A Wing and a Prayer


Dear Artist,

When 25 new subscribers all have the same zip code, we can determine they are all from an art school or university. A professor of art or a painting instructor may have said to a class, “Here’s someone in the real world who struggles with art every day, writes this letter and gives tips. Subscribe — you might get something out of it.”


“Storm Tide”
1903 oil painting, Monhegan Island
by Robert Henri (1865-1929)

As a product of an art school, I have a pretty good idea what art students are facing. I’ve noticed they can be divided into two camps — those who would be artistically literate and those who would be artists. My letter and its connections are mainly for the artists. It’s my sincere wish that you do get something out of it.

Of the thousands who read this letter, we think that about 69 percent are professional or semi-professional artists. Most are pretty busy. It actually surprises us that they have time to open their emails. To those students who will make a life of art — and the 69 percent will back me up — you can look forward to this: The really big learning will begin when you finish school. You will grow increasingly frustrated and increasingly in love with your job. You will have the lifetime joy of working harder than most of your working friends. Further, you will have to discover some sort of inner strength — some ego-based willfulness that will, almost like a religion, keep you flying.


“Street Corner in Paris”
1896 oil painting by Robert Henri

“The world’s engagement of beauty is my bible,
and Art is my religion.
I come to it as a child,
and I add all the grown wisdom I can gather.
Creativity is my salvation.
My easel is the altar.
My paints are the sacraments.
My brush is my soul’s movement,
And to do poorly, or not to work, is a sin.”


“The Goat Herder”
1917 oil painting by Robert Henri

Best regards,


PS: “No matter how good the school; education is in your own hands. Education must be self-education.” (Robert Henri)

Esoterica: I wrote that little “artist’s prayer,” quoted above, when I was a student at Art Center School in Los Angeles. I’m looking at it right now on my studio wall. It still seems to work.




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“The artist should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express.” (Robert Henri)



  1. I teach social studies methods to college students preparing to be teachers. I share your letters with my students because I feel our masterpieces are our students Many similar challenges

  2. Your letter seem so appropriate today because after 40 some years of working, studying, experimenting, teaching and living art, I finally feel I have arrived at a much longed for destination. In the last year I have been published 3 times in the Ceramic Monthly magazine and chosen to have one article appear in the American Ceramic Society’s Ceramic Handbook on Sculptural Techniques AND have had TWO requests to appear in two separate shows at the Sandzen Gallery in Lindsborg, KS. For a girl raised in the very heart of rural America where the artists are few and far between, where a ‘big’ town is 4000 people and the cities are 5 hours away…….this is all a dream come true. I don’t think there has been a day go by when I didn’t learn something. I have told students, friends and family that I don’t DO art, it is simply WHO I AM!

    Thank you for your letters that let this isolated artist know that I am not alone.

    Today, I deliver, at the request of the Director of the museum, my self portrait to the Sandzen for the showing of only self portraits by 75 artists. It is a big day for me. I am looking back at the journey and feeling so blessed to be living the artist’s life.


  3. Honor is not achieved without knowing the truth that we are guided, not by others, but by our inner striving to be the best we can be, and are becoming everyday we live. I have walked to that creative altar for over 50 years. As the fire light embers still glow in my soul, and the truth that that same person who started walking this uncharted path is still inside me, I feel the quickening yet. Not one thing has ever made me want to stop. It is who I am. It has become an honor.

  4. Education will only take you so far… it’s the gift that lies within that makes you a true artist. The ‘artistically literate’ are those who go to school to take Art, but don’t have an innate artistic gifting (nor the genuine heart to do it). I know many wonderful artists who never went to Art School, but who are phenomenal artists. The so-called” professional galleries” (curators) won’t look at most artist’s work unless they have a degree… nonsense! They don’t know what they’re missing. How many of ‘the great masters’ went to Art School? Not too many.

  5. Gosh! Didn’t I just make social commentary about being self-taught! Yes. I did. My creativity is my ONLY religion- my direct connection to Universal Creative SOURCE. No other religion is necessary. Just gotta keep on producing. Until I’m dead. Then- because the value of my work will go up- I’ll finally have enough money to live on!!!

    • Hey J. Bruce Wilcox, Ha ha! Or it will become a burden for those it is left to. I worry more about that as I keep producing. Where does all our work end up? The artists that never sold a painting, (like Van somebody), or started when they were 85 in their basement, (like somebody’s mother..) will be the ones sought after for museum shows. I have no illusions of grandeur, except when I am sleeping. As the years go by, and the work piles up, only our divine connection gives us what we truly wanted in the first place, and that is different for everyone!

    • “Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can bring the inborn talent to the full and empty the chalice of the nature. He who can totally sweep clean the chalice of himself can carry the inborn nature of others to its fulfillment…this clarifying activity has no limit, it neither stops nor stays….it stands in the emptiness above with the sun, seeing, and judging, interminable in space and time, searching, enduring…unseen it causes harmony, unmoving it transforms; unmoved it perfects.” (Take Sze).
      Always look for your posts, they always speak to me. Thank you.

  6. to me,personally…it is so important to hang your sketches or paintings up at eye level to view .
    Standing back from your creative endeavors,even in the in between stages, can set the stage for appreciating. I like to think of it as discovering the hidden treasures that you need to spend time cherishing. …Similar to opening a gift…it now becomes a surprise of loving the good stuff and not shutting the doors to positive new refreshing ideas yet to excite ones passion to excell! Yay!

  7. Looking at the students I went to art college wth in the early 1980ies, of those who followed the money after college, well, they are earning plenty but no longer create and the 1% of us who are still painting work twice as hard as everyone else and live on the edge of a financial precipice, but seem to be happier. Roberts poem speaks of hard work and dedication, and hints I think, at an addiction to the creatative process, which develops in those of us that become life time professional artists, and that to me feels like we live in a different place and some what apart from the rest of humanity and we like it that way. I always question if this is healthy.

  8. Your letter & poem today touched me so deeply. At age sixteen, inspired by the works and words of Van Gogh I knew in my whole being I was a painter! And so with old tubes of oil paints discarded by my mother after an attempt at painting I began painting…and now, more than 50 years later I am working towards my first solo show. It hasn’t been an easy path to walk but it has been my heart’s path. When admiring my work people will ask, ” Where did you study painting?” I proudly tell them, “In my garage.”
    Thank you for your newsletters with their truth and encouragement!

  9. Whenever I’m teaching beginning artists, artists who are self-taught, or simply meet artists at numerous venues, I recommend this bi-weekly newsletter.
    As a longtime fan of your father’s, I have his book of letters and frequently revisit it. My belief is we can learn from each other as well as from publications, workshops, classes, etc. So, along with the letter you publish, I enjoy reading the other artists’ comments, recommending that feature when I talk about this site.
    Thanks for keeping us informed and for carrying on your father’s mission!

  10. Steve Clement on

    Over the many years I have received these stimulating newsletters, I have felt various emotions and pondered many diverse thoughts. Sometimes, I feel so stimulated that I just want to jump up and grab a paintbrush. Other times, I feel contemplative and need to do some serious thinking BEFORE picking up a brush again. And other times, albeit rarely, I feel that something was not quite right with what was written or that some aspect of art that matters to me was slighted. But most often, I feel thrilled along with Robert and Sara to be an artist in spite of all the struggles. Today, however, I feel something I have never felt previously after reading the latest from the Genns: sadness.

    If you and I had the chance to meet a great artist and see his or her works and discuss them with the maker, would we willingly settle for just seeing the works themselves and skip the opportunity to learn directly from the master who created them? I don’t believe any of us would. But that is precisely what comes through in some comments today, including Robert’s poem: the willingness to ignore altogether the great Designer and Maker of the amazing world we paint, and instead to concern ourselves exclusively with the artwork (our glorious universe and all that is contains) and the tools we use as human creators. It makes me sad.

    • Steve Clement- If you’re suggesting I have a chat with your version of the great designer/maker in the sky- and therefore not ignore him/her/it before creating my masterpieces- and by doing so that will make you less sad- forget it. Now if you also think my very own arrogant ego must be in the way- because I’m AN ARTIST and therefore I must be perfect- already- well- you can forget that too. I’m a TRICKSTER. One way the trickster teaches is through wit and humor- not being nice and giving you a trophy for doing nothing.
      If your god exists- please ask him/her/it to send me a check for all my hard work so I can pay my behind rent and EAT- before I get thrown out of my studio. Because- unfortunately- it is not your god who gets up every single day and goes to work and does the work. I’M THE ONE DOING THAT.
      And that doesn’t mean I’m not directly connected and profoundly inspired- because I am. But I also know how that works- and if I don’t do the work- the work doesn’t get done. Because there isn’t a single other human on this planet that is making the work I’m making. And YOUR god isn’t supporting that work very well- at all. Be sad about that. Your god is failing all us artists.

    • Dear Steve,
      I too was saddened after reading the “artist’s prayer” that Robert Genn penned. I so enjoy the letters that Robert and Sara have written, but to imply that there is nothing more to an artist’s arsenal but an easel and an empty canvas and a supply of paint makes me wonder how any of us creative souls can ever truly express the wonder and glory that inspires us each day. I believe that all that drives us to create is given to us by a loving God. It is said that an artist’s soul and heart is imprinted in every brush stroke. We should honor that gift.

  11. I often reflect on the differences between professional artists who are ‘schooled’ in a formal sense and those of us who are self-taught. Either way it seems that both camps very often live as Jane Wilcoxson says ‘on the edge of a financial precipice’, but in my opinion this has more to say about the way we think of ourselves as artists than it does to skill-set, training or indeed any innate drive to create. It seems to me that we have rather lost sight of artistic practice as a ‘trade’ over the past century, and as a consequence have over-indulged in the idea of it being some kind of personal emotional and spiritual exercise, or a means of massaging our own egos, or indeed satisfying our 21st century craving for ‘recognition’, with any financial gain at the end of it being either secondary to the exercise or something of a bonus. As in any profession of course there will always be high flyers and masters of their craft, but I wonder if it’s time for us to stop beating ourselves up about whether or not we are ‘authentic’, trained or untrained, ‘super-creative’, or ‘successful’ as artists. Instead, why don’t we focus more consciously on honing our technical skills, finding the right market for our wares and satisfying our clients. At the end of the day despite what we’d like to believe, being a professional artist is simply a particular way of making a living, nothing more.

  12. yes….thank you again I like the prayer. I will use it and maybe make a SAMPLER of it and send it to you for the fun, since it is yours…..or make a craft kit of it for sale. :-)

    Sara, the way that the so VERY MANY, and many of them PROS, use Painters Keys means that you might charge five cents for it…not free. The workwoman is worthy of her hire. At five cents each, that’s thousands of “five cents-es” :-D

    Enough to cover your costs, at least.

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