is the need to remain adaptable.  I continue to use my themes/inspirations of nature, stones, currachs, colour, line and texture.  Examples of the most recent series – Currach & Stone – (collage-drawings) can be seen on my website. 

“Passage” oil and cold wax

Creativity Interview: Janice Mason Steeves, artist

Janice Mason Steeves with two of her nature inspired paintings

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.

Janice Mason Steeves

 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.

“Earth Poem: Light” 40 x 40″ oil on panel

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?

Janice’s studio west of Toronto, cleaned and ready for teaching when the world opens up again

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.

Gathering Light 7 (1437) 60×60″ Oil on canvas

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.

Gathering Light 24 (1454) 40×40″ Oil on panel

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:

For zoom interactive workshops: Janice Mason Steeves website:

To learn more about my upcoming travel and online workshops, please sign up for my mailing list when you visit one of my websites.

Creativity Interview: Carl Philabaum, Software Designer

“Knowledge is that fascinating resource: you can give it away and you still have it!”

Carl lives in Tucson, Arizona. We met in his home office. Carl’s professional focus was the interface of creativity and machines, designing some of the early software that changed how humans interact with computers.

Carl in his home office

HW: You describe yourself as a “Digital Impresario”. Can you tell me more about your background, education, training, etc.?

CP:  I grew up in a little town: 1,200 people in rural Ohio. My father was the chief engineer of the local radio station. That was the biggest influence on my growing up, with interesting insights about life. He put responsibility on my shoulders at a very early age. He said, “You’re a smart kid, you are responsible for yourself.” And he left it at that.

In college at Ohio State I just wanted to be educated and took all sorts of things: Political Science, every art history course offered. French and German literature…and I took a Computer Science course. One of the few schools with a Computer Science Department, in 1969. Big computers with punch cards. Super nerdy. I kept going. I liked it.

I was introduced to another grad student named Mike Allen, who was trying to see if computers could be used to teach. I helped with the analysis. Some of our best projects were in Biology, Genetics, German Language, Psychology, Landscape Architecture, Philosophy. I was interested in how people who weren’t computer people might interface with these things. 

I saw: Here’s the machine, and over here is the person with the problem they want to solve. I wanted to move beyond programming to telling the machine to do things. Why can’t we move that closer to the human?

Preliminary landscape architecture sketch

We went around the country, talking to people. The chemist who tried to teach students how to use a distillation laboratory by building a simulation. Someone else did a game for children, some math problems. There weren’t too many things that were very exemplary. 

We studied: How do creative people work?

I had friends who were architects and I watched them work. The fascinating thing was they didn’t approach this by writing down their design document. Say they had a client wanting a house who was really into cooking. The architect would get out their “medium”-a piece of paper and a pencil- and immediately start to sketch. Get a lot of detail in the kitchen, without even knowing how many bedrooms there were going to be. They immediately got into their “medium”.

We went to a choreographer to study dance. They didn’t write down their ideas-the dancer got up and tried to move; a painter would start to put paint on a painting-then paint over it or rub it.

Preliminary painting study

So the interesting thing we found was that creative people tended to start without knowing all the details of where they were going to end up. And they start by getting into their “medium”.

We went back to develop a way for people to tell the computer what to do. So you think about your problem, not translating it to something the computer understands. Leaving much more mental energy to solve your problem!

We went off on our own in 1984. The Macintosh computer had just come out, we bought the first one in the state of Minnesota. Mike and I built a company to do this. I made some “drop dead” dates, if we didn’t have money by this date we’d have to stop. We didn’t make them, but we didn’t go broke, but damn near did!

We found a way to make a handful of symbols or icons, a graphics interface, that you could arrange, and you couldn’t arrange them in a way that didn’t work. When you did that you had a toolbox. You could draw, make images, move it around wherever you want. You are working in a medium

If you want to animate something you have an image on the screen and you run through animation, run the program and you just click, click, click and draw a path. Specify a time. Should it repeat? If you want to change it, there ‘s the animation path, you change it, delete it, whatever!

That was called “Authorware”, aimed at education and training. It was built to be interactive. We started to make it possible to do these things. We merged with an animation company out of Chicago and made a company: MacroMedia. A few years ago it was purchased by Adobe. MacroMedia was my format. Adobe purchased MacroMedia-it was a big purchase for them.

It was crazy: small town kid does ok! I stuck with it and it was totally fascinating to me. In the late ‘80’s I would go to conferences and people were using some of these tools you had made

HW: What were the biggest professional challenges, and how did you deal with them? 

CP: It was a tremendously hard and fun world to be in. There were maybe 50 people in the technology world making things happen. And you would talk to each other. You were competing, but not really. So it was a very different world, and I got to play in that world.

We presented our ideas in ’84-85, to every group that had money in Minneapolis, to try to get them to fund us. Asking for money. All these Venture firms. They would love it, but at the end they would say,  “But we don’t invest in Software companies”.

So we would leave, go home and try to work on our ideas. We had to solve this problem. You become your own cheerleader. You have to figure out how to get in there. I believe it is kind of believing in yourself, not stupidly, but realistically: Do you understand the problem you are trying to solve, and do you have some smart ways to try to tackle that? Realistically evaluating your skills, your value, and your potential, and then cheering yourself on. Because no one will do it for you. 

It took about 4-5 years. And that is really an important part: not to fool yourself, but to believe in the real strengths you have. And to try to always find new skills, and new things. 

Computer components at Carl’s house

HW: What personal qualities have helped you achieve your goals?

CP: I can work hard, and for a long time, on something. When you try to make big steps it takes a long time. It’s harder than you thought it would be. So there is always a point where you say, “Oh Shit, is this the right direction?” You might steer in a new direction, but you can keep your eye down and look forward to see something. I’m not bothered by that.  

I like to be able to go deep into things. I’ll get the problem in my head and that takes awhile, and once you get there then you can start to work. Solving really hard problems, you have to do the work. 

And I love those times; time disappears. I think that is one of the joys! To be able to really focus on things… You start to see constraints, see how something impacts, and affects, something else. You very quickly can see when some new thing pops up here, how that impacts and changes the overall.

It’s hard. It’s really hard! But it’s that that can drive some success in a project.

HW: What advice would you give young creative people?

CP: Part of my concern in technology: these things are really, really hard. I don’t know if anybody really understands these things we’ve built because they have only worked on a tiny piece of it. They don’t really understand the whole, and how things fit, and how they evolve. Sometimes the way things need to evolve is that whenever you want to add something new, you can’t just add it on without thinking of the whole picture. Try to come up with a way that might be even simpler than you had. And that is hard work. But I think that is the way you make real progress. 

Creativity Interview: Victoria Eubanks, Artist

Victoria Eubanks in her Denver, CO studio

Victoria lives in Denver, Colorado and is a professional visual artist focusing on Encaustic (painting with hot wax) as her primary medium. She is also a popular teacher of encaustic techniques. What follows are some highlights from the Creativity Interview I had with Victoria. 

HW: You are an artist and instructor: can you discuss your training, transition, and integration between the two creative pursuits?

VE: I learned pretty much everything in life by the seat of my pants, so the art and art instruction is no different. I found that I loved encaustic, so it was the thing I needed to do. A fellow artist asked if I would teach a class. A few of those individuals told other individuals, so between my art showings and my classes, I naturally slipped into teaching. I have no teaching credentials; I think my passion takes care of that.

Some of the equipment Victoria uses for her encaustic painting includes hot plates, liquid wax and pigments, and heat guns.

HW: Can you talk about your creative inspiration and process? Do you have routines, exercises or other practices that enhance your creative process?

VE:  Yeah, I think everybody does, whether you are aware of it or not. 

I have been a yogi for a long time. It’s a wonderful physical and spiritual thing to get in that place. It’s a good way to start your day, being mindful. I know when I am getting too frenzied, and I need to say, “OK, just stop, what are you trying to do here? What are you thinking? Be present.”

I am in my studio every day, even on weekends. It’s important for me to have a continuum. I might not be doing “creative stuff”,  I may be prepping panels or cleaning up, but I’m in there. I take pictures of my art in process, and work on the computer a lot. There is a lot of time that is not melted wax, if you will, not hands-on in that way. I had to give myself permission to do that. “… you are so doing research, you are so being creative. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a brush with a color on it in your hand, it all counts.” And I’ve come to realize that of course it counts, but it took a while to give myself permission to do all that background work. 

Encaustic landscape painting
Encaustic landscape painting, installed at Pattern Shop gallery

HW:  I really loved the landscapes you made, the ones you cut.

VE:  Thank you. I like the juxtaposition of the loose melted color and the rigid lines. I loved what was going on there; I like the layering that encaustic allows. But it is not enough to do it just because you like the layering. To me, it always has to push a little farther. 

Encaustic landscape painting
Encaustic landscape painting

As a guest artist at the Pattern Shop Gallery, I talked about process and the medium, not the why at all. The whymatters more and more to me. People are so interested in the process, because it’s different and not well understood. I can, and do, speak to that, but I want the other half discussed as well. What’s my thought process? My Why? What does the viewer see? For example you saw landscape immediately. The why of my art is becoming very important to me.

HW: Do you experience artist’s block”? If so, how do you deal with it?

VE:  I do experience it, it surprised me. I had a lot of stuff going on earlier in the fall and I realized I’m just not doing anything in the studio.

The usual family stuff, election stuff, just anxiety — that was my excuse anyway. So it was really good to have a body of work needed for that Pattern Shop show. I purposely took the summer off, and I was out of the studio for a long time, and it was hard for me to get back in.

Having a deadline really helped, lots of things help. Having a tidy studio helps. If I stay organized, I don’t have to clean up before I can be creative. I can walk in and be ready to rock.

Blocks of custom wax blocks Victoria makes, organized by color for easy access

HW: Do you keep a notebook or sketchbook of ideas ready?

VE: I occasionally do. I work on the computer. I take a ton of pictures. There are certain things I go back to that are a comfortable vocabulary for me. I can find a bird image, or a tree full of birds and start manipulating that, I can imagine it on fields of color, or what would it look like with some texture. And it works.

HW: Did you have a mentor? If so, who was it and what did they do for you?

VE: I’ve had a lot of mentors throughout my life, including me. I thank that man who hired me the first time. I thank the individual who asked me to teach the first time. There have been people who have been very kind to me. People who suggested that I participate in this or do a certain thing, all of those people are mentors.

My Husband, who is a huge mentor, tells me, Do what you need to do. I take classes from people whose art I admire, or technique I want to master. But I don’t think of them in the same category, they are different. I think of mentor as from the softer side of life.

It’s not really a coincidence what happened in my life. You look back and see that a change happened here, but it was started earlier back here. So I look back, I think Yay me. I turned some good corners.

HW: Do you have a motto” or guiding life philosophy?

VE:  I do, actually. I have several. One is, Do the right thing, another is You are in charge of your own happiness, no one else can do that for you. Hopefully that optimism can extend little ripples of happiness out into the world.

Current work, made in 2020

HW: Do you have regular contact with other creative/artistic people? If so, how does that happen and what does it provide you?

VE: The answer is yes. And if you are going to be creative it is vital, it is really vital!

You read all this advice: “Go to openings, go to galleries, meet other artists” and I didn’t think I could do that. Oh my gosh! I have met more fabulous people, that’s exactly what you have to do. 

Yes, I get so much good juice from being around creative people. I love the side conversations we have in class– about this little section of your painting, down here, and look what’s happening with the lines and color… Who else can you talk to about that sort of thing?

Everybody needs a tribe. 

New painting, made during 2020

HW: It has been awhile since we first spoke, can you give me an update on how 2020 has affected your creativity and your art?

VE: Ah, 2020, what can I say? The year of art hanging in galleries that folks couldn’t see. The year of minimal creative contact due to cancelled classes. I wish I could say I hunkered down in the studio and produced amazing work, but that didn’t happen. It was the year of low creative mojo. Luckily I had a large installation project for the Arvada Center for the Arts, that kept me busy through June. Since then I’ve been working small, for the most part, with what I’m calling my Encyclopedia Series using thin pages wax saturated pages from a 1911 version of Brittanica. My thought was to honor the massive information contained on those old leaves, and that knowledge and wisdom would somehow energize the viewer. Ah! In reality it looks like people wandering—it captures so much of what is going on for me! 

If you would like more information about Victoria’s art please visit her website at: