Janice Mason Steeves

Janice Mason Steeves: A Profile
Light on unknown paths
by Kim Echlin

Changing light caresses the inside of Janice Mason Steeves’ studio in Rockwood, Ontario. The setting of her studio is a wooded retreat that she has made magical with mown paths through tall grasses and a low screened-in shed that may double as shelter for unseen forest spirits. Children have been here, and they have left traces of nests made of twigs and sacred ‘thinking’ spots in hollowed stumps and small groves. It is a place that nurtures the imagination. The artist works daily, usually in the still early mornings before intrusions, when her energy and concentration are pure and connected to the intuitive world of dreams and rest and darkness.

She says, “Each time I begin a painting, I wonder where it will go. I begin intuitively, holding a thought in my mind of what I’d like to express. My work has always been influenced by the idea of place—whether it be the sacred places or pilgrimage sites that have drawn me to various countries, the prairies where I grew up, the land I live on now, or the inner place of spirit. My paintings are abstract investigations of landscape, symbols, memory and process. I have no idea where the work will go or how I will get there or if it will resolve itself. And yet they do, they always eventually do.”

Each morning Janice lights a candle before beginning to work. She does this as a way of setting her intention and holding space for what she will do. When her day’s work is done she blows it out on the way out of the studio and feels gratitude. The consciousness of such an act is complemented by openness to her listening, her joyful laughter and her willingness to her own process and to the creativity of others.


Janice Mason Steeves began to paint seriously in her mid-thirties. She was trained and worked as a clinical psychologist and worked in schools in Manitoba and Ontario. She began with an hour or two painting on the kitchen table. Then she carved out a place in a spare bedroom. Eventually she left her work in psychology and attended The Ontario College of Art full time to study Drawing and Painting, created a separate studio, and most important, took herself seriously enough to make time to work uninterrupted.

She often hears women in her workshops, who are usually over 50 and many with accomplished careers, speak of the difficulty of finding both time and space to honour their creativity. After lifetimes of caring for family and working, they now care for aging parents, grandchildren and continue their volunteer work. Mason Steeves teaches and mentors regularly, accepting each student’s quest and goals, and asks simply, “Can you take your creativity seriously? Who will give you that time and space?”


The history of her painting is a study in creative process. For many years Mason Steeves painted representationally. She was drawn to the abstract but didn’t know how to move toward it. Learning to work with cold wax medium helped to begin the process of moving into abstraction because of the thickness of the medium and the larger tools required to work with it. In the early summer of 2009, she made the decision to move into abstraction. And she committed to the process. She spent that summer working twelve to fifteen hour days trying to find her way into abstraction. It was a step into the unknown, something Mason Steeves called “a dark night of the soul” or “like jumping off a cliff, not knowing where I would land.”

She works in different series, each exploring essential themes. One of her early experiments with a series was called “Lines of Desire.” The canvases are gorgeously coloured and composed using fragments of lines and snippets and abstract shapes, brush and palette strokes visible, each painting suggestively titled to add depth to the viewers’ eyes with titles that remind this writer of jazz riffs:  A Hot Wind, Standing Next to You, Something Cool, Moon Garden, A Walk through a Window. She comments that through the process of painting this series, she saw the underlying thread connecting the canvasses as her understanding of the importance of place, and she began to meditate on the prairie landscape of her peripatetic childhood.


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There is a creative tension between wandering and staying put in Mason Steeves’ work, a metaphor for the life and growth and change that is essential to her worldview. During a three week residency in Ireland, she visited a desolate island, Inish Maan in the Aran Islands off the west coast. The treeless rock, whipped by ocean winds, was a grey landscape, broken only by shadow from clouds and frothy sea.


She created her “North Atlantic” series, a breath-taking contrast to “Lines of Desire,” exploring black, white, and grey, her suggestive compositions evoking the stone walls that covered the island for subsistence sheep and crop farming, the colours subliminally translating from her photography to her art.


She comments, “I work in a very intuitive way, not knowing what the outcome will be. It becomes a conversation between the spontaneous and the deliberate. My work is always changing, influenced by my travels where I’ve explored pilgrimage and exchanged techniques and ideas with other artists.” She pauses and looks at the painting and notices the shapes and colours that feel like echoes from the sky and water.

Her most recent series, “Fragile” began a year ago. She had been to the movies with a friend. Within a month her friend was in hospital with a brain tumour. This event marked Mason Steeves powerfully as she witnessed her friend’s courage. She said, “I realized that my new work was about joy and gratitude.”The “Fragile” series is her most abstract yet, a beautiful and moving exploration of almost pure colour and light. The surface simplicity is drawn from a profound meditation on stillness and being in a moment. The light is radiant with what an artist brings back from the darkness of exploration without knowing where she is going, but courageously trusting the journey.

Mason Steeves is a generous teacher. Her blogs are fascinating accounts, not only of her individual process, but of her reading and travels to Spain, Ireland, and in North America, from New Mexico to Vancouver Island, of more local rambles and meditations near her studio on the Eramosa River, of being hit by a deer and ice-storms. She says that she aims to push herself to the edge of discomfort, and “while it is a very fragile, exposed place, I like to see that vulnerability in my own work...the answer can be found in courage and persistence.” Though the work of painting is solitary, her practise is deepened by collaboration and dialogue with other artists and students.

Mason Steeves sees art as a spiritual practise that invites opening and risk-taking and courage. But it also requires “knowing what you want” and she is drawn to persistence and discipline in art, and offers inspiration to other artists. She notes that Canadian artist Doris McCarthy began painting when she was young but it wasn’t until she retired from teaching at 65 that her career took off, that Louise Nevelson was in her 50's when she sold her work to three New York City museums and now her art can be seen internationally in over eighty public collections, and finally, that Mary Delany created a new art form, mixed-media collage at 72. Her work is now in the British Museum.

The constancy, open optimism and creativity of this view of steady work radiates from her new series, “Fragile.”

Here, in pure light and colour, Mason Steeves embodies human energy, in time, unstoppable, but also transcendent, and full of the still moment. She is interested in the idea that abstraction is “beyond words.” She looks out the studio windows toward the woods and reflects, “My work has always been about light. Now I am making light.” Then she pulls out a few more canvases and says, “To make it look really free means moving into a simplicity that is not simple at all. That’s why abstraction is so complex.”  

No one can know what the next canvas will be, where it will come from, what themes it may explore, least of all, Mason Steeves herself. The world is open to her, as she continually opens herself to the world, and expresses what she sees in light and colour. She says, “A friend mentioned to me that my paintings seem to be about breath.  Painted breath.  I love that idea.  Breath caught in an image, like your warm breath making fog on a cold winter day.  Breath that never stops changing.”


Kim Echlin is a Canadian novelist, translator, editor and teacher. Her 2009 novel, The Disappeared, was a nominee for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize and has been translated into 19 languages. Her new novel, Under the Visible Life, will appear in March.

    All Images © Janice Mason Steeves, 2014-2015.