On Saturday morning, 10:30 to be exact, I was painting at my easel when a quiet knock came to my upper studio door. It was my friend and neighbor, Dr. Bob Cheyne, who also happens to be our family doctor.
As soon as I saw his face I knew something was up. “We got the results of your CAT scan,” he said.
I ask him to sit down. Without belabouring our conversation, I can sum up what he said in five words:
“Pancreatic cancer — perhaps a year.”
I thanked him and mentioned what a tough job he had. “It isn’t always easy,” he said.
Carol and our kids David, Sara and James were informed right away. Naturally they are all rallying around and we are off to oncologists and specialists to see if anything might be done. I didn’t have the intention of leaving the planet so soon.
Having been through similar situations with several artists who happened to be dear friends, one of my concerns is that substandard Robert Genn paintings don’t get out onto the market. Sara, who immediately flew to Vancouver from New York, is with me this very minute–helping divide a lifetime of work into “destroy,” “sign” and “keep.” Many works of sentimental value are for family and friends, of course. Others will march out of the studio over time.
Looking into all storage areas, we find field sketches from practically every province in Canada–the Rockies, the Mackenzie River, Lake of the Woods and other favourite spots. There are oils and acrylics of the USA, Spain, Ireland, France, Argentina and Japan, to name but a few. There are portraits, drawings, lithos, serigraphs, lots of experimental work and one-shot wonders. It’s fun. Sad but fun.
For years I’ve been telling artists to do it now, not later. Today we find ourselves doing it now.
And what’s going to happen? I’m certainly cancelling speeches and appearances over the next few months. We’ve got too much to do right here. And what about your twice-weekly letters? We’re working on different concepts. Right now you can be assured I’ll write to you as often as I’m able.
PS: “Life sometimes gives you a second chance.” (Maya Angelou)
Esoterica: From the get-go we have been aware of the value of these twice-weekly letters to artists and others. Sara has helped me with many of them. We’ve shared our artistic journey together and have often talked about this day. She’s a professional painter in an entirely different genre. Based in New York, she’s also a sought-after musician and soloist. Wonderfully, she’s also a great writer and right up for the job. One of the ideas we’re tossing around is that she start off by writing once a week. The other letter would be a favourite previous one of mine. If we ran all my previous letters once a week, they would last for 27 years! Finding ourselves at new chapters in our adventure, we sincerely hope we can continue to be of service to you.
From thinking to feeling
by Robert Bamford, Waterloo, ON, Canada
In 1967, I travelled to Europe, going as a physics student attempting to take pictures of the buildings without people in front of them. After exploring many Art Galleries and Cathedrals, I was so touched by the creative energies connecting to a deep place in my psyche that I moved from my focusing on thinking to seeking artistic and psychological experiencing. What struck me the most about art is how it stopped me in my mind and touched me in my soul. Your letters have reminded me of that journey that began so long ago.
Although you are sick, you strike me as someone who is nevertheless ‘well.’ Thank you for sharing your journey with us.
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Gentleman that you are…
by Rory Kirby, Victoria, BC, Canada
For now many years I have been guided by your wisdom and inspiration, your breadth of travel and experience, your courage going to places so daunting and so rewarding. Now suddenly your forward drive has been turned into a retrospective of a life richly lived. And yet, gentleman that you are, you have found the strength to bring focus to your situation and to respond with the characteristics you have written about to guide us so well.
Your decision to replay your letters for the next 27 years means that I shall be stimulated even as I reach 112 years old. This legacy and the determination to leave only the best of your life-long work is admirable and I remain even more in awe.
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Never written back before
by Cherie Colaw, Tempe, AZ, USA
Know that, even to those of us that have never written back to you before, you give a grand gift. I welcome and support Sara, a recommendation from you is all that I need. Go heal, and we’ll look forward to celebrating the day you come back to us. Thank you for that little bit of Christmas that you send with every email. You can’t possibly know how much your kind words and inspiration mean to those of us when we are stuck or lost.
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Rooting for you
by Susan Levi-Goerlich, Columbia, MD, USA
You don’t know me of course. I’m one of the many thousands of email addresses to whom your bi-weekly musings are sent. But somehow, when I read your last posting, I felt like a friend, who has shared valuable insights and deep thoughts and provided much inspiration and influence, was now facing a huge challenge. Please know that you have touched many, many people and we are ALL rooting for you.
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by Richard and Barbara Townsend, Burlington, ON, Canada
My wife and I are profoundly disappointed with your news. She’s the watercolorist of the family, and steadily she has drawn true insights from your rich experience and observations. And I’m the guy with the computer who regularly prints off and first-reads your acute commentaries; steadily too for several years now, I too have appreciated your cheer, wisdom, and encouragement for her. Something more has come through your incredibly productive flow of warm and caring newsletters — a deep sense about how artists and non-artists alike might well conduct their lives.
Since we’ve truly befriended others by passing on your email address, regularly we remark to each other here in town about how we have greatly profited from and so relished your letters. Thing is, over several years now, you’ve become a mentor we look forward to catching up with. Very humane and giving. Almost sorta like you being a member of our extended family. So please please, Mr. Genn, hang in. And know that you are, and have been, greatly valued.
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by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA
Robert, I know firsthand how giving you are… when around 10 years ago I admired a French themed sketchbook you spoke about, the creation of a deceased artist who did sketches of Brittany or Normandy. I asked where to find a copy. YOU generously shared your copy, mailing it to the USA, just so I could see and hold it. I then returned it to you. (It was so profound a book for me as well… difficult to return… but I have never forgotten how much it meant to me.
More good days
by Tessa Stanley, Edmonton, AB, Canada
This morning’s letter was a shock and I read it just before I was heading out the door with my Dad to his oncologist appointment — he also has pancreatic cancer. He just completed his first round of chemo and had a good night’s sleep; the sun is shining here and it hasn’t snowed yet, so it is a good day! I have been struggling for about a year and a half now with getting my paintbrushes out again (coincidentally I quit when I had my own scare, that thankfully turned out to be benign). I know how precious life and time is and your urging to do it now, not later, rings so true. I just want to thank you for all your wise, mostly inspiring, sometimes aggravating words about art, and for your beautiful paintings. We purchased one of your works, Tsimshian High, after we returned from a beautiful vacation in Haida Gwaii. Your painting reminds us every day of one of our favourite family holidays and how special that time was. I TRULY hope and pray that you will be able to enjoy every day and that you will have many, many more good days.
Thank you for being a great inspiration and an amazing Canadian artist.
Have taken your letters for granted
by Christine Essler, New York, NY, USA
Today, when I took a glance at my Blackberry (which I try not to look at until I am actually on my way to work), I thought “The bomb” would be about a lousy painting. I sat on the F train heading to lower Manhattan, tears streaming down my face. I have not cried like that even for a dear friend of 28 years when I learned she had breast cancer.
I don’t want you to leave the earth, and I know thousands of others feel the same right now. I am not religious, and yet I am praying… praying for a medical quirk. Stay strong, please… you and your loving family. You have another, enormous family out there who loves you.
I don’t want to show a painting, so I will attach a picture of my beloved beasts who bring me peace in heart wrenching times.
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by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada
A few things.
A dear friend living near to the centre of the universe, Toronto, has been diagnosed with the same animal. She’s also advanced as the cancer has spread to her pancreas and other organs. She was given 4 – 6 months but has decided to stick around for the fun of it. The day she found out her news was now almost 1 1/2 years ago and she’s still going strong. I visit with her whenever I’m down that way; she is simply a breath of fresh air, smiling, laughing and sharing and living the day more fully now than ever before.
I just wanted you to know that it doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things… knowing or not knowing. Nobody “normal” really knows either. I have found it to be a gift of sorts once I got over the initial, well, shock. As you already know, living the day to the best possible level is what it’s all about. I see that in your life, your philosophy and your work. You already have it figured out.
I wonder sometimes if my life would be any different now since my cancer adventure. Yes and no.
In the yes column are things like deeper connections with family and friends, fine tuning priorities, heightened awareness of the world around me… the light has never been more beautiful or powerful, and then of course there is the cabin!!!! I can’t wait to move there when the ice goes out!
Spending my life insurance $ before I kick the bucket really is where it’s all at! :) I should be able to enjoy it too!!
In the no column… well, it’s funny because I thought I was living in the moment before my cancer adventure but I really didn’t have a clue. So I guess everything has changed in some way… in a good way. Well, I still have to clean the toilet and take out the garbage so I guess that hasn’t changed… :)
The mountaintop. Magical doesn’t begin to describe as you well know.
Since returning to lower ground these past couple of months, I find myself up there on the mountain again and again in my dreams, both sleeping and awake. As you know, soon after my return home I was headed out to the other side of the great and wondrous pond. Whilst flying over the ocean my mind and spirit were still in the Bugaboos. I sketched only pictures of my mountain adventure for the first few days in Greece. I think some thought it strange… but, then again, they’ve never experienced the magic of that very special place.
I feel we’ve known each other for years through your letters. Just in case you haven’t heard this before, you are one unique individual and have such talent as you are able to share your work, life and thoughts in ways no other artist has ever done.
Watching you paint, hearing your thoughts as you moved your brush and seeing the canvas transformed into art was pure poetry. I am so very honoured I was able to be a part of this… even if it was a year later than originally planned. :)
I would like to offer up a little advice if I may. Take time for you everyday to write, paint or meditate or better yet, go for a walk in the wilds. It really helps me to focus outside of my head to gain clear perspective.
My days too are numbered and my cancer, I’m told by the great and knowledgeable doctors, will return… I just don’t know when. But for now (like on the mountaintop when I thought it had) I have a day to live.
Now comes the real challenge… what will we do with this day we have been given… I already know the answer for me. There is a half completed Bugaboo calling from my easel.
p.s. I too did the painting shuffle when I first heard my news. Signed some, completed some and destroyed others. It felt great and empowering.
What’s with that?
by Mark Nordell, Deerwood, MN, USA
Good Morning From Minnesota,
It’s 70 in this lake cabin and 30 degrees outside. The heat comes from the wood, this newly retired 67 year old United Methodist Clergy harvested in preparation for winter.
It’s before 7 AM on a Friday, 131025.
Art, I love and crave. My own painting is negligible and terribly inconsistent.
I only know you through your bi-weekly letter that I have read now fairly consistently for over a decade. For that I thank you…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about double binds. The contradiction this morning has to do with your announcement.
The bind is this: Your announcement hit me with a force that surprises me. This rather hard bitten, “religious” who has buried dozens of cancer victims, caring decently for them and their families, finds himself rather blown away by your announcement. What’s with that!!!
Why do I continue to read your writings? Usually I stop subscribing to someone’s work after a while for this reason or that. How come I have continued to read you?
Primarily because your voice about art makes sense with little pretension. Usually, you express yourself with intention, without taking yourself too seriously. Your description of that “zone,” this experience, a traditional frustration or unique insight, has been refreshing to me and brought a particular kind of meaning into my life. I am grateful for your effort, and the consistent creativity in your reflective writing. There is a special sense of authenticity within your public voice that seems to me to be rare amongst public people. I appreciate it.Do I know your paintings well enough to comment? Not really. What I have seen, online, I enjoy. However it is not the painter who effects me as much as the person that Robert Genn releases into his writing.
I don’t pray much these days in terms of the traditional ways of normal protestant piety. This morning, though, out of a more yogic tradition, I set the morning’s intention to surround you, lighting a candle for you as a focus of my morning “practices” as I write this note before attending to the day.
If I were to wish for something, it would be a long conversation. Not so much between you and me, but between yourself and Richard Bresnahan, Artist-in-Residence.
Mr. Bresnahan is just now taking some 12,000 pieces out of a very successful firing in the largest wood kiln in North America. Both of you are superb artists, public figures with a following, and men of age whose artistic production is high quality and quite vast, yet both of you still find ways to be approachable.I would pour tea, offer refreshments and listen to the conversation. I would find ways to have input into the conversation concerning the spiritual dimension of art, living and being, but mainly I would want to be quiet and unobtrusive.
Nevertheless, my first reaction to your announcement was an out loud, verbal, “O Shit!” Now I will settle down and try to listen for your “voice.” Please continue to write even as you let Sara’s voice increase. I look forward to listening…
oil painting, 36 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Patricia Turner of Meridian, ID, USA who wrote, “Your letters have helped me get back to the easel after a bad illness. I wish I could do the same for you.”
And also Alison Nicholls of Port Chester, NY, USA who wrote, “Please beat this disease into submission. Then you’ll find that you cleared out your studio for a much better reason, to make way for many, many more new paintings.”
And also Richard Robinson of Ruakaka, New Zealand who wrote, “Bob, my mother-in-law had pancreatic cancer a few years ago and came out the other side unscathed. I’m praying the same will happen for you. Love, Richard.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The bomb…