The Nature of Making Art

I have kept journals–diaries–on and off for the past 40 or more years. In the 1990s and early 00s, I hand wrote a huge amount in dozens and dozens of lined notebooks–mostly recording my dreams and feelings but also world events and my activities. I’ve been working on a big project, going through my journals from those years and massively editing them. By that I mean, I’ve been tearing out and shredding large portions of them while noting what I was going through at the time. Now, this may seem ghastly to some people, but it is extremely liberating to me. I am creating more room for myself at my current age, while remembering, but not holding onto, what my younger self experienced.

In the course of editing a journal this week, I saw an entry I wanted to record here. I wrote it in April of 1991 after attending an excellent painting workshop with the artist and teacher Sam Feinstein. I have always remembered the powerful nature of that workshop, but had forgotten his teachings about the nature of making art. This was my understanding of what he told us, as I wrote it in 1991:

About art making–you needn’t even believe in your creativity–do it as a way of expressing the life form that is particular to you, that is of nature and larger than you, that goes through you.  As a way of being authentic. Dreams and art are of the unconscious life force, bigger than us. Dreams are fleeting, art remains. Once a piece of art work is done, it is its own thing. It never was yours anyway. As its own thing, it is judged on its merits, apart from you.

Art is the spirit made visible through human beings reaching out from themselves, beyond themselves. Art is beyond our own feelings as we create.

Words to make art by!


The gouache painting above is one I made in the 1990s. I did it like a form of free association, attempting to allow whatever came to consciousness to find its way onto the page without censoring it.

Portraits on the Theme of My Father’s Death

Oil Painting by Lily S. May
The first of 3 paintings I did after my father died. I included portraits of both of us in it. Copyright Lily S. May, 2007

When my father died in 2007, I took up oil painting again after not having painted with oils for many years.  I made the three paintings in this post to express some of my feelings about his death and my life.  Each one includes a self-portrait plus a portrait of him. In the final painting, I’m holding a photo of him as a young man that I received after his death.

Oil Painting, Lily S. May
This is the second painting in the series that I did after my father died. To me, it’s the most mournful looking. Copyright Lily S. May, 2007
Oil Painting by Lily S. May
The third painting in the series. I call this one “Disappeared.” Copyright, Lily S. May, 2007

Mail Art from Nancy

Mail Art Envelope
Mail Art Envelope from Nancy Bell Scott

This week I received beautiful mail art from Nancy Bell Scott in response to some work I sent her.  A lovely surprise.  The envelope is from old sheet music and the work inside is one of her wonderful collages.  

Mail Art Envelope
The back of the mail art envelope made and sent by Nancy Bell Scott.
Mail Art Collage
Mail Art Collage by Nancy Bell Scott

Thank you, Nancy!  

P.S.: If anyone wants to send me mail art, my address has changed!  You can contact me for an update.

Paper Quilt from “Flower Elephants” Linocut

Paper Quilt
Paper quilt made from early linocut by Lily S. May, 2013

I’m continuing to refashion my old linocuts and woodcuts.  I’ve been thinking of quilting some of my prints for a few years and decided to begin the process with this small 5 x 7 inch linocut.  Once again, my aim was to do the work with a sense of freedom.  That’s why I used large stitches and meandering lines of sewing.  I enjoyed the process greatly, from layering paper and cotton/polyester batting to the hand colouring at the end.

Working with fragile materials in this way continues to feel central to my life as I age.  It all makes emotional sense. 

Quilted Linocut
Detail of quilted linocut by Lily S. May, 20113

My aunt, upon hearing that I was making mail art, requested that I send her something.  I think this will be the piece I mail to her.

If you’d like to receive a refashioned print from me, do contact me with your name and address and I’ll be happy to mail you one of these works. 

Roots and Ruins

Roots and Ruins
Roots and Ruins, linocut by Lily S. May under my former married name.

As I’ve continued looking through my old prints and refashioning them, I came upon another linocut I made in the 1970s that I called Roots and Ruins.  This is a scene from my visits to the Virgin Islands years ago.  A favourite site of mine was a place, now wooded, which had once held a plantation.  This old plantation wall had been taken over by the forest with trees rooting and growing out of stone.

Roots and Ruins
Roots and Ruins, mail art from a linocut I made in 1974.

This was a haunting site, a reminder of the enslavement of people to cultivate sugar cane and their uprising to free themselves.

Roots and Ruins
Roots and Ruins, mail art by Lily S. May, 2013.

Seeing the print again, I did not want to cut into it as I’ve done with other prints.  Instead I left it whole and folded and sewed it.  I added a bit of colour and sent it off to a friend as a surprise mail art booklet.

Roots and Ruins
Roots and Ruins, mail art folded booklet, made 2013 by Lily S. May from linocut made in 1974.


U of T window
Photo of University of Toronto window, May 2013, by Lily S. May

I don’t think of myself as a photographer, but since I take my camera with me most days, I’ve decided to show you some of the photographs I take.  The ones in this post are from the University of Toronto campus last week.   

 Sometimes a scene calls out to me to be taken in black and white as I’ve done here.  This is often an intuitive process.

 I do very little editing of my work because of severe eyestrain when I’m on the computer too long.  Generally, the most I do is optimize and resize the photos, as I’ve done with these, so they load easily online.  Sometimes I crop the images and, on the odd occasion, I adjust contrast and brightness. 

U of T
Photograph of windows and vine covered wall on University of Toronto campus by Lily S. May, taken May 2013

In the photos I take I frequently focus on the composition of shapes—the design element—as I have done in much of my work.

 I find the photos help me remember things that I would not have—for example, I can recognize specific trees in the woods that I’ve photographed and studied.

 At times I’ve found that photographing can take me away from the moment and into a place of acquisition.  To help myself with this, I pause and take in what I’ve photographed, so that I am present where I am.