Featured Artist/Traveler: Janice Mason Steeves - Interview
I don’t remember how I first heard about the Toronto area based painter Janice Mason Steeves, but I felt an immediate kinship when I saw her earthy, minimalist, abstract paintings. It seemed that we also shared a love of northern, vast, bleak landscapes, and we have both visited Iceland as an artist in residence - albeit at different residencies. The paintings that have come from her residencies and workshops there reflect the cool earth tones and the silence and spaciousness of that far northern wonderland.
She also leads classes in oil and cold wax, and chooses often to hold workshops in such far afield places as Ireland, the wild west coast of Canada, and soon to be locations in Scotland and Mongolia.
Welcome Janice, thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with us! Please give our readers an idea first of your background as an artist and traveler, where you are from and where you are based now.
Hi Amy, it’s good to connect with you! I’ve followed your travels for years. I think I found you by googling Can Serrat, an artist residency in Spain that I was going to go to. You were on your year-long tour of the world, staying in artist residencies and had written blog posts about your experiences. I share your love of travel and have combined art and travel since the 80s. I travelled to Ireland with an art class in 87 and then 3 times to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic on painting trips in the late 80s, early 90s. My most memorable Arctic trip was with Canadian artist Doris McCarthy in January, 1991, in the 24-hour-dark of winter. We painted indoors!!
I’ve been painting since 1984 and went to the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto as a ‘mature’ student in the mid 90s. I painted in encaustic for 10 years, then moved to oil and eventually to oil and cold wax medium. I’ve been teaching workshops since 2010, in Canada, the US, Sweden and Iceland and in September in Spain. My home and studio are located in the country outside of Rockwood, Ontario, Canada.
And so, why travel as an artist? What is your general philosophy about being an artist/traveler and how do art and travel intersect for you?
I think travel is something that’s either in your blood or not. And to a greater or lesser degree. I have friends who have absolutely no desire to travel. For me, travel, especially international travel is a major life experience that I continually seek out. It enriches my life so deeply I can barely describe it. Being an artist is another way of deepening my connection with the land, another way of exploring and experiencing place.
When did you become an artist - how did that call grab you? How would you describe your artwork now?
I graduated with an MA in Clinical Psychology and didn’t start to paint until I was in my mid-30s when a friend suggested we take a night school watercolor class. When the class ended, I didn’t stop painting. I painted every single day! It was like a door opened and I just stepped through. My work has gone through many changes in the past 35 years but has settled into a form of minimalism/colour field painting that speaks of place.
When was your first call to travel, and how have your journeys helped to develop your style of painting?
I’ve always had the call to travel, since I was a kid. I used to dream of places I’d go, things I’d see. I become more aware when I travel, my mind is more open. I see more. Like travel, my paintings are a form of exploration, exploring my response to the culture or environment. I find the more I travel, the more I’m interested in connecting with the land. My paintings are a response to the land, a form of landscape painting.
As a professional artist - how have you juggled family, money and travel?
My children were still young when I began to paint but I painted in watercolor at first, so I could easily work on the kitchen table or the counter, cleaning up when it was meal time. It’s been difficult at times juggling money and travel, and so I began to research artist residencies not only for the possibility of inexpensive travel but the opportunity to paint, and as well, to meet other artists.
How did you find out about artist residencies and to what countries have they taken you?
I can’t seem to recall how I first learned about artist residencies but I immediately jumped at the idea for the opportunity to travel inexpensively to meet other artists and to stay in one place to paint. I love month-long artist residencies where I can relax into the area, and have time to develop a response to it.
I’ve gone to artist residencies in Spain, two in Ireland, in Sweden, and twice in Iceland.
What do you love, and not love about them in general?
I really enjoy having the time to settle into one place. I love meeting artists from different countries and learning about their work, sharing ideas. We’re all there to focus on our own art and so each person’s space is respected. So there are times to share meals and visit and other times of silence where you can enter into your own quiet creative space. There was only one residency I didn’t like and it was because there weren’t enough studio spaces.
Do you have some highlights and lowlights of experiences of art travel you want to share with us?
I have many stories of travels. By far the majority of them were excellent experiences. My experience of travel with Doris McCarthy to the Canadian Arctic in January, where there was no daylight, just twilight for 4 hours each day and the thermometer was stuck at -40C/40F was probably the most adventurous. We stayed in the tiny and vacant Anglican church in Pond Inlet, where I slept on a bunk bed in the narthex under a panorama painting of Jesus in the Arctic! One day we were offered a ride on a dogsled out to an iceberg that was frozen in the ice on the fiord. We chinked off some ice chips to put in our scotch when we got back, then hightailed it for land when we saw some fresh polar bear tracks! Of course we painted indoors but to go for brief walks, we dressed in multiple layers of down, toques, mitts and high boots. We met some of the local people and witnessed a beautiful Inuit drum dance ceremony at the local high school, with Inuit children laughing and running all over the place. The whole adventure was one of my most unforgettable travel experiences.
How do you think travel has affected the work that you do? And what materials do you paint with while you are traveling vs. in your studio at home?
Travel has been integral to my work. Sometimes I've traveled on group tours, only painting once I got home. Some of these travels focused on the cultural aspect of the environment: seeing the site of Knossos on Crete, the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, the patterns of tiles on fabrics, floors and walls in Morocco. Each place I have travelled has contributed to the expansion of my interests and my work as I’ve searched for my understanding of the essence of a place. Often I paint with the same materials as I use at home: cold wax and oil. Other times, I work with acrylic or other water-media or drawing materials on Multimedia Artboard, a resin-coated paper. It fits in my suitcase and is light, rigid and, if I like the resulting work, it can be glued to a wood panel once I’m at home.
Where are your next upcoming adventures? Why are you excited about them?
I’m developing a series of travel/painting workshops that I’m calling Workshops in Wild Places. I’m currently in the process of finalizing plans with these venues. As well, a website is being developed that will describe each workshop in more detail. These workshops are planned for Newfoundland, Scotland, the west coast of Canada, Nova Scotia, Mongolia and perhaps Iceland, We’ll stay in small and comfortable lodges in these remote locations where artists will be able to simply walk outdoors to experience the landscape. The focus will be on connecting to the land and translating that response into abstract paintings.
And finally, how can people find out about your work and upcoming workshops?
People can find out about my work by going to my website: janicemasonsteeves.com To find out about my workshops, it would be best to sign up for my mailing list for the latest news or to be on a workshop list. Go to News on my website.
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