A residency by the sea way, 2022 International Symposium of Contemporary Art of Baie-Saint-Paul

In August 2022, I was one of fourteen artists selected to participate in the 40th annual “Symposium de Baie-Saint-Paul”. I felt honoured to be chosen and I eagerly geared up for an exciting ride.

I was not disappointed as the experience was rich and intense. Let me start by describing what I created during that month in my studio, in what used to be a school, behind the Baie-Saint-Paul Museum of Contemporary Art.



When I applied to the symposium, I had a specific project in mind: The Ancestor. This piece is a natural extension of my earlier installation, The Keepers, created at the KOAC in 2020-2021. Using recycled cardboard, I created an eight-foot-tall tree-like sculpture.  A forest canopy that cycled through the four seasons was projected from the top of this tree onto the ceiling. Creating these trees is a lengthy process and given that the Ancestor is much larger in diameter than its companions, The Keepers, it took me the full month to complete the project. To address the Symposium’s theme, Connected-Interconnected: The Digital World in Question, I used local social media and called on residents to bring me their used corrugated cardboard. The response was overwhelming. In fact, two weeks into the project, I had to ask people to stop bringing me their recycling.

This symposium is unique in that the artists’ studios are open to the public five afternoons a week. For such a small town (7,000 residents), the attendance this annual event generates is impressive. People drive from all over to visit the Symposium. On a quiet day, we might welcome about fifty people, on a busy one, about 140. That is a lot of people to meet and chat with over the course of a month. It left us (the artists and staff) simultaneously tired and invigorated. As visual artists, we spend much of our time working alone and we imagine that our work has value; a place in the world. Throughout the month-long symposium, that value was affirmed on a daily basis. Artists rarely experience validation to this degree. I was especially pleased when my project received the children’s popular vote. For the most part, conversations with the public were insightful and warm. Of course, there will always be a few oddballs, but they made for very funny dinner conversations amongst the artists.

Which brings me to my favorite part of this experience: connecting with the other artists. Fourteen of us (put links to their websites), two from within Canada but outside of Quebec; myself and Vasilis Vasili, one from Germany; Irene Anton and eleven from the province of Quebec; Chantal Lagacé, Sylvie Laplante, Michel Boulanger, Oli Sorenson, Carolyne Scenna, Hédy Gobaa, Sébastien Lafleur, Marilyne Busque-Dubois, Serge Clément and Sylvie Rochette and Ladislas Kadyszewski (SYLLAD), shared this experience. We spent our workdays in the same building, and we were soon in the habit of frequenting each other’s studios. Seven of us were given the opportunity to live together and share a kitchen (too small for seven people…).  Interestingly, a month was not too long. I know that I am obsessed with my work, and frankly, I like it that way. Being with thirteen other artists who were just as obsessed, as hard working, as committed and as inspired in their own unique way, was a real treat. Each of us did a one-hour public presentation describing our work and our process. This gave us insight not only into each other’s work but, equally importantly, into the person behind the art. The camaraderie and humour that emerged from the connections we formed was an unexpected bonus. I cherish the memories of that time spent together.

And then there is Baie-Saint-Paul, a beautiful ancestral town founded in 1678 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence Sea way, an hour and a half east of Quebec City. It is best known as the art capital of Quebec, and for good reason. From its earliest days this community has attracted creative people including many famous Canadian artists, such as Jean-Paul Lemieux and Marc-Aurèle Fortin, who took up residence for a time. It is also the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil. Surrounded by rolling hills and overlooking the magnificent St. Lawrence, just before it turns to salt water, the town sits in a valley at the end of an inviting bay where the tide ebbs and flows. It’s worth the trip if only to experience the town’s charm and the region’s beauty.  The Symposium has not been immune to the influence of this small town. In its forty-year history, it has managed to evolve from a painting symposium to one that welcomes art in its most contemporary forms, ever renewing and expanding the public’s interest.

Despite all the hours spent working in the studio, I made sure to find the time to tour around, visiting small towns close by and riding the Charlevoix train on the shore of the St. Lawrence (a lovely treat). The many family members and friends who came to visit ensured that I got out and experienced my beautiful surroundings. While work was my priority, it was important for me to get to know this inspiring place, if only  a bit. After all, my maternal grandparents where both born in Baie-Saint-Paul, so in some ways, it was also a return to the land of my ancestors.

Discovering their name – The Keepers

I was looking for a title for my sculpture project. My mind pushed at the limits of both French and English in the hope that its name would come effortlessly but it wasn’t happening.  Even after hours and hours in the studio, getting to know the work and listening to what it had to say, it wasn’t yet answering my question. “Who are you?  Tell me your name?”

Each day, through those many quiet hours in the KOAC studio, I realized this silence when it came to the title of the work had to do with the fact that the project is more to me than a series of sculptures. It is a wish.

Working through the endless lonely months of lockdown and isolation, listening to news broadcasting the bizarre state of American politics, and the struggle to control a deadly virus running rampant throughout the world was a lot to process.  So, I kept my focus on this sculpture project.  It became my refuge. In the serenity of the sunny studio, with no internet, no visitors, and nowhere else to go because of all the Covid restrictions, I had a very quiet winter – a peaceful winter I will always cherish.

And it’s not because I don’t care. I do care. I care very much. It’s not because I didn’t feel the anxiety of the world as it seemed to became more and more divided, angry and scared. Of course, I felt it. But that is the part of me that worries. The other part, the half of me that insists on standing beside those fears, wants to feel the love we humans are capable of. I want to look at my fellow humans and see care, compassion, calm, joy and patience. Each day throughout the winter I constructed that world in the quiet peace of that studio. I made a community of gentle creatures.

Those gentle tree creatures I was constructing slowly came to life, with personalities of their own, as I moulded layer upon layer of cardboard.  I got to know each one of them. My mind is filled with little moments of cardboard and glue and cutting blades and saws, mingled with sunlight, wind, dust, and quiet lunches with my lovely dog in the studio.  In all those moments, I could quiet my thoughts and breathe deeply. I knew I had something important to do.  

In the end, when I saw them standing together in the studio, when I could walk amongst them and feel their strong yet gentle presence, the sculptures finally whispered their names to me. They are The Keepers.  They are a community of tree-like beings that hold secrets we have yet to uncover about our world. Secrets we might never be fully equipped to understand but that we should respect and cherish. Like our earthly forests, it feels like my sculptures are keepers of ancient knowledge and infinite potential for life. It feels like they know things we don’t.  They are The Keepers.







Meditation: COVID’s Gift to Me

What can I possibly say about the past year that has not already been said? I don’t know what the answers to life are for others, so I will just talk about my personal journey through this unprecedented experience.

COVID came one day, and it just was.  And we, the small and beautiful humans that we are, all had to look at it. In one way or another, we are all connected to COVID. In my lifetime, I don’t remember facing anything like this: this thing that is a part of all of our lives across the entire planet. When I try to imagine this globally, it takes a lot of effort, and even then I’m not satisfied with the image. The funny thing is that to deal with this gigantic thing, I’m having to reach for the finest part of myself.

In the end, this is what I’ve decided: I refuse to be consumed by fear, I refuse to just tolerate what is unfolding, and I refuse to lose hope and inner joy.

At least I try to refuse!  (I admit – it’s a daily re-commitment.)

So what have I learned so far this year? Well, because I’m scared, I’ve learned how to breathe. Because my body needs a break from my mind, I’ve learned to cherish small things that I would normally have overlooked. Because this time, the unsettledness feels so multifaceted and full, I am learning to dig deeper inside my soul. And that digging takes a lot of energy.

Did you sleep as much as I did this winter? I was exhausted. I am just coming out of it. And now it’s my husband’s turn. He comes home from work and has a nap every day. That’s a new thing in his life.

I met a woman in Salmon Arm a few years ago who went to a meditation retreat that lasted four months. She flew to Taxco, Mexico and attended an event assembled by The Bright Paths. When I asked her why she decided to do that, she answered: “Because my sanity is worth it.” I was so impressed with her answer! What a beautiful thing to do for yourself. Choose to find peace, choose to find calm, choose to find inner love.

In looking for that myself in the past few months, I’ve found a few answers. In all this in-depth digging, thinking and feeling, I’ve discovered that my mind is like a small child. I have to nudge it back on the path the whole freakin’ way. It is so much work! Seriously, every minute I have to remind my mind to shut up and listen. Listen to the wind, listen to the birds, listen to the muscles of my body, listen to my breathing, listen to the water that fills my cells. Sometimes now, I actually manage to quiet this undisciplined mind of mine.

I started meditating about a year ago. And honestly, I don’t know how I would have made it through this year without it. I think I would have had a tantrum of one kind or another. You know what I learned about meditation? You cannot do it wrong! That’s right, all you have to do is do it. Sit, lie down, just do it. Guided meditation, music meditation, affirmations meditation, storytelling meditation, self-guided meditation.  They all work in the sense that they all add up.

Our forest 30 x 30

Among my favorite YouTube channels that graciously share very well-made meditations for us to listen to are: Jason Stevenson, The Mindful Movement, The Honest guys and Pura Rasa. In all of them I look first for a soothing voice, and then for content that can keep my mind from wandering. That latter part can change from day to day, so I don’t fight it. If one meditation is not working that day, I move on to another. I also have good and bad waves with meditation. Some weeks I feel like I am going nowhere with it and don’t feel it’s of much benefit. On other weeks, I feel like I pass through a threshold. I lose myself and find a new connection. I feel the pulse that inhabits all of us. The irony is that in this most intimate space that opens up in meditation, what I reach envelops everything.

Fructify 30 x 30

I once read that our bodies are made up of mostly empty space. The space within our molecules is a void within us that is bigger than the matter, just like the space between the stars. That blew my mind and changed my perception of how I reside in the world. I am permeable! The world can seep into me and inhabit me.

And this is what COVID-19 is doing to all of us. In one way or another, physically, emotionally, socially, economically, it seeps into all of us and inhabits us. It does this because we are an integral part of the world we live in. It does this because we’re permeable. It does this because we are not separate.

Bad Art

My Grade 12 students showed up at my studio for their after school art class and announced they had to create a ‘bad piece of art’. Their art teacher had assigned this their first homework of the semester, and I have to say we all got pretty excited about it!

“So what makes a piece of art really bad?” I asked them. Very quickly, a long list of criteria emerged. We started with the obvious: bad technique. The painting might be bad because the artist didn’t have the technical ability to execute the work to a high enough standard. But, we decided, it would be narrow minded of us to reject a painting based solely on that criteria. After all, an image could be poorly executed but still convey such a profound meaning or provoke such a strong emotion that it becomes good art.

Bad Art created by one of my students. Showcasing bad technic and unnecessary emotional shock value.

That led us to the next criteria: meaning. Does good art have to convey meaning in an effective way? Does it have to have meaning that is worth expressing? A lot of interior decorators would probably claim that good art doesn’t have to convey any meaning at all. It can just be a pretty picture. But who decides what relevant meaning is? Personally, I prefer art that tells a story, that expresses something more profound than just a pretty image. But ‘meaning’ is a very subjective term. In fact, after some thought, my students decided that, in the context of their homework, purposely creating artwork without meaning is deliberately inserting meaning!

And what about the perpetually misunderstood contemporary art world? At every turn of human history, artists have created work that was rejected, misunderstood or ignored by their contemporaries. Art, being exploratory in nature, should stretch the viewer’s understanding. A lot of people don’t appreciate the work shown in today’s contemporary galleries and would promptly judge it as bad art or, not art at all. I believe we should look at every piece of art with an open mind, and ask ourselves what the artist was trying to communicate, and did he/she succeed in conveying a new idea? Inevitably, I will either come to feel that I understand the artist’s meaning, or I won’t. But this is my own personal reaction to the work. The key words here are “personal” and “feel”, because all of us have our own personal idea about what is good art and what is bad art.

Sculpture 1 created by one of my students inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

Our discussion went on for a while. We talked about ‘motel art’ and ‘thrift store art’, and that discussion steered us toward the idea of value. Is bad art simply artwork that has no value to anyone, be it emotional value or financial value? Motels and most hotels will spend as little as possible on the art they display and will try to appeal to the widest audience. Their intention is to make people feel comfortable in their rooms. As for the thrift stores, the art you will find there was deemed valueless by whomever dropped it off. However, you might be lucky enough to find a real gem that was tossed by someone who couldn’t recognize art if he was standing in the Louvre!

We had a great class talking about artistic value – emotional, financial or otherwise. And in the end, perceived lack of value, although not perfect, may be the closest we came to defining bad art.

Sculpture 2 inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

Finally though, we all got down to work and one of my students decided to go for a poorly executed painting with an easy shock factor. Her painting depicts giant bugs crawling into an eye socket. She’s one of my most precise and detailed painters, so I was impressed with her self control as she deliberately failed to create excellent work. Another of the students presented with the same challenge spent a large portion of the class looking for an unpleasing colour combination. That was harder than you might think. Colours have a way of being interesting in their relationship with each other. She did succeed though, and we all agreed that the colours she settled upon during class are a very sad combination. Yet when she brought her sculptures to class the following week, all of us agreed that they were too interesting to be bad.

After two hours spent on the subject, we all agreed that intentionally creating bad art is not an easy task. We predicted that the high school class critique will conclude that most of the students didn’t succeed in their assignment. Most of them will have created something that is, in some way, and to someone, good art! Good enough, perhaps, to earn a spot at the MOBA (The Museumof Bad Art in Boston), that prides itself on collecting “art that is too bad to be ignored”. It’s an eclectic and delightful collection. Created in 1993, the MOAB was an instant success and its fame grows day by day. Roaming through their website, you can’t help but find the collection both fascinating and funny, although I’d have to say most of the work is very poorly executed.

I “sit with elders of a gentle race…”

Years ago, when my husband played me the Led Zepplin song Kashmir, he pointed out this line and, forever after, it has called to my soul.

Each time I’ve heard it since, I’ve longed to “…. sit with elders of a gentle race,” and it dawned on me last week that indeed I was having the wonderful opportunity to do just that. I was going to have lunch with Katie Ohe and Harry Kiyooka at their house – the house west of Calgary they’re converting to an art centre named KOAC.

Silkscreen print 2019, Flot (french word)

In fact, I was having lunch with them for the second day in a row. Every year Katie generously invites me to use her printing studio to create my annual silkscreen print, and I so look forward to those times shared with them. They truly are elders of a gentle race, artistic geniuses, trailblazers of Alberta’s art world and genuinely caring people. Together they combine more than 130 years of artistic experience, so you might assume this would make them unapproachable. In fact, the opposite is true. They became artists because their urge to create is visceral. They have spent their lives devoted to that passion and to sharing it with the people who cross their paths.

As Jeff Bray, a brilliant multi-disciplinary artist from Calgary, says “When Katie holds both your hands in hers and talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the world.” In truth, Katie makes each one of us feel that way. Her boundless passion for the process of creating art is only matched by her passion for sharing with others. Her warmth, her experience, her skill, her ideas, her process, and her curiosity is always in trade for yours.



The Esker Foundation in Calgary is presenting a retrospective exhibition of Katie’s formidable life’s work from January 25 to May 3rd 2020. In their words, “For over 60 years, Katie Ohe has been a catalysing force in Calgary’s art community as an artist, mentor, teacher, supporter, and builder. As one of Alberta’s most important artistic figures, she has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary art in the province and her innovative approaches to material, form, movement, and participation have been a meaningful influence for generations. This eponymous exhibition—her largest and most comprehensive solo exhibition to date—traces the development of work through six decades of Ohe’s remarkable sculptural practice.” I can’t wait to see this fabulous collection in the Esker’s beautiful exhibition space!

Simultaneously, you can see a selection of hers and of her husband Harry’s early work at the Herringer Kiss Gallery in Calgary.

Katie has shared so much of her wisdom with so many of us over the years, and I am truly grateful. Every day, as I push through the challenges of being an artist, her precious words come to me and reassure me that all is as it should be.


A residence for Francophone-Canadian artists at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity.

In late August I took part in a very special artists’ residency called Entr’Arts, a program assembled every two years by rafa(Regroupement Artistique Francophone de l’Alberta). 

This year’s edition hosted 23 francophone artists from four artistic disciplines: visual art, music, writing and television arts. They came from five Canadian provinces and worked under the caring guardianship of six mentors who came to us from as far away as Belgium. Each artist applied for the program with a project to work on during the residency and a mind open and welcoming to whatever might unfold.

Even though it was the fifth time I participated in the program, it’s still difficult to put this incredible experience into words because, quite literally, those six short days always succeed in rocking my world. After the first edition I participated in years ago, I came home and wrote to friends that it was like having been in the eye of a hurricane. While I was there, it seemed like everything was calmly happening within the little world I occupied. But when I left that creative cocoon, it felt like the whole world got reorganised while I was gone.

This time, I thought, I knew what to expect and felt immune to what was coming. Been-there-done-that, I thought! In fact, after a year packed to the brim with things I didn’t necessarily want to do, this opportunity felt like just one more ‘have-to-do’.

Was I ever wrong! This session might have been the one that got to my soul the most. How can I possibly explain the energy of that place and of the group in which I was immersed?

Let’s start with the land itself. The Banff Centre sits on sacred land where archaeological evidence proves that humans have lived for at least 10,000 years. It was the traditional territory of the KootenayStoneyBloodPeiganSiksika and Tsuu T’ina First Nations. The word going around the Banff Centre is that the land where it sits was a gathering place where Nations came to be together and to seek healing.  After a few days on site, we all started to feel it. The land is indeed more than breathtakingly beautiful. It is sacred.

It’s every artist’s dream: a world-class facility, a brilliant private studio space and a creative and technical team there to teach you what you need to learn and provide you with the guidance you didn’t even know you would be looking for. Your only responsibility is to expand your mind and explore new vistas in your creative work. And when your mind needs to take a break there are yoga classes, a swimming pool and endless hiking trails at your doorstep. And when, finally, you’re both tired and hungry, you’re fed a gourmet meal and provided a beautiful room where the only noise to disturb your sleep is the wind sighing through the forest that surrounds you. That on its own is a gift.

And then there was the group. The artists and mentors who were there for this summer’s program were particularly caring. Some of us got together in Edmonton a week later and had a chance to reminisce about our Banff Centre experience. We tried to decide what word could best describe this group. We chose “bienveillant”. Benevolent. All of us were so happy to be there, to work hard, to exchange our thoughts about life and art and to do it all in French, each of us with our own unique Canadian and European accents. All of us, away from home, felt right at home in one another’s company.

Part of the Banff Centre experience is to put yourself in danger as an artist, to push your comfort boundaries and see what else you can express while staying true to your own voice. At first I was almost frightened by the profound discomfort of feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. But then I discovered the joy of seeing my ideas unlock and come together and, in the end, the work I set out to do went really well.

I was there to test an installation project that can now accompany my paintings in gallery shows. (I’ll let you know more of the details about the installation in a future blog). The group discussions really helped with this process, even when what was being discussed had nothing to do with what I was doing. Hearing the others going through their own struggles and finding solutions is both nourishing and reassuring and generates unexpected answers.

I’m still riding that wave of energy! And I hope to keep all that I learned close to heart in the work I will take on in the next two years. Then I hope to go back to the Banff Centre and fill up my creative tank again.

Ent’Arts: a residency for Canadian francophone artists from New Brunswick and the western provinces is a gift to all of those who have the chance to experience it. You go there thinking you are stepping out of reality to enter a privileged time away from the usual worries of the world. But you come out of it feeling like this was reality and that the world outside of that time has taken on a whole new meaning – not fully real and all of a sudden malleable.

Using Art to Work with Community Groups

Identity Art Project, part 1

Last year, I had a terrific artist in residence project, the best of its kind. It had a reasonable budget with an open-minded French Immersion Director who told me, “The budget is approved; do what you want!” It was, for me, a dream project.

The objective was to highlight the students in the Immersion Program, showcasing the French immersion kids in their predominantly English language school. And, ultimately, to create a piece of artwork that would commemorate their experiences throughout the lifespan of the project.

It was a project without set boundaries; absolutely my favourite way to work! But it’s always a leap of faith to trust in my ability to discover the link between the ‘big idea’ and the pathway forward. The first question is always,  “Where do I start?” And then, “How do I get the rest of us on that pathway imagining our common goal?” The first few steps are pretty obvious: introduce myself to all the students and staff and give them an idea of what a project like this entails, and how it might unfold. So in every immersion class I presented a video about my artistic practice and a power point about the community and public art projects I had done in the past that might resemble what we could experience together.

But how would I get to know them? And how could I encourage them to be curious about the project and involved in its creation? I built a rolling cart with sides made of chalkboards, two mailboxes, a folding tabletop, and inside… a mirror. It would serve as a prop any time I needed students to come to me and contribute in one way or another to the project and to share information and fun facts about the project.

Prop in hand, I was ready to get to know the kids. I started with asking them some personal questions.  When you wake up in the morning, are grumpy or happy? What’s your favourite colour? What are you most afraid of? Who’s your favourite band?

Those surveys eventually comprised about 30 questions and continued for six weeks or so until I compiled statistics on 120 students and their teachers. I got to know them, but at the same time they were learning to really know one another.  

Then, as community project often unfold, the French Immersion Director came to me and suggested that my project might assist the francophone Theatre, Inook Touzin in creating a visual environment for the Molière tid bits our students would be performing.

Well, I thought, why not? It certainly fell under the objectives of the project, and being paired with a visual platform that had a built in audience was an excellent idea. However, by this point I knew those 120 students were, for the most part, more academic than artistic, and I only had 50 minutes with each group to get something done. How could we best work with Moliere? And then it came to me in a flash: Moliere already had the answer. His literary brilliance is in the caricatures he creates of his characters. We could learn from the Master; portraits would be the way forward! And as quickly as I solved that problem, my hopes were dashed when I had to admit that portraits are excruciatingly difficult to draw or paint.  

Marvin Mattelson writes a blog he’s titled, “Portrait Painting is More Difficult Than Brain Surgery”. He says that From the moment we’re born, we learn to recognize faces; it’s a lifesaving skill for a young human. As a result, all of us can easily recognize a bad portrait. We instantly know if does or does not look like the model. Then, another flash: but we’re not aiming for realism here. It’s Moliere. We’re going to create caricatures!

So the students drew portraits of one another other. The model sat directly in front of the artist, a vertical sheet of Plexiglas between them covered with a clear film. The artist drew onto the clear film, basically following the outlines of the model as accurately as possible. The portraits, for the most part, took about 20 minutes to draw; then the roles reversed and the model became the artist and the artist became the model. In one 50 minute class every student was caricatured well enough to look like his or her not-so good-looking cousin.

Finally the portraits were projected in the theatre along with the students’ responses to questions I’d asked. “My eyes are blue,” or “I’m most afraid of spiders,” or “If I could, I would put an end to hunger in the world.” Then, parents visiting the event had an opportunity to make portraits using the same technique, realizing how difficult it was to do, yet reserving judgement and, best of all, having as much fun as the kids did.

Stay tuned for my next blog, and I’ll tell you all about the next six months of this project and the creation of our temporary art installation….


“Calgary Says ‘No’ to the Olympics.” Is competition a good thing?

So it’s done; no Olympics for Calgary. While that decision was being made this week through a civic plebiscite I was painting, and it got me thinking about competition and how it fits in my world of art and, more broadly, how much good it does in our community.

I was on the fence with this vote. There was no clear black or white answer for me. The injection of funds from other levels of governments and the upgrades in our sports infrastructure would have been welcome. On the other hand, the deficit that comes with this event does nothing for us. But more important: we’ve learned not to trust the city to stay on budget, and we certainly don’t trust the International Olympic Committee to do anything but fill its own pockets.

Caught in the Tide, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 30″

The day after the vote I was painting again and listening to a book titled It takes a tribe, building the Touch Mother movement. It relates the story of how the company of the same name was created and grew. Tough Mother sees itself as tribe. They organise challenging events all over the world based on principles of grit and collaboration. Participants do not compete. One of the main rules is “no man gets left behind”. The obstacles on the course are designed to encourage collaboration. They don’t calculate your time, there are no prizes and no one is awarded a medal. People do it because they need to challenge themselves and share a powerful experience with others where everyone helps one another to the finish line. This book had me wondering again, is competition good or bad?

From the reading I’ve done, it seems that competition is both good and bad depending on the context. For example, it’s not so good in a “care” relationship where it will keep both partners in a state of tension and render them less inclined to take care of one another. On the other hand, competing can do a lot of good in the context of a fund raising event.

Psychology Today, in their article titled The Psychology of Competition describes competition as an extrinsic incentive. “Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behaviour or decision is sourced externally rather than internally (for instance, when you do something because you get a reward for it). A fundamental characteristic, and downside, of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained!”

That leads me to think that most of us artists aren’t competitive by nature. Being an artist requires massive self-motivation to keep going. There is rarely an external incentive to be an artist. It comes from within. I asked the question on my Facebook page to my artists friends out there: are you completive or not? Although it is a really small sample, it seams to concur that the majority of artists see themselves as not competitive. You can add you answer! 

I am not a competitive person. I don’t care to compare myself to anyone else and, sadly maybe, I don’t really care how others perform. I vividly remember a moment playing Volley Ball in grade 10 that made it obvious that I didn’t share my peers’ enthusiasm for competing. In the middle of the game, I got distracted and didn’t see the ball coming my way. I missed it and, as it fell to the floor, I heard the outrage of my teammates. “How could I do such a thing? How could I miss such an easy ball?” The first thing that came to my mind was “Why on earth do they care so much? It’s just a game!”

So I stuck to swimming, hiking and painting, all activities where I don’t let down anyone who cares so much about winning. I’m perfectly happy in my world of art where there is no real competition. My experience with other artists is that we help each other out as much as we can, and each of us does what we do with conviction.

The swimmer, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But, as much as I may think our society over estimates the value of competition, it’s an undeniable part of who we are. Psychology Today concludes that “For most people, there is something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition. Perhaps that’s because, as some scholars argue, “competitiveness” is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.”

Breathe and watch your posture… or your painting will suffer!

I suppose every seasoned artist knows this, but it always comes as a surprise to my new students when I say, “Watch your posture and remember to breathe”.

Dream, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

“And what does breathing and standing straight have to do with painting?” they ask. “A whole lot more than you might think,” I say. Painting is about being in the flow, finding a groove and letting the work manifest itself. It’s a place where our worries, our self-consciousness and our self-deprecation need to be set aside to leave room for unedited self-expression. Our bodies tend to carry all of our worries and negative emotions. Our muscles are tensed, our backs are slouched forward and we hold our breath too often, especially when concentration is required. All those can greatly affect the flow of your paintbrush and keep you stuck in an ineffective state of mind.

Breathing steadily and peacefully while painting helps you relax and bring your mind into a state of presence. It allows you to connect with your work, to see it better and to respond to it as it evolves. A painting isn’t something you can entirely plan ahead. You can make a few initial decisions, but after that, every brush stroke is a decision that is made in relation to what’s already on the canvas. So to make all these little decisions, you have to be present in every moment.  

Pensive, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

Painting is as much a physical act as it is an intellectual process. One thing is abundantly clear: whatever you do with your body while you paint affects your intellectual process. Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I have bad posture while painting, my mind goes to a place of impatience. I start rushing the work so I can get out of that uncomfortable position. Good posture, which is not the same as restful posture, is primordial to a sustained painting practice. If you want to be able to paint for hours on end, you need to learn to stand or sit the right way. Painting is an active state. You shouldn’t let your body be too comfortable. Your body needs to be engaged in the process. Personally, I paint standing up. This has a few advantages: it forces me to be physically engaged, it helps me keep a better posture and it saves me from getting lazy.

Every time I’ve tried painting from a sitting position, (usually because I’m tired), it didn’t work for me.   The simple truth is that I need to have my canvas standing straight up in front of me to avoid distortions of the image. I also need to be able to step away from the canvas frequently so I can get a complete view of the image. It’s so incredibly tempting for most of us to focus on one area of the canvas, forgetting the big picture. Painting sitting down can only work for really small formats where you have an easy overview of your work.

Second, I find that sitting induces a state of laziness that shows in the work. Although you never want to be in a rush to finish your work, you do want to keep yourself in an active enough state that motivates you to make all those small decisions that a painting requires.

Breathe, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

And finally, sitting down is conducive to bad posture. If you are going to choose to paint sitting down, you need to be very mindful of what you do with your body and with your breath. It’s easy to slouch while sitting, but most of us don’t notice we are doing it. And poor posture in any position is conducive to poor breathing.

The art of manliness, in their blog titled The Ultimate Guide to Posture goes through the art of good posture very thoroughly. They talk about the benefits of good posture, and teach us how to achieve it while standing or sitting. And they provide corrective exercises to counter years of bad posture.

My advice? Take their advice: straighten up, breathe, and paint!

The Creative Rut

There are not many things that scare me in the same way as when I feel stuck in a creative rut. Every time it happens I seriously worry that it’ll last forever, that the fulfilment that comes from being focused on creating art will never be mine again. I worry that I’ll have to redefine my life because I can’t be an artist any longer!

You may think all this sounds a little over dramatic, but remember that most artists do quit being artists for good at some stage in their lives. Ruts aren’t just a slow day. They last weeks and some times months. And the longer they persist, the more worried I get.

The really scary thing about them is that you never see them coming. I go along doing just fine happily making art, and then – one morning – nothing. I have no motivation to go into my studio. If I do, I find all sorts of creative ways to procrastinate. I clean, reorganize, move things around, I become fanatic about paperwork. Anything so I don’t have to face the fact that I have no creative juice available that day, or the next day, or the day after that….

I’ve learned through the years to identify some of the triggers. Some ruts come when a series of work as run its course, when continuing to work with it doesn’t stimulate creativity anymore. It’s easy to want to keep pushing forward creating the kind of art that has worked well in the past. But experience has taught me that creating is an act of discovery. Trying to hold on to a process or a genre can trigger a creative rut.

Consuming distractions that last for an extended period of time will also derail a creative flow. My summer renovations proved that, for sure! But it’s now the first week of November and I’m finally feeling my creative juices coming back.

“Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working,” affirmed American sculptor Stephen DeStaebler. That is never more true than at the end of a creative rut. At some point I become so agitated about not creating work that I’m good with creating anything at all that will bring me back to my studio. That’s when I finally surrender and let go of what I was doing to discover what else I can do. In that sense, those ruts may be the necessary mental pause we need in order to be able to revisit the way we see things and the way we can express them.

But still, there are a few things we can do to get back into a creative flow. In her blog 7 ways to get out of a creative rut, Margarita Tartakovsky shares some of those tricks.

  1. Create space

“This can be anything from taking a walk to looking out the window to taking a shower. In other words, it simply means doing something else – that is, other than stewing in your dry spell.”

  1. Be present

“Presence is about aligning our attention in the moment, instead of letting our minds be endlessly divided by internal worries, chatter [and] reminders. Being in the present is what lets you access inspiration and creative energy.”

  1. Change something small

Make small changes in your physical environment like painting a wall, cleaning up your supply shelves, etc.

  1. Shake things up

“Trying new things on a regular basis or doing the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Creativity is enhanced by our ability to look at things from as many different perspectives as possible.”

  1. Commit to a project publicly

If accountability works for you, this is a good one. That’s what all those one painting a day challenges you see on social media are all about. I am doing one myself right now with my artist collective DEVENIR

  1. Celebrate your failures

“They can be a great source of new ways of thinking,”

  1. Simply show up

“The quality of whatever you’re working on doesn’t matter. What does matter is the follow-through and being there, in your creative space”

I am sensing that my most recent rut is dissipating and it’s a serious relief. I’m back in the studio, I’ve tidied up all the loose ends on my other projects, (it’s been a very long rut), and I’m feeling creative energy coming my way. And best of all, I’m looking forward to hibernating in my studio to see what I can produce with all that renewed energy.