Saturday, June 6, 2015

Notes from Lappland

Over a year ago, we were invited to Ricklundgarden, in Saxnas, Sweden, an artist residency in Southern Lapland, to teach a painting workshop and to stay on for another three weeks to do our own creative work. While we were aware that Southern Lapland could well have snow in early May when we arrived, we weren't prepared for the extent of it; the snowbanks were 3 feet deep around our cottages. Snow has been a big part of our experience here and we have watched it recede each day to reveal the rocks and plants of the ground cover.

Even more important has been the extent and quality of light. We are at a latitude of nearly 65 degrees, just one degree south of the Arctic Circle. The days right now are 20 hours long with 4 hours of twilight, so it's never really dark.

In the solitude and silence of this place, we have been able to go deeply into our own creative processes. We both work very intuitively--and are still so inside of this experience--that it's too soon to summarize, or predict what being here means for our work. But as we come to the end of our time here, we thought we'd talk about what parts of this experience each of us found important.

Janice: There is a quality to the light that is difficult to capture in words or painting. One day I painted a sheet of samples of the colours that I saw in the landscape at that moment on that day. By the time I had finished, the colours had shifted, the sun had come out, the expansive lake had changed from silver to a dark grey-blue, the mosses were a brighter yellow- green, the birch bark had more pink in it. The light changes so quickly. I hope to collect some of this ephemeral light and some of these colours and take them home with me to continue my Gathering Light series.

Rebecca:  Yes, this is a very luminous place. The surfaces of the landscape--the snow and ice, and Kultsjon Lake reflect the endless daylight. There is a stark and pristine quality to the landscape, enhanced by the strong contrasts of dark rocks and mountainsides against all of the white of snow and the silvery water.  We've both taken dozens of photos trying to capture the quality of light and the drama of the landscape. But the experience is so expansive and dynamic, with constant shifts and changes in color and intensity, that even the best of our photos fall short. If I take away one thing from here that feeds my future work, I hope it will be this luminosity, which at times feels almost dreamlike.

Janice:  That otherworldly feeling for me is also about the length of the days. The sun is already well up in the sky by the time I get up at 6am. It is never dark. There's a disorienting feeling to it. I don't seem able to determine the time of day like I can at home, so the days have the quality of childhood summers, when time didn't matter and the days seemed endless. Even though I am doing a lot of painting and working on a book I am writing, I have moved into slow time, sitting outdoors when I can, lazily watching the shadows of clouds move across the mountains.

Rebecca: I've loved our walks too, and riding the bikes that are available for our use. Exploring the woods and lake shore in a rambling, open ended way brings that same childlike feeling to me. I too have gotten plenty of work done but appreciate the unstructured aspect to the days.

We've both tuned in to the changes in nature as spring makes its slow appearance. Texture, always important in my work, seemed a bit lacking when everything was soft with snow a month ago. Now I love seeing the rich textures of the lichen-encrusted boulders and the mossy ground cover.

Janice: Our response though hasn't been all about the surface of the place, beautiful as it is. Though we thoroughly enjoy one another's company, we have also given ourselves the space for reflection and solitude working alone each day and sharing dinner together.

I feel that the land, the light, the solitude and silence are also my companions here; we are part of one another. They are living presences. Because I am in a land so different than rural Ontario, I find I look more closely, with more awareness. I also turn inward here to reflect on my life and work. The explorations in my painting seem to be trying to reconcile those inner and outer responses: the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, my deep response to it and the life reflections it has brought up in me.

My reflections here are also tied in with the book I am writing about the creative process and coming to art later in life. During this residency, I have been writing my own story and collecting stories of others who have had a similar journey to connect with their creative spirits. It was art that brought me to this remote and powerful place. I've been considering the courage it has taken to follow this path, and the rewards.

Rebecca: I agree, being here is a complex experience of more than visual beauty only. In general, I describe my work as coming from an emotional response to landscape, so the inner experience is as vital as looking outward. In the solitude here, I've been mourning my mother, who died in January. Perhaps as a result, the dramatic dark and light aspects of this place have impacted my work. There are also a number of my smaller paintings that reflect this landscape's luminosity, and offer a feeling of transcendence. These have begun with layers of darker colors, and patches of ink, overlaid with layers of white gouache and acrylic. Each one involves a process of bringing light over darkness.

Below is one of these paintings (5"x7", mixed media on paper.) 

We plan to continue our thoughts about our time here in our next post, after we've had time to reflect and develop new work at home. We cannot predict what influence  this residency in Southern Lapland will have on our work, but we are leaving here filled with rich memories and experiences.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Workshop in Sweden

We are very excited to announce a unique workshop experience in Northern Sweden, which runs from May 12-18, 2015. In the stunningly beautiful and remote sub-Arctic environment of Lapland, we will be co-teaching a workshop on the use of cold wax medium and oils in abstract painting.(Click here for full details of the workshop--including accommodations, pricing, and travel tips, and how to register.) 

A little over a year ago, Swedish artist and writer Asa Bostrom approached us with the idea of teaching together in Sweden. Following our enthusiastic "yes!" she was able to find us a perfect location--Ricklundgarden--an artist's residency in a rugged mountainous region one hour south of the Arctic Circle.

How exciting it has been to see this idea come to reality! We've had many email and phone discussions about the details and logistics, as well as discussions for how best the two of us can provide participants with a rich and meaningful experience. We decided early on to divide the week in half, with each of us taking a turn as primary instructor. Janice will begin with a focus on spontaneous and intuitive exploration of shape, composition, texture, and value, along with an introduction to the basics of the medium. Rebecca will finish the week with a wide range of the techniques and approaches she has developed. Throughout the week there will be an emphasis on interaction with the environment, keeping a visual journal, and sharing of insights and thoughts. 

Photo courtesy of Åsa Boström

REBECCA: One thing we both feel strongly about is that everyone has plenty of time to be outside to experience the surroundings at Ricklundgarden. With nearly 18 hours of daylight in May there should be some lovely opportunities for walking and photographing after class hours.  

JANICE  We've also decided that it would make a more leisurely day if we have a 2 hour break at lunchtime. Participants can hike or sketch or even have time for a nap. Spending time outdoors is important to get a sense of place and to let it inspire your work. 

Photo courtesy of Åsa Boström

REBECCA: What are some things you've done on your artist residencies and other travels to connect with particular places? 

JANICE: I always do a lot of photography, and as well as collect stones as a tangible memory of the place. Most often I keep a journal or diary for making small drawings or word sketches or for recording ideas that percolate when you visit a new place, away from everyday life. The British author, Robert Macfarlane, in his forward to the book, A Wilder Vein, suggests that "cognition is site-specific: that we think differently in different landscapes.  And therefore, more radically, that certain thought might only be possible in certain places."

Photo courtesy of Åsa Boström
 REBECCA: I love that quote. Interesting to think that the workshop at Ricklundgarden may open up ideas that would not be possible at home, or in an ordinary studio environment. Shall we talk about some of the other aspects of the week that will make it a unique experience? I'm excited about the international mix of participants--so far, there are people registered from Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Canada. When I'm with a group of artists from other countries, I'm always struck by the way our common interest transcends cultural and geographic differences. At the same time, those differences add so much to a rich mix of ideas and fun social interactions.

JANICE:  Yes, that's been true in my experience as well. Our workshop is limited to 9 participants so there will be a good opportunity for artists to get to know each other and share their stories inside and outside of the workshop. The workshop is only a short walk from the accommodation so enthusiastic participants can work on into the long evening light. 
photo courtesy of Åsa Boström

REBECCA: I'm also looking forward to the shared aspect of our teaching. While we have taught concurrent sessions before, in North Carolina, this is the first time we have truly collaborated on a teaching project. We have divided the week with each of taking the lead for three days, but we'll both be present off and on, and interacting with the group as a whole. We anticipate a certain synergy to result from our combined experience and knowledge of the medium. We're longtime friends--and close friends--but we don't always see things the same way of course! Which I hope results in a broader perspective in our instruction and comments. 

JANICE: We have planned several evening sessions lasting an hour or so. In addition to a welcoming gathering on the first night, there will be one in which the participants introduce their work to each other, two others for Rebecca and I to present slide shows of our own work, and one more for a Q&A activity. 

REBECCA: The day between our sessions is set aside for an optional field trip. We haven't worked out the details of that but I don't see how we can go wrong in this spectacular location. We hope that by the end of the week, everyone will feel they have truly appreciated and experienced the area. 

JANICE: Just one last comment about the idea of travel from a wonderful essay by the writer Pico Iyer. He says, "For me the first great joy of traveling 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." A good enough reason itself to travel to Lapland. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Friends/ Two Irish Residencies--Part 2

As promised a few months back, we continue our conversation about two artist residencies that we experienced together in Ireland--the first at Tyrone Guthrie Center in County Monahan in 2011, and the second, the topic of today's post, at the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry for three weeks in October/November 2012. This remote residency is located in one of the most spectacular and rugged areas of Ireland. The following description is from the website of the Cill Rialaig Art Centre, which houses a cafe and gallery associated with the Project, and through which information and applications may be obtained about the residency (there is no website exclusively for the residency program.) In 1991, The Cill Rialaig Project began the rescue and restoration of a small pre-famine village on Bolus Head at the very end of the Iveragh Peninsula, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted over the years over 3,000 artists from Ireland and the world. For nearly 20 years, professional artists, writers, poets and composers have lived and worked at the Cill Rialaig Retreat, making it an important center for creativity.

REBECCA: What a different experience this residency was from the one at Tyrone Guthrie. The surroundings were rugged and remote, and the accommodations much more basic. Each artist has a stone cottage with a small studio area under a skylight at one end--there are seven of these, and one designated as a meeting house if anyone chooses to organize something social. Otherwise, it seems most artists go there for solitude and it was not nearly as easy to meet others in residence. Below is a view of the row of restored cottages in their gorgeous location above the sea.

JANICE: I loved my cottage that was perched right on the edge of the sea.  The other cottages were snuggled together which gave them a little more protection against the late fall storms and strong winds.  I had two doors which had outer wooden doors like shutters that you could close for a little more insulation.  I did that most nights but they banged and rattled in some of the howling winds.

Because I didn't have a window that faced the sea, I kept popping my head out the door to see what was happening.  Often, I'd see the sun bursting through the clouds illuminating the sea like the second coming. I kept expecting a flash mob orchestra to burst forth with the Hallelujah chorus. 

REBECCA: I think we both found the land-and seascape of Cill Rialaig to be endlessly fascinating...dramatic, full of rough beauty, changing in all weather. I loved that we were constantly aware of the long, long history of the area. The cottages that have been restored for the use of artists retain the rustic feeling of their origins, and are surrounded by other ruins also dating from the late 1700s. Yet these buildings are recent compared to the Early Christian era site about a mile up the road, where standing stones may be found alongside the remains of beehive-shaped dwellings built by a small monastic community about 600 AD.

And on a cliff high above the residency, after an extremely rugged hike, we found the row of unimaginably ancient standing stones that we had seen mentioned in one of the notebooks of comments left by former artists-in-residence.

JANICE:  I especially loved walking the narrow road that carries you up to Bolus Head and sitting amongst the stones where the hermitage once lay.  The monks from this hermitage, so the story goes, left from this site, God knows why, to live on Skellig Michael, one of the two desolate and remote rock islands offshore from Bolus Head.  There they would have lived an unimaginable life, climbing  618 steps (I looked it up)-more than 600ft- from the sea to the top of the rock where they built beehive stone huts for shelter. I thought it a challenge to climb 7 steps up my ladder to get to my loft bedroom at Cill Rialaig!

REBECCA: As at Tyrone Guthrie Centre the year before, we fell into a pattern of taking walks together most afternoons, and looking at each other's work before or after sharing dinner. That was usually the end of the working day, since darkness came early and the studio areas had only minimal lighting other than the skylight.

I worked mostly in water-based mixed media on paper in the tiny studio (spreading out a bit into the rest of the living area at times!) I've used these materials on several previous residencies (various acrylic mediums, watercolors, powdered pigments, acrylics both fluid and regular, and an assortment of drawing media) but this was the first time I felt I could use them expressively and directly, without finding them difficult compared with my usual cold wax medium and oils. I worked on paper taped to boards and found that the edges of the work took on rich layered effects as I removed the tape each time to move to another painting, and replaced it again later in a slightly different way, or painted over the taped areas. My ideas came from walking among the rough textured rocks, covered in moss and lichen, and from the constantly shifting weather and changes in the light.

CR #9,  2012,  !4"x11" Acrylic and mixed media on paper ©Rebecca Crowell

      CR #2,  2012,  14"x11" Acrylic and mixed media on paper ©Rebecca Crowell

JANICE:  I loved the work you did there Rebecca!  I decided before I left home that I would work in acrylic on paper and only with Black, White and Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre. I wanted to work within those limitations.  I brought very few tools.  I decided to work fast and loose without judging my work, just as I recommend to my students in my workshops.

I found myself being influenced by the lines I saw-lines drawn on megalithic stones, the striations of sand on the beaches as the tide receded, single white lines running across stones on the beach, fine tracings of lines on rock walls.

Cill Rialaig 1 2012 11x14" Acrylic on paper © Janice Mason Steeves

Cill Rialaig 2 2012  12x12"  Acrylic on canvas ©2012 Janice Mason Steeves

REBECCA:  There's a lovely freedom to these, and it was a great choice of colors for responding to that rocky, earthy coast.

So many memories of our days there!  It seemed that there was magic in some form that happened nearly every day. Sometimes it was a beautiful moment in nature, sometimes an unexpected connection with another artist or local person.  Here is a photo of one of the most spectacular rainbows either of us had ever seen, arcing over the ancient monastic site...

"May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and the rains fall soft upon your fields,
Any until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand."   An Old Irish Blessing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Two Friends/Two Irish Residencies-Part 1

In 2013, we launched the idea of a co-blog, in which the two of us, as friends and colleagues, would write back and forth about various topics of interest to artists. We've published two of these posts so far on our separate blogs, and now find that we want our conversation to have its own location. And so, we welcome you to our new blog. We hope you will enjoy and contribute to the conversations that will ensue here.

We  have travelled together to two artist residencies in Ireland, in 2011 and in 2012. By way of an introduction to us, we thought we would write about our experiences there.

JANICE:  In the fall of 2011, Rebecca and I travelled to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan, a beautiful country estate converted to a residential workplace for artists of all disciplines in 1981.  We were assigned different townhouses that would be our homes for the month, and  given our own studios.  While the townhouses were separate from the 'big house', it was only a 2 minute walk away and we were always welcome there.  The Big House was filled mainly with writers, and poets (mostly Irish) when we were there, although there were a couple of musicians and one other visual artist.  I found the interaction to be exciting and inspiring.  Upstairs in the Music Room/Ballroom one evening, a German musician whose focus was vocal/sound/improv began to riff with a rock musican/composer.  They sounded at first like duelling banjos except a level beyond that where voice and guitar melded. On top of that spine-tingling sound, one of the resident poets started to pace back and forth, reciting his improv poetry.  Only seven of us witnessed this magic. It wasn't recorded.  It was spontaneous and ephemeral and I felt so privileged to be there.

Our townhouses at Tyrone Guthrie
REBECCA: Yes that was a really special evening. Another time, a composer and a storyteller who were collaborating on an interpretation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince gave us all a preview performance that was absolutely riveting. What an amazing mix of creative talents among the residents. When I think of the Tyrone Guthrie Center, the fact that it was not only for visual art is what stands out most for me.

JANICE: That interaction with other artists was what made the residency very profound for me as well.  My experience there was also enriched by spending time with you Rebecca. Although we worked away alone each day in our studios, we met each day about 5 to go for a hike and discuss the day, before we had dinner.  I enjoyed visiting your studio and seeing how your work progressed from day to day and how different our approaches to painting were.

REBECCA: I agree! On a residency, you meet and get to know such interesting new people, but to have a trusted friend there for feedback and companionship deepens the experience. But we did also give each other space--before we even went, we discussed the need to respect each other's time, because we both wanted the main focus was to be our own personal experience and work. I think that's always true when you go on a residency. The core experience is in the work.

But we did have so much fun! To be able to relax, laugh, walk, and process our experiences there together was just lovely. And also to row across the lake (you were so proficient with the oars...who knew??) and to invade the (evidently) man-only pub in the village, and to contemplate a duet of the Canadian folk song "When the Iceworms Nest Again" as our contribution to an evening soiree (fortunately that never got very far.) What a time it was.

But I digress...we actually did paint, quite a lot.

JANICE:  Ha!  We had so many laughs about that Iceworms song!  Yes we did paint a lot as well as enjoy the other residents and laugh some more.  I felt that my approach to painting was quite different than yours.  I needed to spend time walking or getting a sense of the place before I could work. You seemed able to focus and to get down to work right away.

I also found that I was a much neater painter than you....your studio was a disaster by the end of one week!  It was amazing that your work was so quiet and meditative!  And tidy-looking!

REBECCA: The studios at Tyrone Guthrie were beautiful, spacious and light filled. They were made in a converted cow barn. I think there would have been cows tied to those red poles.

That doesn't look too messy, does it? OK, I admit this was taken the first day, before I had time to do any damage!

JANICE:  Good that you took a photo beforehand!

Once I settled into the residency and had a sense of the place and the land, I used the time to explore various ways of using line in my work.  They were inspired by the carvings I'd seen on the stones at the archaeological sites of Lough Crew (Slieve Na Calliagh) and Newgrange.  When I look back on that work, I see there are some vague similarities to what I'm doing now in the sense of working with rectangular shapes and the idea of light.


REBECCA: I worked mostly on a few big paintings because I was having a show in Dublin at the end of my stay. In retrospect, I felt a bit constrained by that situation and did not work as freely and experimentally as I have at other residencies. But I was also very energized by the beautiful countryside, and because it was my first time in Ireland. I was intrigued by many aspects of the culture. And, like you, I was inspired by the archaeological sites of Lough Crew and Newgrange.

JANICE:  A day before the residency, my wonderful Irish friend, Mary Quinlan took us to Lough Crew, a megalithic passage grave.  At the cafe at the bottom of the hill, we collected the key to unlock the gate and climbed up the hill in the cold and driving rain.  The grave is shaped like an igloo but covered over top with grass.  We had to slouch to get in through the low and narrow entranceway which led into the main chamber.  Once there, we sat in a hushed silence in the sacred space of the carved stones. We enjoyed the soft September light making it's way down the passageway, going a little farther each day until the equinox when it would land on the back stone, pictured below.

The stone at the back of Lough Crew passage grave in the September light

The experience inspired my painting explorations during the residency.

One of my paintings from the residency.  14x44" (4 panels) acrylic on multimedia art board

REBECCA: Your story about Lough Crew is a great illustration that a residency is so much more of an adventure than you can anticipate beforehand. You know of course that you’re going to paint, and meet other artists--but you can’t imagine all that will happen. Opportunities large and small come up, you have amazing conversations with artists from around the world, see things that are completely new to your eyes, you experience a different culture, eat new foods, and become intrigued by language differences. Every time I have gone on a residency I’ve come away with new ideas that feed my work for a long time (or at least until the next time I go!) And the lovely thing is that you have the time and space to process what you take in right there, in the moment. It's a very focused time, with all senses open for new experiences.

This is one of the paintings that I did during my time at Tyrone Guthrie, Annaghmakerrig, 48"x36." I was thinking about a remark your other Irish friend Mary made that "the veil is very thin" in me there was an atmospheric veil in the rainy, foggy days as well as the one that she referred to, the veil between the everyday and the spiritual realm. This painting triggered a series that continued for months after my return home, and still continues, though its form is evolving.

JANICE: One last experience of the Tyrone Guthrie residency stays in my memory.  Late one afternoon as we were returning from a hike around Annaghmakerrig-the lake in front of the residency-we were met by the distant sound of a trumpet playing Killing Me Softly.  The sound drifted over the fields. The musician was in the dance studio with the double doors flung open.  He was playing simply for himself. We were his only audience and he didn't know we were there.  What joy there is in being an artist.

To read what we wrote individually during our stay, please visit each of our blogs from September 2011. (Links in the right hand column.) Thanks!