Painting is the Last Step
Oksana Berda’s Self-Imposed Artist Retreat
Soundtrack: Fresh water waves crashing against pebbles and driftwood, birch trees rustling in the wind.
Smell: Blooming jack pine, moss, and wild blueberries
Sensation: Soft pine needles on the forest floor, warm wind on wet skin, crawling into a sleeping bag with a tired achiness all over.
Shortness of Breath
The monotony of daily tasks leeches something essential away from my life and creative work. My mind starts to burst at the seams with to-do’s, time on the computer and smartphone, and expectations for each day. It’s an empty kind of buzz. Sometimes I find that even my face looks different at the end of the day. Computer face, I think to myself, and try to sleep it off.
Eventually it becomes impossible to paint.
And when I stop being able to paint and start to feel that shortness of breath, I know it’s time to fill up; it’s time to get outside. A long drive, a hike, a full day at the beach, or a morning with no alarm clock can each offer a small reset, but all of those together can create a real shift.
With a desperate need to get out of my city routine, I began planning a “self-imposed” artist residency.
A long drive, a hike, a full day at the beach, or a morning with no alarm clock can each offer a small reset, but all of those together can create a real shift.
The first things I packed were my painting supplies.
Then, on a cool July morning I got into my car and headed North to Lake Superior Provincial Park. I had no headphones, no service, and no distractions from myself and my surroundings.
My camp chores were my daily meditations: build a fire, get water, cook a meal, hang the hammock, make a clothes line, wash the dishes. And in between I filled myself up with color, textures, lines, ombres of the northern horizons, scurried movements of chipmunks and squirrels, the grace of a flock of sparrows cutting lines across the sky.
5 Days at Lake Superior
Day 1: Arrival, camp set up, rested in the hammock, early bedtime.
Day 2: Hike to the Pictograph Rocks, turns into a full day of the most difficult hike I’ve done. For supper: a can of coconut water and the sweetest apple I’ve ever had.
Day 3: Paddle all over the lake. Collect rocks and bark off a fallen birch to make ink later. Baked potato and 3 fingers of whisky.
Day 4: Sleep, swim, reread Diving into the Wreck, listen to the afternoon thunder, watch lighting x-ray the gloomy forest at night. Cup of wine, beans with vegetables.
Day 5: Pack up camp sometime mid-morning. Drive and sing until my voice goes hoarse. Bacon sandwich made on the fire for lunch with black tea.
My camp chores were my daily meditations… And in between I filled myself up with color, textures, lines, ombres of the northern horizons.
Not a Drop of Paint
From what I packed, the only things left untouched were my painting supplies.
I left home with the mindset to get all this work done—but what I remembered during this trip is that not painting is painting.
Applying paint to canvas is the last step of the process. The first is to do all the living you can: take trips, eat food, wash the dishes, go for walks, swim, sleep, laugh, and take note of the things that fill you up.
Applying paint to canvas is the last step of the process. The first is to do all the living you can.
In the Studio
There is a great quote by John Cage about persistence in the studio: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”
I knew that feeling first from being outdoors, doing long difficult hikes and reaching that state of euphoria where the pervasive thoughts, worry, and tiredness all fade away—and in a way, you do too. There is an ease and a simplicity that emerges. It’s just one foot in front of the other.
Doing solo-trips, spending time alone, overcoming challenges… these train that muscle memory that is then easier to activate when I’m panting.
My studio practice is full of experimentation again. My lines and washes run off the edges not observing the constraints of the paper. I am pouring ink, mixing vibrant colours and painting from a place of no expectation—just simple organic movements.
I can see the elements I internalized emerge in these paintings: the tempestuous nature of the lake, the smooth gliding lines of those huge rock faces, colors that maybe are more of what I felt than anything I saw or touched.
And now, since those days at Lake Superior, I’ve been able to tap back into that relaxed perseverance and paint without any one in the room, without the white noise.
Oksana Berda is a Toronto-based abstract artist. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of New Brunswick in Creative Writing, which informs the narrative quality of her work. Through her paintings she explores our emotional relationship with landscapes. Berda is an avid hiker and gets her inspiration from trips to various parks surrounding Toronto and spending time on Lake Ontario. See more of her work at oksanaberda.com and on Instagram @oksana.berda.