A road trip to Alex Janvier’s studio

Alex Janvier’s work is at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for the summer (June 16 to September 9). It is a major retrospective featuring over 100 remarkable paintings and drawings.  Here is all about my Janvier road trip!

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Alex Janvier, “Tribute to Beaver Hills,” Strathcona County Hall, Sherwood Park, Alberta, photo credit Corinne Dickson

When I asked Corinne “Would you like to come along with me on a road trip to visit Alex Janvier, one of my mentors?” I may have fudged the details a little. Perhaps I neglected to say that we’d have to drive six hours to get to his studio in Cold Lake… at the end of the highway… on the far north-east side of Alberta. And maybe I forgot to mention that Alex Janvier doesn’t actually know he’s my mentor. And I’m pretty sure he’d never heard of me. But nonetheless, Alex Janvier influences every stroke of my paintbrush.

Just look at his work: it flows with life! Somehow, the movements of colour take you into his visual world where a narrative takes place, and I’m both charmed and intrigued every time I see his work. But mostly I’m inspired to reach beyond my grasp toward that level of narrative in my own work. So yes, Alex Janvier is definitely my mentor – whether he knows it or not.

At his Gallery, nestled into the forest by the Lake, we had the chance to hang out with a large number of pieces and to flip through his new work. I’m impressed by how he remains, in his old age, a very strong and very prolific painter. His new work has lost none of the energy of his earlier compositions.

Janvier, born in 1935, is of Dene Suline and Saulteaux heritage. He was raised by his loving family until, at the age of eight, he was uprooted and sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. But because he had always been a highly imaginative child, the school gave him the tools he needed to create his first paintings and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to graduate with honours from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary where he developed a unique and recognizable style with influences from his mother’s and other relatives’ beadwork and bark basket-making. And his recent retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa  has made it clear to all Canadians that Janvier is among the leaders of a small group of masterful Indigenous contemporary painters who have built and maintained successful lifelong careers.

His career didn’t come without sacrifice, however. We spent about two hours with his wife Jaqueline and she told us that together they had raised six children and that some of those years were very lean. “So,” she said, “when money came in, I filled up the freezer with meat to make sure we could survive the next lean time.”

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Me laying on ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’, Rogers Place in Edmonton, photo credit Corinne Dickson

On our way home we stopped three times to admirer some of his public art. The most recent one is at Rogers Place in Edmonton. It’s a 14-metre diameter tile installation set into the floor of Ford Hall titled ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’ or ‘Iron Foot Place’. I’m told it took 20 staff members six months to install the million byzantine glass tiles of the mosaic that depicts the natural beauty of the Edmonton landscape, and I’m confident that it will remain central to the soul of the city, its Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, its lands and its waters.

Six long hours home, filled with much conversation about our own careers as artists, inevitably led both Corinne and me to our own soul searching. How will we look back at our own careers in 50 years? Does Alex Janvier feel he has accomplished what he set out to do? Or is he surprised when he looks back at the work he’s compiled? Has he realized his narrative goals?
Being artists, we suspect that he knows how hard he worked and how focused and committed he has been to achieve such acclaim. And having seen his new work, we also suspect that his mind is on his next project; it never settles on past accomplishments. For creative junkies like Alex Janvier, there will never be enough time. And the next creative endeavor will always be more interesting than the ones already realized.
Corinne and I agreed. This is, indeed, a life worth living.


The Status of the Artist:

Everyone can draw, some of us very well. Some not so well. Does that mean that everyone is an artist? No, it certainly does not.

Pulse 2, acrylic 24″ x 30″

I recently attended a discussion in Calgary about The Status of the Artist, along with professional artists from various art practices including dance, theater, writers and visual artists. We were all invited to contribute our views on ‘What is an Artist?’, ‘How do We Contribute to our Society?’ and ‘What is Our Place and Role in that Society?’ Our goal was to provide information to the Alberta Government so it can develop Status of the Artist Legislation. I was eager to attend because I saw it as a first step toward an official recognition of the artists’ contribution to society and a foundation for improving the living conditions of artists. Most are still living below, or very close to, the poverty level. And no, it’s not because they’re disorganized and lazy. Well, maybe some of us are, but not in larger numbers than what you will find in any other field of work.

So? What … and who… is an artist?

There was no problem getting the discussion started; artists are passionate and devoted to their practices and the conversation was animated and interesting since many of us have very similar challenges and concerns. Most of us feel that the term ‘artist’ is used pretty loosely in our society, and that the actual profession of being an artist is not viewed as a very serious endeavor. But I guarantee that for those of us who devote our lives to the practice and understanding of an art form, it is serious and meaningful work. Maybe we should call ourselves ‘Professional Artists’. But would we ask the same of doctors and lawyers? Of course not.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 40″

Perhaps the ‘Artist’ title encompasses too many ‘hobby artists’ – those who like to do a little creative dabbling on weekends to unwind from the work that supports them financially. They may dream of one day chucking the job that supports them and being called an artist, but my advice would be to read my blog titled Naively Optimistic. In that blog I write about the challenges of being a ‘Professional Artist’. It might put a damper on some of that daydreaming.

Anyone can be creative, but that’s not what makes an artist. We need to do a better job at recognizing the training, the work ethic, the experience and the professional presentation of the work that needs to happen before one can call himself a ‘Professional Artist’. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers has popularized the expression “10 thousand hours”, the average number of hours one needs to invest in something before becoming good at it. Anyone who has attempted to be an artist will confirm that it takes hard work and dedication to become a competent and confident artist. Painting two hours a week and selling pieces to neighbours and friends doesn’t make anyone a professional artist.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 24″

Daniel Grant, in his blog titled How do you Define ‘Artist declares, “As opposed to other occupations that require a license, permits, state testing or even reported income, the label artist seems more like a value judgment….” He goes on to list a number of things that can be considered criterias required for someone to be called an artist:

an artist makes art. Yes they do, as much as they possibly can.

– an artist declares artistic revenues as their main source of income. Not always. A lot of professional artists hold separate jobs that support their artistic practice. But they should at least take themselves seriously enough to declare all their art related revenus.

an artist professionally presents their work to the public. Yes, they do. And that’s a critical part of a professional process. As an artist you must be challenged by how people perceive your work. It helps further your development and reflection no matter what the public’s reaction might be. And even though most artists start by presenting their work in non-professional contexts, (the church art sale for instance), they should rapidly move to jury-selected or curated shows to validate their professional status.

– an artist requires a studio or a professional working space. I have yet to meet a professional artist who doesn’t have a space dedicated to the creation of their work.

an artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. And there it is: the ultimate validation. Is the person eligible to receive public funds to pursue their career as an artist? Hard earned money from the tax payer cannot be carelessly distributed and therefore requires some serious boundaries as to who is a professional artist and who is not. The Canada Council for the Arts defines a professional artist as follows:

  • has specialized training in the artistic field (not necessarily in academic institutions)
  • is recognized as a professional by his or her peers (artists working in the same artistic tradition)
  • is committed to devoting more time to artistic activity, if possible financially
  • has a history of public presentation or publication.

And Grant’s final criteria is:

an artist is someone who calls themselves artist.

If you have read this and still feel confident calling yourself an artist, then go for it. But keep in mind that ‘Professional’ artists in your town, province and country work tirelessly to maintain their status, do you?

For those of you who would like to contribute your thoughts on the Alberta Artist Status, you can do so till June 30th 2018 though this Alberta Foundation for the Arts survey.

 


Is it Possible to Separate Art from the Artist? And Should We?

Can a misogynist, a racist, a rapist or a convicted criminal be a great artist? Can we value their work separately from our evaluation of the person behind the art? Should we support art done by people of low moral character?

When a friend challenged me to answer questions like these, I thought long and hard about the best way to answer. They’re appropriate questions, especially now. In the emergence of the Me Too movement, a number of public figures -who are also artists – have been revealed as having very questionable morals.

The White Horse by Paul Gauguin, 1898

I’ve stewed about this for a couple of days, and have realized that the question is just too big and broad for a short and simple answer. So, first let me start by saying that artists are no better or worse than others who live in the society they do. My guess is that that statistics would prove the proportion of good people and bad people in the art world in the same as in the rest of society. Second, it would be foolish to think that only people of good character can create good art. History is full great artists who had questionable morals. Charles McGrath, in his Globe and Mail article titled Good Art Bad People offers a long list of such artists including Picasso who was basically a bully, and Gauguin who had sexual relations with under-age girls. And yet I still love Gauguin’s’ work. Does that mean I support his behaviour? Absolutely not!

Maybe we’re confusing the meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when they refer to people and when they refer to art. People are judged according the moral standards of the society they live in. And, thankfully, societal standards evolve with time. As a woman, if I had been born 150 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make a living as an artist, although countless men certainly did. Today, we wouldn’t dream of this kind of discrimination against women, but for most of human history, women had no choice.

But art has no moral compass. A piece of art is either well done, or it is not. It either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. It either accomplishes its purpose – be it as entertainment, as social critic, or simply as a beautiful object. Or it does not. So the words good and bad are used to evaluate different things when you’re judging art or judging character.

And what about the link between the artwork and the artist who created it? I am an artist, and I have a personal perspective on that subject. To me, once the work is created and I have applied the final coat of varnish, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. The world will value it, judge it and allow it to live or it will not. I am perfectly aware that most of my work will exist well past my expiration date. In that sense, the work matters more than the artist who created it. Think about it! When we travel and see all the incredible artwork around the world, we’re frequently unaware of who created it. Some of those artists’ names have long been forgotten, and some of them may have had questionable characters. But their art lives on and continues to enrich our lives.

Does this mean I could handle having one of Hitler’s watercolours in my house? No, I don’t think I could. But I could look at it in a museum and appreciate the technique – if it’s any good.  

As a society, I don’t think we should discard artwork created by bad people. We should provide context when we show the work, but we shouldn’t destroy it, ignore it, diminish its importance or hide it indefinitely in closets solely based on the character of the creator. The art should be considered based entirely on its artistic merit.

Yes, I realize that this opinion is harder to defend when it comes to living artists. Gauguin has been dead for 100 years and he’s not personally profiting from his artwork today. He gains nothing. But his art lives on. But art institutions are entangled with the society in which they exist. If they promoted the work of today’s sex offenders and racists, they’d risk offending their public audience. Thus, living artists who are exposed as morally corrupt run a serious risk of seeing their careers destroyed. They are just as vulnerable to societal censure as all their morally corrupt contemporaries. If their work is strong and relevant, however, it will outlive them.

I, personally, want to decide for myself what I support. And what I don’t support.  No one is forced to enter a gallery, to read a book or to watch a movie. All of us can make decisions as to whom we give our money when we select artwork. I’m not inclined to create financial benefit for people with questionable values, but I am opposed to ignoring art that has the potential over time to contribute to society and to nourish people’s minds and spirits.  


Connecting Children With Nature Through Art

Laurent, doing what ever boys do!

As my kids were growing up, I encouraged them to roam free close to our home, where they had access to 600 acres of untouched nature full of treasures waiting to be discovered. Birds defending their nesting territory high in the trees, frogs basking in the pounds, and creeping bugs scurrying through the long grasses endlessly fascinated those little boys. They collected wasps’ nests, mushrooms, sticks and stones, and played in the mud pit knowing they would have to be washed in cold water with the garden hose once they got back home.

At the time, I did realize that most of my neighbours’ children weren’t permitted to ‘free range’. Many young parents collectively decided that outdoors was out-of-bounds. They had become convinced that nature was a risky place. But because my most precious childhood memories have to do with being in nature without adult supervision, I know deep in my soul that this generation of children is being deprived of one of childhood’s greatest pleasures. And that is just a shame.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, meaning, according to Wikipedia, “…that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.” 

Joshua, always climbing!

Louv affirms, “Today’s children now know more about the wildlife of the Amazon rainforest than they do about their own backyard.” He argues that “… sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally scared children straight out of the woods and fields, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favours ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play.”

Statistics show that children now spend, on average, less than 30 minutes outdoors after their school days. This even though spending more time outside, ideally in nature, improves kids’ physical and psychological health, and makes them more environmentally conscientious. In a world where humankind is endangering more and more species with its lack of care for the environment and its constant pressure on natural resources, I believe we all have a responsibility to introduce children to what we are at risk of losing. How can we protect and care for nature if we have no idea what lives around us? If we never feel the joy and wonder of interacting with nature, won’t we forget that we’re an integral part of nature, not separate from it, not superior to it? Our specie, as all others, is dependant upon the natural world, so it’s imperative that we respect it and develop a deeper love for it.

My boys are all grown up now but, sadly, many of my teenage art students are still not permitted to walk by themselves on the paths by the creek in my community, let alone to wonder around in the forest.

When several of those students asked whether I’d organise a summer art camp for them, I resisted the idea at first.   Why? Well, I suppose I have to admit that I jealously guard those precious summer weeks. We have so few of them here in Canada and I cherish the time I spend outside, creating my art and connecting with nature. But then, three years ago, I finally got excited about its potential.

Photo credit Jean Wallace

The idea of a Summer Nature Art Camp made me happy! I could take kids out into those 600 acres and encourage them to explore and daydream and create art. It was an idea definitely worth a couple of precious summer weeks. I’d still get to be outside and do art. But for those two weeks I could share the experience with kids who, for the most part, have never had an opportunity to spend that many hours in nature all at once.

Making clay faces during summer nature art camp.

Last year, on the first day of Camp, as we settled down for lunch under the welcome shade of magnificent spruce trees, an eight-year-old burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said “My mom told me this camp was in your back yard, but now we’re lost in the forest!” I hugged her, trying to stifle my giggle because we were barely 15 minutes from my studio, and I reassured her that we weren’t lost at all. “This is where Cisco takes me for a walk every day and we’re perfectly safe.” By the end of the week, this little girl had survived ant bites and learned to pee in the woods. Plus, she had discovered the wonderful gifts that nature offered her and had used them to create her own works of art.  

Although the Camp is adult supervised, those who know me are aware that I am far from being a controlling person. Of course I make sure the kids are safe. But I also give them lots of choice about where we explore each day, and at what pace we do it. And I’m certainly not opposed to a few bug bites and stinging nettles along the way. It’s all part of the experience and it gives the kids more stories to tell when they get home to exhibit their artistic creations.

 

 

 


Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.

 

 


Naively optimistic: the artist’s most important personality trait

“What ultimate quality does an artist have to have in order to succeed?” I could tell that my student’s mom, who was asking this question, was hoping that her son’s talent would be obvious to everyone and be enough to be successful. And that once he had a body of work completed and accepted by a major gallery, his career would take off.

If only it was that simple.

When the way forward is clear, things feel easy.

I thought for a minute and agreed that he does, indeed, have a talent. But I also know a number of gifted artists who gave up their creative careers along the way. Talent is not enough. So I said, “I believe that every artist has to be naively optimistic in order to keep at it. Because he will undoubtedly face rejection after rejection for years to come, and have to define his own practice with very little guidance.”

Any artist will tell you that, for a hundred gallery or project applications he sends out, he will receive only a few positive replies, especially in the first ten years of his career. And now that the web has made finding opportunities easy, this has dramatically increased the number of applicants, and the number of rejections.

He will also have to decide for himself how to find his way through the maze of the art worlds because there are many ways to be an artist – and many ways to make a living at it. He could be a commercial gallery artist who creates work that appeals to home owners and collectors. He can be a public gallery artist who creates experimental work. With in those, he can be a graphic or new media artist, a sculptor, a photographer, a painter or an installation artist. If he studies art in post-secondary school he might get a glimpse of some of those possibilities but, even then, it’s really only a glimpse, and it will require lengthy investigation and introspection to figure out where he might fit.

A lot of times, the way forward is unclear.

He will have to be comfortable with the unknown. There are few veterans of the arts who have the time to show aspiring talents the way forward. He will have to piece his career together as he goes, scavenging information and knowledge where he can find it. He will have to be adaptable throughout his career because most successes are happy accidents that follow relentless dedication and experimentation. Success relies on recognizing and chasing opportunities when they appear. Those opportunities are as much the result of risk taking and quick decision making as they are of planning and a dedicated work ethic.

Today the dramatic changes occurring in the art markets represent new challenges for all artists. The rapid growth of online sales, the decline of gallery sales, the new marketing practices all present new opportunities for the artist. They have the potential to put the power in the hands of the artist, bypassing the system’s validation. But today the artist is hard pressed to invest his energy in the right place at the right time… all the time. Keeping up is almost impossible and by the time he’s figured it out, he’s likely lagging behind the trend.

He will also have to develop an immunity from criticism. He can’t please everyone. As an artist, half the people he meets will dislike his work or be completely indifferent to it. Some might passionately hate it! (I still wonder why people care so much? It’s just paint after all!) There will be times when his best friend or his brother tells him, “I really don’t get what you’re doing,” despite having discussed it many times.

And I’m afraid that early in his career he’ll find himself living in a world that defines success in a very different way than he does. But that’s a subject of its own and better suited for a future blog. So, suffice it to say, if you want to be an artist, you have to be naive enough to face the reality of the art business and not let it get in your way. Most art school graduates around the world don’t last more than a couple of years in the art world. They give up for a number of reasons. To tough it out you have to ignore the difficulties, the unclear destination, the negative feedback, and the isolation due to your work being misunderstood. There’s a huge commitment required to establish your presence as an artist. You just have to keep moving forward in search of answers you may never find.

On good days, we feel that we are exactly where we need to be.

I say all this with no resentment or regrets. Twenty years into it, I love my job and would not trade it for the world. Over the years, an artist’s work leads the way forward and he discovers who he is as a person and as an artist. And as he does, people start taking him seriously and opportunities multiply. That takes time, a lot of it.

For me though, all of that makes the work worth doing. I’m searching, looking for meaning and answers and discovering more about life and about who I am, who we are, along the way. But ultimately, the answers themselves don’t really matter. The thrill of pursuit is what keeps me going. Because being on that quest for meaning is what artists do; it’s the ultimate joy!

 


Longing for lazy days: a series speaking of Nature’s entanglements

Some time ago, after painting realistic landscapes for ten years, I began looking for my own visual voice. I had realized that the landscapes I’d been painting could no longer speak of the depth and magic of my relationship with the natural world. So I set out to paint differently, to paint in a way that truly speaks of who I am, of what I value, of what I want to bring to the world, and to leave behind. This led me to think deeply about what has influenced my visual world and I soon found myself longing for the lazy summer days of my childhood.

Connected, 24″ x 30″, Oil on cabevas

When we were little girls, my sister and I would float on the Chenal du Moine close to the small village of Notre-Dame-de-Pierreville. Our family cabin stood on a small dirt hill protected against the yearly spring floods, and we were two little girls free to find time to daydream in the dark waters of this gentle river.

Those delicious summer days flowed into one another as we followed the warm currents that led us to Saint-Pierre Lake. As we sat on our life jackets, the water surrounded us with its love and patience and we reciprocated fully. Trusting in its arms, we stood witness to its infinite creations: the plants, the insects, the trees, the fish. It felt magical and boundless and we sensed we were part of it, savouring the smells, the sounds and the landscape. Our skin drank the sun, the water and the wind and we were nourished by Nature’s infinite wealth.

At night, I would dream. I would dream of water, trees and sky. I would find myself floating again, this time, amongst the clouds. Sitting on my life jacket, I would weightlessly travel the sky. My subconscious reviling the ultimate expression of the freedom that lived within us during those summer days. Protected from the watchful eyes of adults, my visual and emotional world was taking shape, strongly rooted in the water and in the forest.

Longing for lazy days, acrylic on canevas, 40″ x 60″

Today, I strive to reproduce those childhood experiences through my creative process and to visually express the powerful emotions they awake in me. My work is a visual expression of that sense of freedom, of communion with nature, and with the world. I long to reproduce those experiences, but being an adult with a to-do list that never ends, I find the only place I can replicate that feeling is while I paint them. Today, in every piece I paint, I make a deliberate decision to, at least emotionally, plunge back into those delicious lazy summer days and to express the magnitude of their grip on my being. And my hope is that I can share them with you, offering the peace and magic they have instilled in me.


When the creative brain needs a break: an Ode to My Friends

I spent last weekend with my closest friends in a lovely cedar cabin built in the ‘60s by my husband’s grandfather. Nestled in the trees at the foot of beautiful mountains, the cabin is an oasis of peace with magical powers of relaxation. But being there with my besties? It was all about giggles and sharing, and that was exactly what I needed.

You see, for several weeks I had been working with a community group to plan a permanent piece of art only to have it derailed at the last minute by unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. Within 24 hours, I found myself rethinking the whole concept to make it feasible under the new parameters we were given. That meant going to a temporary art installation where we are to involve the 100 teenagers who are part of the community. Basically, it became a creative marathon! Although it all went very well, (and I think we are good to go), by Friday night, I was exhausted.

I needed to escape… and I needed my friends.

I hope your friends are as amazing as mine. They have an uncanny ability to make every occasion feel like both a celebration and the most relaxing thing any of us can be doing at that moment. No matter what the circumstance, these amazing women know how to create an ambiance that makes everyone feel at ease. And for me – who spends my workdays making decisions and leading projects almost always by myself – following their lead is truly a blessing.

When I talk to my mom about my friends, (even though she has very few real friends herself), she reminds me how lucky I am to have these witnesses to my life. And I absolutely agree. My friends make me a better person because they are honest, even when it hurts and, because they know me so well, they can bring clarity to every situation in my life. I hope I do the same for them.

With our aging population, researchers are looking into how to stay healthy as long as possible, and not so surprisingly, they’ve discovered that strong friendships become more important the older we get. In the blog titled Why Friends May Be More Important Than Family, the writers mention research in the journal Personal Relationships that explores the findings of studies about relationships. “In the first, involving more than 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries, author William Chopik found that “both family and friend relationships were associated with better health and happiness overall. But at advanced ages, the link remained only for people who reported strong friendships. By that stage of life, those friendships have stood the test of time. You have kept those people around because they have made you happy, or at least contributed to your wellbeing in some way.” says Chopik. “Across our lives, we let the more superficial friendships fade, and we’re left with the really influential ones.”

Saturday afternoon view

Of course you can also be besties with your husband and your sister, but friendships seem to come together magically and I’m not entirely sure how we chose one another. But I can promise we’ve never been as cold-blooded with one another as this BBC Future story blog suggests in How and Why Do We Pick Our Friends  “Friendships might serve as a strategic mechanism for maintaining a support system in advance of potential future conflicts. Human conflicts are usually decided by the number of supporters mobilized on each side (rather than strength or agility). So perhaps friendship only seems to be a riddle because if we were explicit about the transactional nature of our alliances, their strength would falter. In other words, we might like to make grand claims that friendships are without an agenda, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the case.”

Well, as they say, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’

I can guarantee that the only kinds of war my friends and I could team up to win would involves who-giggles-the-most. And yes there was a time not so long ago when we might have won the who-can-dance-the-longest contest. All I know for sure is that, once in a while, life puts someone on my path with a few shared interests and with whom things feel easy and transparent. If I’m very lucky and can be around them long enough, a friendship might form. And for each of those friendships, I’m grateful.


Intentional Ignorance: how the artist preserves her studio time

We’re way too busy! Who ever said that technology would make our lives simpler and allow us more leisure time was seriously wrong. Past the laundry machines and the dishwasher, it’s only made our lives more frantic and at this point we’re all racing along at an inhuman pace. But, in the midst of all this madness, the artist is expected to protect her creative time. Yes, it’s true that all our new technology and communication tools have made us only a click away from information and anyone who might need us, and it also means we’re expected to do everything by ourselves and to do it fast. But if I cater to the pressure to do more, how can I keep my energy focused on what matters the most to me – creating artwork?

The orange cat, acrylic, 40″ x 40″

Of course the younger generation has discovered a pretty effective strategy for dealing with the information onslaught. I call it ‘intentional ignorance’. They only reply to texts and emails when and if they feel like it. It’s irritating to the older generation, but I see their point. It’s too much. Too many emails, too many social media posts, too many texts. There’s only so much anyone can do in a day and each of us has to select what deserves our attention. For me, it’s creating my artwork. Everything else, (except for walking my dog, of course), can wait.

Jess and Blair, who run Blogging 4 keeps; an interesting site dedicated to helping would-be-bloggers figure out how to be good bloggers, recently sent a newsletter titled Be More Ignorant Please.   They write about the overwhelming amount of ‘important things’ that we must deal with to be present on the web so we can promote our business. (And yes, it’s subject that concerns artists as much as any other business person.) They say “… allow yourself to be intentionally ignorant on certain things, even if people are telling you that it’s important to be an expert. Pinterest is important. Instagram is important. Email is important. Photography is important. Networking is important. But you can’t do it all, and if you do, you’ll be overwhelmed.”

Last week, a friend of mine generously volunteered to organise the details of an artistic group event. Others in the group had unintentionally neglected that project, perhaps, simply because they put their own priorities ahead of it. This meant that my friend was spending the best and most productive hours of a few days on this project – which also meant she wasn’t in her studio working on her art.

As we talked I realized once again that, for me, my job is to be in my studio creating. Yes, promoting my art on the web is important, yes being available to help organise artistic events is important, yes seeing my friends is important, but none of it is as important as the time I reserve to be in my studio. And I need that time every day for a number of hours.

Cisco on our morning walk in the forest

Some artists give themselves a rigid schedule to make sure this happens. I have a friend who’s in her studio by 8:00 am and doesn’t leave until noon. No matter what. Me, I try to be aware of how much I can stand of each distracting chore. Mornings are best for me, so I get up early. I dedicate the first hour and a half to writing, researching and thinking things through for my various art projects and marketing my work. Then Cisco and I go for our walk where the forest re-centers me and puts me in the right mood for my creative work. By the time we get back, Cisco’s ready for his nap under my work table, and I’m energized and alert, ready to be creative until it’s time to teach my after-school painting classes. Of course some projects will inevitably compromise that schedule, but I’m pretty conscientious about sticking to it.

Art Work Archive recently posted a blog titled How to create more time for your art: a worksheet where they share a handy printable “little exercise in self-reflection that can help you figure out how to gain more time back for your art.” Through a short series of pertinent questions, they encourage us to look at where we spend our time and to question if it is where we really want to spend it.

Our crazy world is frenetic! More than ever we need to discipline ourselves into choosing where we want our focus to be. I want to concentrate on creating inspired works of art. As to the rest? I try to cram what I can into the not-so-productive hours of the day. That often means I don’t get it all done, but I’ve made my peace with that. The funny thing is, though, nobody seems to notice what I don’t get done – or care, for that matter.


Making Art: an antidote for today’s anxiety epidemic

Everybody’s talking about it these days. It seems that everyone I know feels anxious or is living with someone who struggles with anxiety.

My zen cell phone cover

In the blog The Anxiety Epidemic, they report that the American National Institute of Mental Health says “… 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.” And they go on to explain that “… this is partly due to incessant smartphone use in general and more specifically, their use for communication purposes.” And I’m now convinced that many grown-ups, like me for example, are equally susceptible to this electronic epidemic because just yesterday my dog, Cisco, made that abundantly obvious.

Cisco keeps me company in my studio every day. He sleeps under foot where I’m working and early yesterday morning I was interrupted by several text messages.   Each time my phone made a text sound, Cisco jumped up from his nap and rushed toward me as if saying “Hey! Grab your phone – it’s calling you!” After about the third text, I realized that Cisco and I both have been trained too well. Pavlov, I’m sure, would be delighted. I can imagine him bragging, “See! She’s almost as well conditioned as her dog!” 

Cisco dozing off under my studio table

Yes, I know, I know. Smartphones are here to stay. They’re practical little tools that make life a lot easier. But, as the blog goes on to say, “… they are having a deleterious effect on our mental and emotional functioning. People who use them a lot (and that is most of us) cannot seem to stay away from them and the research is pretty clear that one major cause is anxiety… we know that some form of anxiety is driving us to check in constantly with our technology.”

But what Cisco taught me yesterday was that we both need a break. He needs his nap at least as much as I need my art. That’s when I can be totally immersed for hours at a time, and emerge completely invigorated by the creative process. I finally realized that when I’m interrupted by my phone, my anxiety kicks in, so that when I try to get back to work it takes a while for the creative process to re-engage. Obviously, I need to turn the phone off when I’m working.

The blog Stress-related Hormone Cortisol Lowers Significantly After Just 45 Minutes of Art Creation offers a solution: Make art, it will lower the level of stress hormones in your body. It shares the results of a new Drexel University study, and quotes Girija Kaimal, EdD who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. She says that the study results where not,“…surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.”

I feel that every day I work. It’s incredibly calming to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or hands in modelling clay. I can also see it in my students. Adults, teenagers and kids alike show up at my studio, many of them wound up tight from whatever is going on in their lives. And then, within 20 minutes of shifting their focus to making art, their demeanour changes. They relax their shoulders, they breathe more slowly, and they look and feel better. They’ve given themselves an antidote to anxiety.

Try it! Turn off your phone. Pick up a pencil or a paint brush or a lump of clay and go for it. I promise you’ll be doing yourself a favour.