Author sara genn

Letters Girl with Rabbit, 1905
by Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)
18

“Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it,” wrote Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to 19-year-old Franz Kappus, an officer cadet at the Military Academy of Vienna who, disenchanted with military life, began sending his poems to Rilke for critique. For seven years, Rilke replied with letters about love, loneliness, truth seeking, suffering and feeling and engaging with art and the world. When tackling doubt, he suggested that Kappus could transform it into a productive creative tool. “It must become knowing, it must become criticism.” Here are a few ideas:

Letters The Studio, 1881
oil on canvas
by Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884)
20

When I was a kid my folks took me on a road trip. As we approached the town of Hope, B.C., we saw, crawling up the shoulder of a steep hill, an ancient Model T Ford. A skinny, mustachioed man wearing a fedora was sitting up tall behind the wheel. Below him, a sign on the side of the old car read “Toronto or Bust.” Toronto was 5500 miles away. As we flew by in our ’47 Chev Fleetline I distinctly remember my dad turning to me, winking, and saying, “No hope.” My mom laughed. Dad turned out to be wrong.

Letters Ram's Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico), 1935
oil on canvas, 
30 x 36 inches
by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
16

Women artists may be knowingly or unknowingly practicing a creative system called, “cycle-synching.” Neuroscientists have concluded that the two main female reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, do not only rule the body’s fertility but also have a powerful effect on our neurochemistry. Add to this that new fertility-tracking apps like Clue are enabling women to predict the onset of productivity tools like high energy, sex drive, boldness, tiredness, sensitivity and body pain.

Letters Deux Hommes, 1969
oil on canvas
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
15

A remarkable study, Endogenous Steroids and Financial Risk-Taking on a London Trading Floor, has implications for folks in other professions, including ours. According to the study, stock traders build testosterone on days when they are successful. Apparently, the additional hormones can cause higher levels of confidence and risk-taking, while too much of it can include feelings of omnipotence and even carelessness. Conversely, a trader who has experienced successive losses will have higher levels of the downer cortisol, leading to risk aversion and sloppy choices.

Letters The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), 1923–24
oil on canvas 
25 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches
by Joan Miró.
20

With the unmistakable breeze of authority, Dad said, “Never underestimate the power of a little pressure.” At the time, I took it as many aspiring artists would — that production pressure was a gift from the outside world, a reprieve from the echo chamber of your solitary room. But what he meant was that you need to put pressure on yourself. By doing so, you override the helplessness of creative dependency on external minders and convert yourself magically from a reactive artist into a proactive one. Here’s what I mean:

Letters Girl in White in the Woods, 1882
Oil on paper mounted on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
26

Just when I thought we might have maxed out on syndromes and disorders — attention deficit disorder, highly sensitive persons, etc., yet another has shown up in the studio inbox. Among the forest of responses to my letter on trees, “Nature Deficit Disorder” was mentioned by several artists. As webmaster Andrew Niculescu has gone mountain climbing, Michelle Moore, a high school student who is helping in the studio over the summer, spent last Friday trying to sort your letters out. From every viewpoint, artists identify with trees, endow them with spirit, wish to honour them, and bemoan their loss. To many, they remind us of our estrangement from natural places.

Letters Composition VII (1913)
78.7 × 118.1 inches
oil on canvas
by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
22

Every picture you’ve ever looked at has been designed with your travelling eyes in mind. Here’s an exercise for the next time you’re in a gallery: Scan paintings one-by-one in a half squint. Without over-thinking, give each painting’s eye control a score from 1 to 3, with 1 being average, 2, good, and 3, excellent. Are you travelling around within the picture’s edges, enjoying a balance of visual excitement, places of rest, satisfying weighting, depth of field and an intuitive tension and resolution? Are you feeling a sense of paucity and getting adequate information about the subject? Is there an ineffable sensory pleasure?

Letters Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker 
Omaha, Nebraska August 10, 1979
by Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
11

Our eyes move toward those things already on our minds. A man passionate about model railroading, for example, is likely to look at a painting of a locomotive. But deeper cues move our eyes. Some of these stimulants are with us from birth and are a part of our psyche. Others are learned, selected and personalized by life’s preferences.

Letters Bridge Between Galaxies, 2017   
18x24 inches 
oil on aluminum composite 
by Bryan Larson
13

”To sense the invisible and to be able to create it,” wrote Hans Hofmann, “that is art.” An English clergyman wrote a letter 235 years ago proposing the idea of a giant but invisible star so massive that it swallowed its own light. Based on his calculations, this body could be detected by its gravitational effect on surrounding objects. In 1915, 114 years later, Albert Einstein was developing his theory of general relativity, building upon his already proven theories about gravity’s influence on the motion of light. Then, in the 1950s, astronomers with radio telescopes noticed that seemingly peaceful galaxies were emitting disproportionate amounts of energy from their cores.

Letters Twilight of the Gods
Acrylic on canvas
20 x 24 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)
12

With all the current running off to get things juried and critiqued by others, self-critiquing might seem an unpopular sport. It isn’t. The acquired ability to critique oneself is the fuse of great art and the silver bullet of the pros. While all artists work differently, here are a few thoughts:

Quality develops when the artist and the critic are honed into a functioning co-op within the same skull.