36” x 24” Acrylic on Canvas

“Drips” detail DS

When I feel discouraged over low art sales or lack of registration for the Shellseeker Art + Soul Workshops my mind goes to an intimate space deep in the heart of BC Women’s Hospital. When a new department was being opened I donated several art pieces for it.

Opening night, artists were invited to view their work in place. Two of my drip paintings were hanging in a small darkened room with a couple of modern couches and chairs. It was explained by the tour guide that this was where parents were told that their babies were not going to make it. I looked at the pale pink, blue and green drips over the pastoral landscapes with sheep, a female figure, a key, and felt a profound sense of peace. I had felt comforted in my own time of grief by creating these paintings touched with gold, green and yellow. Now they silently would comfort others.

These paintings in this space form the pinnacle of my career. They are my way of being in the world, my authentic self. One cannot work to achieve this. It is pure gift.


 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.

Book of Second Corinthians

15 Year Anniversary of 9/11

The black square in the 9/11 Memorial seemed to be bottomless. As I watched a documentary program this afternoon on the history channel about the events at the Twin Towers 15 years ago, tears came to my eyes. In this very room, watching the same TV in shock I struggled to take in the horror of the scene that day and its implications for them and for us.

We went elsewhere to fight. It was a given. Other countries were the sites of war, not the U.S. and Canada – especially not Canada. A loved one was in a hotel in Ottawa, having travelled from Vancouver there a few days before on business. My prayers went back and forth for her and for the victims and families of those struck by the attack – and for the firefighters and our leaders. Who knew if they would strike Canada next?

In June of 2014, in New York City on an art tour with the Ferry Building Gallery, I had seen the flowing water pour down that black square, into the very middle of the earth it seemed. I have never been so silent.

I almost did not make the effort to go there. I do not like to visit the sites of tragedies. An art history class about war memorials piqued my curiosity to see the sculpture in person. It was so big and so noisy with water rushing as if to cleanse and heal the land.

Today, as I watch the black square within the square, another tragic black square comes to mind. The “Black Square” 1913 of Russian artist Kasimir Malevich hung in an exhibition in a strange position in the room. It was in an upper corner near the ceiling. Gallery visitors at that time were well aware that this was where the holy icons of Jesus Christ were located in a Russian Orthodox home. One of the things this empty black icon came to mean was that God is dead.

The deep empty hole of a black square in NYC ‘s National 9/11 Memorial and the” Black Square” of Moscow’s First World War era, are they the same? Is God now considered dead? Could he not have intervened to prevent WWI and 9/11 or has human freedom meant freedom to do evil again in history? I think of this Proverb:

Do no violence to the place where the righteous live;
 for though they fall seven times, they will rise again;
 but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.

NYC rose again, Russia has gained strength, the Resurrection happened – such tragedy, paradox and mystery co-exist as does hope. All of these events drastically changed so many lives as well as history itself. Is the square really empty or like the ‘colour’ black, does it actually contains all the colours?


Failure: the Doorway to Success?

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015 DS

Government programs fail to deliver; countries fail to provide for their citizens; ghost towns form. Movements fail or decline, new ways emerge. Countries like Syria are struggling for survival. The Yukon was the sight of failed gold mining. Planes fall out of the sky (Malaysia Airlines, EgyptAir, Indian Air Force), again.

Wars are lost. Boundaries are changed. Peoples are displaced.

There are failures on a global scale to protect air, water, and land. Species have become extinct. Some failures may just be the natural ebb and flow of existence.

The iconic Iona Building at UBC had to be sold although the theological college still exists apart from that grand space. I think of the Highland Clearances of Scotland (to make room for sheep), to be a failure, as well as the Potato Famine of Ireland. The wildfire of Fort McMurray is a failure of sorts but the town will be rebuilt. I hope.

We fail to rehabilitate, to resuscitate, to reinstate, to collaborate, to meditate. We are unsuccessful in love, in business, in losing weight, in baking a gourmet cake. I do/am.

Friendships are lost. Cars are crashed. Our bodies are injured or break down with disease. Mine does.

Everyday failure is real. It is not the end of the world though it may seem like it at the time. Failure may be a chance for change, or just sorrow to be endured.

How would Mother Teresa have measured success, or Picasso, or Matisse who created from his bed, or Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.…? (How do I – by mission statement?)

Sometimes our failures catch up with us. We stand in need of forgiveness. The making of amends, as in AA, can rebuild relationship success.

Success can be illusive or inconclusive. It can be fleeting or misleading. True success in life – who can define it?

I just received 2 ‘declines’ from an art jury. I have received many of these over the years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I say. Do I take their refusal as permanent – or as fleeting?

Is it them or me, their judging or my creating? I have never actually kept track of my declines or failures. I change goals. My work has been exhibited in over 70 shows.

A Business of Art course instructor once told us that some artists have commercial success and some critical success. Juries love my work. Yet the fact remains, that I have a high ratio of donated paintings versus those I have sold. By which criteria do I judge my own work?

Much of what I create, I will admit, does not fit well in a living room above a couch. It is too raw for that. The colours are anything but subdued. The techniques are immediate, layered, direct and even messy. My style does not have the requisite consistency. But there is an internal rhythm. In my latest jury submission of 33 paintings (one for every year of the life of Christ) each has a cross or stripe pattern.

The truly difficult thing is that the work has to be created, the materials purchased, the time set aside. Years of work needs to be framed before one applies. One has to get the paintings onto a gallery wall so viewers can consider buying them. One has to have the space to store unsold paintings. New paintings have to be imagined and realized for the next jury, to fit the next art space requirements.

How, I think now, can any artist really keep going to achieve success? There are so many barriers, so much competition, so many people who ignore art totally.

It seems to me that each artist must define success differently. Each artist must hone and redefine the definition to fit the circumstances, must see benefits where they seem invisible.

Creating art is similar to being a mother. Our paintings incubate and are born. Success, I realize now, is to have children leave home ready to meet the world and to have paintings leave the studio to find their niche. My children and my paintings are offered to the world as the best of me. Adult children forever at home or paintings lying dusty in the studio are the true failures. But success often calls just when we are ready to give up.

In the meantime, children may struggle, paintings gather dust, but independence is close and my oeuvre is being built for that day not too far away.

How can one achieve success when accolades come for just the opportunity to show? What can assuage the echoing sting of ending an exhibition with few sales? How can one go on year after year financing one’s own – what – ego? When the paintings pile up in the studio why do I apply to more juries? This art-making refuses to die. It becomes like a form of addiction. That first flow of colour off the paintbrush at 7 years old had me hooked. As with all addiction there is grief.

My paintings need a home and I want money for them. There, I have said it. Maybe after I am dead, success will come in memorial. Perhaps it is my children, my estate that will benefit from my collection. I have now got it: my legacy will be my success. My part is to enjoy the process of creating.

One thing about achieving a degree of success is that one asks what do I do next? Where can I go? When can I say, it is enough? For now, I decide I will rest with gratitude.

I know that if I get that show for my 33 paintings my desires have not changed. I want people to attend the opening. I want a decent write up in the reviews. I do not want to carry those cumbersome paintings out of the gallery, into my vehicle, and back to my studio only to begin over again next week. I am tired. I need success now and I need studio space. My body feels broken. My mind and spirit carry it trailing behind like the tin cans tied to a wedding car.

Jesus’ death on the cross: failure it appeared.  Was his goal to live three score and ten years? The Resurrection 3 days later proved the success of his mission.

When I think of failure and success after all this, I ponder two questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. How will I know when I get there?

As I wait to see how sales have gone at my latest exhibition, I receive a message that my painting “VanDusen Gardens” has been chosen by the art committee at Lions Gate Hospital for their permanent collection in ‘The Healing Power of Art Program’. It will hang with the greats – Molly Bobak, Sylvia Tait, Gordon Smith… Am I there yet?


VanDusen at home

“VanDusen Gardens” Acrylic on Canvas, 32″ x 48″, Deborah Stephan

After Rivendell



“Walking the Labyrinth, Rivendell” DS

Contemplative prayer is about waiting. It is an interior kind of waiting that is practiced on the outside too on a regular basis. This kind of waiting – like Godot perhaps – makes way for other more specific types of prayer. Contemplative prayer acts as a spiritual default position.

This attitude in prayer I experience mostly in contemplative knitting or collage. The rhythmic movement of my hands keeps the rest of my body at rest. Often I start with just repeating the Jesus Prayer brought back to us by eastern Orthodox Christians. Sometimes I will just mention a name of a loved one or situation as a way to petition for God’s specific help. Other times I just let my mind wander and then have a sentence or two that I read out loud – a poem or verse.

Once in a while I have the opportunity to pray as I walk a labyrinth. I did this recently at Rivendell. The switchbacks in the path of the Chartres style walk comfort me. They echo my life and edify my prayers. Sometimes when I walk away from the direction of the centre, I find that I was actually quite close but could not see it. As I walk to toward the centre, and an answer is right before me, the path turns away again. It leads me to return home to trust that I am being led no matter what I see.

Since my decision to live a contemplative style of being in the world, I study and practice the habits of the early church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the ancient monasteries. My relationship with a loving God through Christ is the foundation of my existence. The Spirit works in the background of my life with practices of faith and creativity. In this way I prepare for the future, whatever may come.

Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.

Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”



Rivendell Retreat in July


“Labyrinth at Rivendell” DS 2016

In that space between sleeping and waking, in this blue green breezy world of Rivendell, I became aware that I felt held, like lying in a hammock. This retreat place on top of a treed hill looked down it seemed over mountains: white, green, blue. In my imagination I began to move out over the sky. The hammock now felt like I was lying in a blanket similar to what must have come down from heaven in the story of St. Peter and the un/kosher animals. I felt peaceful, even exhilarated.

My overworked, overstressed exhaustion seemed to drain from my mind and body. The blanket then seemed to harden into a sieve, like an old bed with no mattress but bendable. On every updraft and landing, something fell from me through the sieve. It was like the junk from my life was falling away. I now turned and seemed to take a more active role in my movement.

It felt like I was gliding like a bird among the trees, looking down upon the distant mountains and ocean. I felt purified. I felt free. I unclenched my jaw and arose to write, shivering from the cool wind coming in through the window over the desk. A net of peace fell over my emotions. Everything would be OK in its time. I felt held.

Musings about the New VAG while on Retreat at Rivendell

Weeds or Wildflowers.JPG

“Flowers at Rivendell” DS – Weeds or Wildflowers?

The proposal for the new gallery was not widely accepted. In fact contrary to the enthusiasm of the VAG, civic leaders and architectural critics, a local radio poll, in September last year showed “80% of the respondents voting ‘No’ to the design.”

Should an art gallery be ugly? The title of an article in art guide, Preview magazine, last year by M. De La Giroday was titled “We are Art: a new narrative for the Vancouver Art Gallery.” It read, the architects “aren’t obsessed with winning an architectural beauty contest.” They said, from an artist’s point of view, these would be the best galleries in the world. In fact, artists would want to be revived from the dead to show here…” These are strong words.

The design is of wood – “a nod to Vancouver’s history as a logging town but with modern internal structures. Although not stated in the article, it reminds me of the shape of the First Nations’ Inukshuk, a symbol of welcome.

Behind the scenes (barely), are concerns about the wood being able to stand up to the weather and the ugliness of it rotting over time. Although there are few cities as treed as Vancouver’s province, apparently there are concerns over whether the correct size and type of water repellent wood could be produced here (so much for using local materials and saving the environment). The other worries are of course, how to raise the funds for this expensive venture, but this would be necessary for any design. However, some say it would be better to renew the old gallery and open several new small ones as the funds are raised.

I find myself debating whether it is reasonable for a gallery to be ugly. Is that not an oxymoron? Why would people be attracted to an ugly gallery? Who would want to walk along the street and look at it? Tourist might even come, not to see what will be the tallest wooden structure in the world but the ugliest gallery in the world.

That said, I know that some think Antoni Gaudi’s “Sagrada Familia” church, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum in Spain, and even the ‘new’ ultra modern Scottish Parliament building in old Edinburgh are ugly. I think now not of humankind’s great creations but of God’s – humankind. Let’s face it; all were not created with equal beauty. Not even God’s own Son, Jesus, in essence God himself, is not of any particular ‘comeliness’ as Scripture describes him. I feel confused now, how can that be? Surely God must be the most beautiful of all? It only makes sense. I am going to have to wrestle with this ugliness business a bit more.

Part Two

What must come into my thinking is that there are different kinds of beauty and various perceptions of ugliness. What comes to mind right now is the way that the appreciation of women’s beauty in art has changed over the centuries from the high foreheads of the Renaissance period to Rubenesque figures, to the anorexic look for today’s model for real women to emulate. There is also natural beauty, but that has a continuum of appreciation too.

Ugliness, I guess, can be about the way we value certain looks. We have standards. A gallery must be made of a certain material. A man must be close to a particular height. Even, my favourite: paintings must be of a realistic style to be beautiful.

Perhaps real beauty and real ugliness are intrinsic. Then I remember that humanity once created in the image of God has become tarnished and even tattered. Even real beauty can be diminished. The future state of the decaying wood of the gallery must be considered on the one hand yet what seems ugly now could become such a meeting place of meaning for Vancouverites and tourists that it becomes beautiful in its aging patina.

Some say of a baby, it is a face only a mother can love. Others are afraid of the onset of facial wrinkles and grey hair. Yet is any baby truly ugly? Is there real beauty in wrinkles? It comes to me now that picture of a dog with amazing wrinkles. You must have seen images of it somewhere. Many think that type of dog is absolutely adorable. So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder then? We can also gain beauty some say, by surgery, by body sculpting, by dressing a certain way. Are the celebrities caught by the camera without make-up genuinely ugly or if so just temporarily indisposed? What about redemption? Is there really something called a ‘bad seed’ making some people evil from birth? Are ugliness and evil, beauty and goodness correlated?

This may be an ongoing topic for thought. The Preview article ends with: “Art, the pursuit of art, and how we support it is a grand enterprise. In a sense, we are all art, and what is chosen will set the arts environment in Vancouver for the foreseeable future.” Do we find more meaning in beauty or in the reality of history and experiences, of love, of hate? But that is a topic for another day. Still exhausted, I am tiring myself more with trying to figure out both life and art. Which parts of this blog post are beautiful; which ugly? I cannot edit anymore.

Rivendell Cross


“Window at Rivendell” iPhone photo DS

On retreat at Rivendell this morning, I particularly noted the 18” wooden cross on the centre table. It was smooth and brown. I felt like holding it but I sat on my gold and pink textile bench and looked out over the fuchsia foxglove and tall trees to the white clouded sky. It was 8:00am and the spiritual day was well on its way.

I thought that in my burned out state I would be recovering passively but already a choice was upon me. The words: take up your cross and follow me, arose unbidden from my heart. I thought: this table cross would not be hard to carry. I remembered the movies I had seen with Jesus carrying his cross along the Via Dolorosa and this one in front of me seemed so easy.

The things that were my cross to bear came to mind. They were heavy – too heavy for me. I was on the verge of panic.

I began some meditative breathing, eyes closed, repeating the Jesus prayer. My thoughts went to a situation that had gone badly before I left home. It was not solvable as there was no cooperation. I sensed the words, let it go, and felt an opening of possibility. It came to me that in this area I was trying too hard. I was trying to control the outcome. What I needed to do was to support the process.

A bicycle entered my reverie. There were training wheels on it. You are the training wheels, I thought. The training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going. They merely provide subtle yet strong support for the rider.

It became clear now, that I had gone too far. The situation that had brought me to the edge was actually not mine although I was required to play a part. I had fallen into the leading part, perhaps like the handlebars on the bike. I need to change my position, my viewpoint and get back to being the training wheels. The outcome was not mine.

Others at the retreat entered the round holy space sitting around the perimeter one by one. A candle was lit, a bell rung. I resolved to pick up that small hefty cross but it would have been disruptive. I would lift it; perhaps cradle it, another day this week. This is my cross, lighter than the one Jesus carried.

Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. 

Book of Luke


Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Book of Matthew