“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.”

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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!

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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.








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Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.

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Define Success

“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose; the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.” Oxford Dictionary. I can easily live with the first definition, but with the second… not so much.

When I moved to Calgary from Montreal 23 years ago, one of the things that struck me and made me rather uncomfortable was its culture of wealth. I was truly shocked by this obsession with money and possessions! As a child and young adult, I hadn’t seen people value others based on their financial status. In Calgary, it felt like that was mighty important and, for a while, I wondered if I should be concerned.

I eventually let it go, partly because, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve met enough wealthy people to know that many of them don’t feel any more fulfilled and at peace than the rest of their fellow human beings. And, more to the point, as an artist, could I really afford to base my own value on how much money I make and how many people recognize me on the street? I don’t think so. That would be a sure way to contaminate my work with concerns that have nothing to do with art.

On Saturday, I attended a panel discussing the legacy of Alex Janvier and his group of indigenous Canadian artists. The subject of success came up and Jackson 2Bears, one of the panellists, asked, “Now what is success?” He went on to say “Success is to create meaningful work.”  And that’s the definition I can live with.

In her blog titled How Do You Define Success as an Artist? Lorie McNee shares the results of a survey she conducted with a group of artists. She categorized their responses in this way:
“Faith:  Conviction that they can produce what they envision, sense or get through a higher source.

Followers:  People who like their work enough to buy it or tell others about it.

Fame:  Publicity that draws attention to their work and attracts gallery dealers, art critics, museum curators and writers.

Fortune:  Income from selling enough work to support themselves comfortably without having any other source of income.”

Faith strikes me as encompassing creating meaningful work which is the foremost responsibility of an artist. Followers and Fame are about sharing your work with others, which I also consider one of the artist’s responsibilities. Fortune is a direct result of doing a good job at the first three points and should not be the artist’s main focus. When an artist spends too much time worrying about creating works that generate income, he gets lost. He wanders away from his own true voice. Of course we all need money, but the artwork should not be created with that as its sole purpose. There are many ways to finance an art career while your work takes its own sweet time creating a reputation that will eventually pay off. But remember: we’re artists. We can be creative in that aspect as well. For me, teaching art and working on community art projects feeds my personal art practice on many levels. And experiencing life outside the studio provides plenty of inspiration for studio work.

I still live in a society that over values money and possessions. But as an artist, I’ve had to learn to shove those concerns aside so I can create meaningful art because meaningful artwork doesn’t take root in greed. It takes root in experiencing the human condition and in the emotions that stem from that experience.

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I make objects

Well, I make art of course. But that often takes the form of a physical object that I introduce into the world. I do it because I need to. I need to work with my hands and to relate to an object while it’s taking form. And for those of us who, as my friend Doug Newell says, ‘just love making things’, there’s nothing else in life that’s more satisfying.

Sculptures in progress, limited editions of 25

However, as a person who is trying to be mindful of how our society contributes to the constant assault on our fragile planet, I wonder sometimes whether it’s actually a good thing to add more objects to it?

I’m also just coming out of a massive de-cluttering of my own home. The house is big and we’ve been here for 20 years, and now the boys are grown and they’re leaving the nest. So, over the past six months, I’ve been dealing with all the accumulated stuff and wondering why I had it all in the first place. Should I keep all these objects? I gave a lot of them away to friends and family who expressed interest but, to be honest, now I actually can’t even recall what they were. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I mustn’t have taken much care in selecting all that stuff in the first place.

Sometimes I make computer images for project applications and it’s occurred to me that it might be a good way to create art without cluttering the world. But I’m afraid that way of working just doesn’t feel real to me – neither the process nor the result. For one thing, it doesn’t provide the joy of physically working with my hands. I love the way my back, my arms and my legs are engaged when I work. I love the way my breath responds to my body’s motion as it’s totally absorbed in the creative process. The idea of sitting in front of a screen for the day actually makes me feel sick to my stomach. I would have no relationship with the physical materials I love. Whether it’s paint or clay, paper, wood, plaster or glass, each one is unique and provides its own possibilities and limitations. So I know for sure that computer graphics will never be the answer for me as an artist. I think I need to remain in the physical world and to keep creating objects.

Finished sculptures and limited edition silk screen art.

But how do I maintain peace with the fact that creating objects is what I do? This morning I came across something about being mindful of the impact of the objects we buy or create have on others. And that simple statement provided me a sense of relief. I know that the artwork I create is invested with care and consciousness. I know that I’m present in the process of creating. I know that each curve, each colour and each subject is calling to me to be there, and that I listen. I listen to the work as it unfolds and I follow its lead. I’m a slow, thoughtful painter and sculptor who doesn’t mass produce, simply because each work needs its own time and deserves my attention for as long as it wants it. I usually have three or four pieces on the go at once. It permits me the freedom to pause for a while on one specific work while continuing on another, and affords enough time for whatever was puzzling me to reveal its own answers.

I realize that the trend now is to paint fast. It’s all over Pintrest: fast paintings that can be produced in just a couple of hours. And unfortunately it’s also encouraged by the commercial gallery system. They want their artists to mass produce, so they can rotate their stock and sell it at very reasonable prices. Although I have nothing against those fast paintings – some of them are excellent – I don’t want to work that way. In a fast moving world where an over abondance of carelessly made objects are created, I claim the right to be a slow artist. I claim the right to produce a limited number of art works every year and to put care and time into each of them. I claim the right to release into the world only objects that I feel will have a positive impact on those who will end up with them.

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This is my friend, she is an artist!

I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.

Me at work

I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.

But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?

Me at work

This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.

I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.

Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.


L’éveil, Acrylic on canvas

My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.

Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.


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Painting walls; not the same as painting works of art!

I often tell my students that, if they feel they’re frantically trying to finish a painting, they need to stop! “Wash your brushes and get back to it when that sense of urgency passes.” This month, I’m afraid I’m being challenged to follow my own advice. Life is reminding me that being patient and at peace with how long things take can be frustrating, but sometimes you just have to put your head down and allow things to unfold at their own pace.

details of a new painting titled Flow

This summer we’re redoing the floors in our home. My world is in chaos. Furniture and boxes packed with ‘stuff’ have been stored in my studio for 10 days, but now it’s even worse. I’ve had to completely empty the space and won’t be able to get back into it for another two weeks! Honestly, I didn’t anticipate how unsettling this would be. I knew I’d feel inconvenienced, but it’s way more than that. It’s chaos; I feel like I can’t find myself! I have an endless list of things to move, to do and to plan. It’s like I’ve stepped on an ant’s nest. My husband, who’s usually the one to react to change, has become totally zen-like this month. “You need to surrender to the process,” he gently reminds me. I’m trying, I’m trying, but it feels like I can’t get a handle on it.

I went through a stage of ‘Honestly, I just want this done and over with’ to ‘It will never, ever end!’ I could feel myself losing my grip, so I started painting all the walls while the floors were off. After ten gallons of paint, I was no less frazzled. However, on the plus side, while I was wearing myself – and three paintbrushes – out, I was listening to a very interesting book titled In The Heart of the Sea, about the true story of The Essex, the whaling ship that inspired the novel Moby Dick. Yes, I know. Even I realized I was beginning to exhibit an alarming number of crazy Captain Ahab’s symptoms. His whale: my floors. I desperately need to paint works of art. Not walls.

So why does creating art play such an important role in making the most of life? It is what keeps me sane. It deletes chaos. It connects me to the world. There’s nothing else that can bring me total contentment like the act of painting, sculpting or drawing. Verywellmind, in the blog titled Art Therapy: Relieve Stress By Being Creative, lists a number of reasons why art making is a stress relief tool. My favourite is ‘flow’: “There’s a certain quality of being called ‘flow’ that experts say is very beneficial for us. This refers to a state of being completely engaged in something to the point of being in a near-meditative state. It carries many of the benefits of meditation, leaving you much less stressed when you’re done. You can experience ‘flow’ when you’re doing creative activities like writing and even gardening. You can also get it from drawing.”

It’s been 20 days… I’m missing my flow!

A flowing day on Lower Kananaskis lake, Alberta

I was discussing this with a friend who always has such profound insights about life and he pointed out that, perhaps, this renovation isn’t permitting me to be who I want to be. “It’s an identity crisis.” I think he’s right. When I can’t get to my work I feel agitated, as if I’m wasting my life by not doing what I’m meant to be doing; not being who I want to be.

But the timing of this renovation has caused an additional frustration because it’s happening in the middle of summer. Summers here are so short; it’s an incredibly precious time. There’s a measure of freedom that doesn’t exist the rest of the year. Things slow down, I don’t teach, and I can usually find more freedom to create following a natural, seasonal rhythm. I can take walks in the forest any time of the day. I can let my thoughts go where they choose without deadlines to meet. I just can’t bear to waste my summer catering to contractors and renovations. So, contrary to the advice I give my students, I’ve pushed hard, very hard, to get it all done before I leave for my mountain adventure in a few days. With any luck, I’ll succeed.

En route towards Rae Glacier, Kananaskis, Alberta

When I get back from six days in our beautiful Rockies, my studio will be ready to welcome me again. The mountains will have once again revealed my creative space. I’ll come back to my work with fresh eyes and a calm mind, ready to enjoy the rest of the summer.





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Are you a painter, a sculptor or both?

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the very precious daydreaming time I need to let my work flow freely. Paintings to create, sculptures to finish and mould, and an installation project to put together; those are my summer work plans. And as I reflect on them, looking at the steps each requires, I realize how very different but, at the same time, how very similar they are. To me, they’re different in the creative process but very similar in their spirit.

The Rocker, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement, 6″ x 6 1/2″ x 5″

Many artists consider themselves either painters or sculptors, but rarely both. I play with all of it because each way of working provides its own reward and allows a fresh perspective from which to visit an idea. Painting offers me a place of further freedom simply because a blank canvas offers an opportunity to create a new world. Sculpture, on the other hand, tends to present more ‘material’ limitations. In fact, the level of ‘limitation’ varies for each material. Glass, for example, is a very bossy material that comes with precise rules one must abide by. But if you can put up with its neediness, it’s one of the richest, most dignified materials to cast. Clay is more forgiving, but it’s still not as free flowing as painting.

Larry Cornett, in his blog titled When it comes to creativity, are you a sculptor or a painter? approaches the subject this way: “Painters visualize and place their dream on the canvas. It can be anything they want. A purple cat? No problem. Clocks that melt and drape over tree branches? But of course! If they can imagine it, it can be. Sculptors have to be much more realistic about what can be brought forth from the stone. A granite block cannot reveal a fluttering red feather boa. There are limitations imposed by the material and the tools.”

The lovers, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement 5 1/2″ x 5″ x 2 1/2″

And what about installation work? It can be anything you want, but it focuses on occupying a space. In that sense, the choice of material is guided by what is relevant for the space. Wikipedia defines it as “An artistic genre of three-dimensional works that often are site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space.” The installation I’m focusing on this summer is the final step of a community engagement project I’ve been working on since September. I will elaborate on it in a future blog sometime soon when I’ve seen the final product as well as the interaction of the community group with it. What I want to say for now is that creating an installation is an opportunity to focus on a concept, and share an idea by using materials that will best convey that concept. In other words: the idea comes first. The choice of material, second.

Communion, limited edition pf 25,hydrostone gypsum cement, 8″ x 8″ x 6″


After 20 years as an artist, I know I’m comfortable with, and even excited about, working with a variety of materials and techniques, but I realize that some might fear that this risks creating confusion. In my case it’s coherent with what I’m trying to express. All my current work has a common underlying spirit that is true to the way I want to exist in this wonderful world. Each piece flows with life and speaks of entanglement with each other and with our environment, no matter what the material!

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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!


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.”


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.

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