Bloom: On Becoming an Artist Later in Life by Janice Mason Steeves


Review by Linda Lappin

Painter and art educator Janice Mason Steeves came to art quite by chance late in life after a friend invited her to attend a pottery class. Trained as a clinical psychologist, Steeves had never shown any particular interest in the visual arts or an inclination for artistic expression, but messing with clay opened a door inside her to pure enjoyment.  Next she signed up for a watercolor class introducing her to images, shapes, and color. From then on, she was hooked.  She switched careers from clinical psychology to art therapy, then dropped out on a gap year, to see how far she could go with her art. She never looked back. Now she boasts an international reputation as an abstract painter and leader of exclusive transformative travel/art Workshops in Wild Places.

Her new book, Bloom: On Becoming an Artist Late in Life, opens with a metaphor – some plants flower very late in the season or only after many seasons. In this slim, inspirational volume, she has gathered the stories of one hundred twenty-eight artists over the age of sixty who found their way to an artistic career in the latter chapters of their lives. Comparing their journeys with her own, she maps out a landscape of challenges, rewards, portals and pitfalls to guide mature seekers on the path to authentic self-expression through art.

The artists interviewed come from extremely diverse backgrounds and careers – performing arts, homemaking, marketing, graphic design, home renovation, writing for children, hospice care, social work, banking. All reached an unexpected turning point when retirement, accident, illness, death of a spouse, or other change in circumstances catapulted or coaxed them into a new life direction.

When questioned about the difficulties they had experienced in changing lives, many replied that being taken seriously by others and also by themselves was one of the first obstacles they encountered. The strategies suggested by the author to overcome this hurdle involve creating a dedicated workspace as well as mindspace, mastering techniques, and committing to a work schedule. For many the latter was a challenge – as friends and family often don’t understand that an older person’s newly felt artistic vocation isn’t just a hobby easily interchanged with social activities popular with retirees, like volunteering or book clubs, but rather serious and demanding work.

Self-doubt and self-censorship must also be dealt with at the outset. For some artists, an insensitive comment by an elementary school teacher blunted artistic aspirations for decades, planting the insidious seeds of “I can’t draw” or “I have no talent.” By answering the call, some found healing from trauma they had been lugging around for years; others found a new spiritual connection to nature or bonded with a newfound, supportive community. When asked what was the greatest benefit they enjoyed in the pursuit of art, most claimed that it had brought them greater self-knowledge. All found a new purpose, joy, and meaning sharpened by the awareness of having limited time at their disposal.

Other topics addressed by Steeves are the need for play, experimentation, and improvisation;  travel as a creativity booster;  and the need for silence in one’s work which  Steeves claims in abstract painting takes the form of blank space. The artists also share the rituals they use to help spark their creativity. For some, meditation, candles, or thick, strong coffee do the trick, gazing at the landscape through the window, or simply saying “I’m home,” when stepping into the studio.  For others, a period of immersion in nature summons up the muse.  Steeves has received initiation into shamanistic practices which inform her workshops, entering into the souls of the elements – stone, fire, water, cloud, leaf, sunlight. She also briefly discusses the impact of artistic endeavors and creativity on the brain in the aging process, and the vocation of “eldering” – becoming mentors for those who come after us.

Interwoven with the artists’ personal narratives including those of the author, are inspirational quotes and stories from writers, philosophers, artists – like Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Jim Dine, Phil Cousineau. Curiously, Julia Cameron is barely mentioned, although she surely influenced Steeves’ own trajectory and project.  Cameron’s groundbreaking The Artist’s Way remains the guidebook to recovering creativity for artists in any medium – including writing and performing arts, at any age, while Steeves’ Bloom focuses primarily on one aspect — creativity in our mature years with its specific needs and obstacles. Many points raised by Steeves coincide with Cameron’s recipe for unblocking creative energies: play, silence, commitment and connecting to nature.  The Artist’s Way provides a complete program with instructions to carry out over a number of weeks based on Cameron’s “morning pages” journaling and “artist date” activities. Steeves shies away from any hands-on instruction, which might have given readers a deeper glimpse into her teaching methods and added an extra dimension to her collection of case-studies. Perhaps these will be treated in a second book.

Still, Bloom is an inspiring and valuable read for anyone wishing to open the door to creative expression at any age – at whatever level – mere beginner, false beginner, or professional. Steeves writes: “Art opens us up, shows us our courage, our perseverance, our strength. It gives us confidence in the midst of fear and self-doubt. It connects us with our core, the golden thread that connects us to our life purpose, the divine within us. We don’t walk away the same as we were when we began. “

“One lesson I’ve learned through my journey in art and in life, “ she says, “is to say yes.”

What better resolution for the New Year?