The deeper ‘Why?’

Dear Artist, Last Tuesday, I took my Mom for “An Evening with David Sedaris.” It was Dad’s idea – from the foot of my bed. I awake these mornings with him standing there, coffee in hand, and a more-urgent-than-usual creative scheme.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anais Nin)

David Sedaris is a widely-read humorist from the suburbs of Raleigh, NC who now lives with his boyfriend, Hugh, in West Sussex, UK. In the theatre he’s elfin, a bit older than I expected, reading his material from a lectern. After, at the chatty book-signing, he attempts to extract nuggets from his fans. Bratty, observant, and playful, he’s one of Dad’s favourite writers. Tenderness and truth flowed from Sedaris’s selection of crafty anecdotes and puerile gags. Using a sort of literary “bait and switch,” he set us up with a story of preparation for the loss of his aging siblings tucked within a fulmination against a single-bathroomed country house. It reminded me of something to strive for in painting: to nudge meaning from a moment. Getting to the deeper “why?” Getting to the deeper “why” can be a little chicken and egg-y. Some artists approach their “why?” intuitively, and work toward giving it a voice through their technical skill. Others begin as technicians, and develop (or discover) their “why?” as they become stronger communicators. Here’s an example, in three stages: One: Hike up into a mountain col, set up your easel and paint the glacier. Here, you’re telling the story of an artist who paints mountains on location. Two: Notice that the glacier has receded by about a kilometre since our Canadian master J.E.H. MacDonald painted it in 1928. Now you’re exploring the bigger reason you’re painting the glacier. Suddenly, you’re making notes. Meaningful notes. Three: Finish the painting with a fat brush, and finish it on location. Now you’re a messenger who tells a larger and more valuable story. By finishing on location, and with the élan that a confident swoosh transmits, you transform your mountain into a shared, personal event. And just as David Sedaris delivers a jewel from a triviality, you monumentalize your outing, nail a truth about the nature of time and connectivity, and ultimately, disclose your spirit.

“Christmas Carol”
1974 oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
Carol Genn with Sara Genn, Jason Hennessey and Vam Hennessey

Sincerely, Sara P.S. “A good short story would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” (David Sedaris) Esoterica: Going through Dad’s paintings with him this week has been like looking at a slide show of our lives. His heart and hands are the  peaks and valleys, snow patches, backyards, pathways, watercourses, creatures, totems, faces, skies, minor flowers and lonely islets. Dad’s deeper “why?” is present in each canvas moment, each effort a push of his curiosity. He’s a lifelong explorer, experimenter and inventor. Rummaging through this week, we found a painting of Mom. “Every so often my life will feel like a story. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most often, it’s just the opposite.” (David Sedaris)   Building a cathedral by John MacKenzie, Orangeville, ON, Canada  

John standing with his paintings.

There are certain kinds of people (artists) for whom finding the deeper meaning in things is important. Personally, the outcome of a painting is always better when I have a deeper “Why?” behind it. Your letter brought back a memory of a story wherein a person asks one stonemason what he is doing and he replies, “cutting a stone.” A second stonemason replies to the same question, “Making the most perfect cut of this stone possible; it will be cut at perfect 90 degree angles.” The third stone mason replies, “Building a cathedral.” There are 3 comments for Building a cathedral by John MacKenzie
From: Janice Moser — Nov 21, 2013

I’m loving your work,and your wisdom!

From: Brenda — Nov 22, 2013

Do you have a gallery in OV? I will be visiting family there and would like to drop by if you do.

From: EK OConnor — Nov 25, 2013

Thank you for the inspiring story of the stonemasons. Beautiful! I’ll be sharing it with friends and family this Thanksgiving in a quiet little cabin deep in the woods away from the mad rush of the holidays.

  Passion and commitment by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada  

“Street View”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Karen R. Phinney

I, too, love David Sedaris’s quirky and witty take on life. I am amused at how he incorporates his own family’s foibles into his observations and take on everyday things. And your musings on your own life, reflected in the subjects and so on, of your Dad’s work, is so clear and affecting. We do paint and enjoy things that define us and reveal what is meaningful to us. The mountains you describe painting, and the changes, are symbolic of your passion and your (and his) commitment to doing what you love and not giving up till you have achieved it.       On the path to connect by Cary Thompson, UK   As a writer, I have made it part of my process to follow the paths of artists I have admired. Travelling to their locations, I have been able to connect to a deeper “why” in my own writing voice.   Why? Because it is necessary by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Hourglass Lake Backdrop”
acrylic painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

For me, art is all encompassing, sometimes lighthearted, bubbly and joyous. Sometimes it’s solid, sobering and clever. And sometimes I don’t understand it. Maybe it has a story to tell and maybe it’s just a spark of an idea. Maybe it’s a premonition or a crack in the memory, or an inkling of a desire. But always the answer to why is — because it is necessary. Because it communicates. It is always more deserving and rewarding than talk.   There is 1 comment for Why? Because it is necessary by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: carol — Nov 21, 2013

It used to be – that I painted because, “I had to.” While I worked and we raised our children, I would have to work quickly and take time away from my duties. Now, I have time, and I paint because I wish to express a thought or feeling, to study a color, to figure out how I really feel about a subject, to express my opinion of a situation… make a social commentary, or just because I want to.

When my husband and I travel, he drives and I sit with a tray on my lap (filled with small watercolor sketchbooks, pencils, brushes, etc.). I sketch and paint the countryside as we drive on our way to parts unknown. When we stop for National Park visits, I keep drawing and painting. Usually, in watercolor. Along the highways, every once in a while, we stop and I collect some dirt and paint with that – trying to catch the color of the landscape. When I sketch and paint, I notice more. Sometimes, we see amazing sunsets or glorious sunrises. I try to catch to colors and create meaningful memories of our trips.
  Strong skill, strong idea by Josh Manley, USA   In art school it was all about the “idea,” without much attention paid to drawing or technical skill. Nowadays when I’m in a workshop I find that everyone is just trying to make a well-painted picture of something. Everyone’s work looks the same and there’s no voice. A nice middle ground between these two is where I want to be with my art: Strong skill with a strong idea beneath.   Each moment precious by Susanne Clark, Toronto, ON, Canada

“Cosmic Blue”
acrylic painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Susanne Clark

When I read your letter, “Magic Hour,” the response was quick and emotional and it took some time for me to return to it. First, it took me back to some wonderful memories I had of years ago with my own dad who was not very available since he was always working those two jobs he had. So when he had a snow day, we had him for a number of hours… very special times building snowmen 6 feet tall, or just walking and talking like you describe with your dad. My father and I were on very different wave lengths but he was quietly supportive of my desire to be an artist and used to send me boxes of brushes while I was in NYC at the School of Visual Arts by day and waitressing at night. Your dad is so remarkable and generous. He so graciously met with me and my husband when we visited Vancouver a couple of years ago. He took time out of his busy schedule to meet us at that lovely park down the street from where he lived to meet us and talk for a couple of hours. He showed us the house and barn which has been preserved and the boat house with his studio boat. We walked around the park and he showed us where he made many paintings and a film of himself painting. When I lost my father, I felt like I lost my grounding. What is so important though, is exactly what you are doing, getting the most out of each moment you have. I hope you know that you don’t have to work hard now to get the contents of your father’s brain, much of it is already there and if what I suspect is correct, he will continue to speak to you from other dimensions.   Brotherhood and Sisterhood by Judy Day, Auckland, NZ   The way your emails ignite and unite the scattered ‘hood of artists and creators of any level puts a real positive spin on the often two-edged sword of today’s computer technology.   Emotions spike interest by Sam Kaczur, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

digital photograph
by Sam Kaczur

Over the past year I have come to a standstill in my photography, trying to explore my “why.” I am happy in the moment of the photo session but looking back at past work I get a sense of disappointment and on some occasions a sense of “How did I do that?” and “why can’t I do that now?” I feel that I am at that second stage you mentioned, starting to make notes on the characters I portray, see the differences and the opportunities, making emotions spike the interest of each image. It took me a lot of failed starts to get there and it was only until I took a step back when I discovered that the answer was in my head the whole time, I just had to get out of my own way. I am educating myself, by letting my patience take over, allowing each moment to be peeled back and as I relax, maybe I will find that beloved third stage and finish the work with a personal but collective unconscious feeling of awe.   Sparrows are the key by Karen Standridge, Colorado Springs, CO, USA  

“Copy cat poppies”
acrylic painting, 15 x 30 inches
by Karen Standridge

I sit looking through the front window at my desk where the computer is, and I watch the small, brown birds fighting each other for a perch on the bird feeder. And I wonder about them and about so many other things. How long is their lifespan, and why didn’t I ever learn about that in school? Are these the same birds that come to the window each time; are they “our” birds, or are they different ones each day? I know that the hummingbirds that come to the cabin each summer are the same ones. Can birds talk to each other? They certainly seem to have very distinct personalities as some are more aggressive and others more docile. Their will to live seems so strong. Every now and then, one of them will fly hard bang into the window. After that, the bird will lie on the ground as if knocked out, probably is knocked out. But then, miraculously, I come back outside a few minutes later and the bird is gone. Once I rescued a very exhausted and frustrated hummingbird from inside the shed at the cabin. It had flown in the open door, which had then closed behind it, leaving it stranded, frantically pecking at the window with those little wings working so hard to save its soul. When I saw it from the kitchen window, I wondered if it would let me capture it for its own good. I entered the shed and immediately cupped my hand over the little struggling bird, and I felt it relax in its virtual trap in my hands. When I opened my hands outside, it flew away, and I could only imagine how thankful the bird was to be flying free again. But what was even more thrilling, for me, was how thankful I was that the bird let me hold it to save its life. It’s not too often that we get to save a life. Every summer when the hummers come back to Pike National forest, I call them as soon as we get to the cabin. And every year, they come when they hear my voice, even before we get the feeders filled with sweet, warm water and placed right outside my painting window. They come and buzz me gently as if to say, “Hi! We’re back! It’s summer again in the mountains!” I’m so thankful for birds and their great big wills to live. I’m not sure I ever appreciated why the writer of the words of Jesus in the Bible gave such significance to the life of a sparrow: “He knows the fall of every sparrow.” I used to think it was just to teach us that even the life of an insignificant bird is important to God, but now I know I was wrong with that interpretation. The sparrows are the keys to the deeper why. There are 2 comments for Sparrows are the key by Karen Standridge
From: Ross Lynem — Nov 22, 2013

Beautiful! I was lost in Pike National Forest while reading. Thank you for sharing.

From: Darrell Baschak — Nov 22, 2013

Love your painting and story, thank you.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The deeper ‘Why?’

From: Mike Barr — Nov 18, 2013

Sometimes I think we can look too deeply into a painting to find meaning or look for messages that just aren’t there. A few yeas ago Jeffery Smart, one of Australia’s most celebrated artists found himself on TV and being interviewed by an ‘expert’ looking for hidden meaning in Smart’s urban work. He asked him why he painting something (a truck I think) in bright color, intent on getting to the bottom of the mystique. Smart casually replied that he thought the painting just needed a bit of color! Amusingly, Smart was stopped from coming into his own retrospective exhibition years ago and touching up some of his old works with brush and paint.

From: Lynn Harrison — Nov 19, 2013
From: Henry Fell — Nov 19, 2013

Every day thousands of paintings are being made with no deeper why. First the impressionists and then the abstractionists decided they had to do more. Among the more was the adding of individual personality to the work so that it might at least be seen as different from the crowd. The new popularity was not based on skill so much as showmanship, mystique, and yes, promotion. At the same time there was and will probably always be a need for pretty pictures with no particular “deeper meaning”. Well painted landscapes, florals and snorting mooses will always be with us. Canada

From: Amrit Choudhury — Nov 19, 2013

It is the secondary and deeper meaning that truly makes art interesting to look at, study and discuss, and it is additionally interesting for the artist to accomplish…..

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 19, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Nov 19, 2013

Why? Why not!

To meet the Creative Spirit where it is- outside me- inside me- and act. To deliver on my promise to myself to BE and create from there. To live a life far beyond the ordinary while being fully in the ordinary. To get to Master- and keep producing. So I’m never bored- and never boring- either. To also- never thinking that painting pretty pictures is enough- because it isn’t. To make the most of everything- even while living on nothing. To never let people exist comfortably in their dysfunctions. Because I can.
From: robin christy humelbaugh — Nov 19, 2013

There is a spirit that inhabits artists, some call it holy, and when you let it work things appear to surprise you and your viewers. I am always amazed to hear what people see in my art.

From: EK OConnor — Nov 19, 2013

Sara, your article, “The deeper, ‘Why?'”, very beautifully conveys what I’ve been unable to effectively put into words about my experience of painting and what I see – or project – onto some artists’ work, as well. Your article really touched my soul.

From: Tim Alcock — Nov 19, 2013

Just want to offer some words of encouragement. Your writing is stellar. Deeply enjoyed the Magic Hour, Lou Reed and David Sedaris. Stories about people who matter and whom we love. Poignant, insightful and intuitive. Much like Bob’s but clearly your own. I look forward to the next installment, and to sharing a mountaintop again, soon.

From: Jan Oxendale — Nov 19, 2013

Just this past week, a neighboring house next to my husband’s land in the rural area of Minnesota burned down. The house was insulated with wood chips and went up like a tinder box. I painted that house in 2007.

After the incident, I realized how art records a period of time that will not exist again. In this case, not only has the vegetation changed somewhat, but the building itself is just remnants of it’s former self. Your story reminded me of how I felt about the painting after learning of the fire.
From: Phil Hewitt — Nov 19, 2013

You write like your Dad.

From: Janice with Klaus, Lorenz and Victoria Vogel, Germ — Nov 19, 2013

Thank you Sara for stepping up to the plate and doing such a wonderful job in carrying on Bob’s letters. I am sure Bob that you are not only beaming with pride but also relieved that all the hard work invested into building up such a great virtual community is being carried on so well, enabling you to concentrate on beating the beast.

What a lovely painting of you Carol! I felt like was looking at a painting of Sara with the children. The family resemblance is striking and beautiful.
From: Molly McCoy — Nov 19, 2013

What a beautiful letter from you – your wisdom contained within – especially the “chicken-&- eggy thing,” which strikes very close to home. I especially appreciate the clickback to a painting of your mom & you, your siblings. Thank you both for the inspiration felt by reading this post tonight. It’s clear that you respect each other’s perspective and art. Prayers come with…

From: Jackie Knott — Nov 21, 2013

I have dozens of photos of the ravages of Oak Wilt in south central Texas. For several years I’ve considered painting one of these magnificent oaks that choked and died with the disease. The blight has flourished in our decade-long drought and but science still has not been able to figure out a means to stop it. I read it is spread to twenty-one states, mostly Midwest.

Thousands of acres of former groves of lush oaks are now barren skeletons. Other than depicting a purely sculptural image it would just be too depressing. The “why” of a receding glacier may spur more discussion on global warming but I can’t bring myself to look at another dead tree – we know the “why” but we can’t DO anything about it. Asking why with any subject matter has value; historical record to be sure, but nothing is more frustrating than not having an answer to the question.
From: Catherine Jordan, Powhatan, VA — Nov 21, 2013
From: Barbara Legacy — Nov 21, 2013

At first I didn’t know if I wanted to read the post diagnosis letters. My husband lies sick in the other room after undergoing chemo and dialysis for the last several months. He 67. His numbers are improving and we are planning on a better future.

I find your letters helpful because they recognize the beauty and realities of life. They help me stay grounded and appreciative of those little blessings.
From: Gary Barr — Nov 21, 2013

Sometimes those great titles come so easily. “Christmas Carol” was perfect.

From: Ken Paul, Eugene Oregon — Nov 21, 2013
From: Lynne Marshall, Pensacola, Florida — Nov 21, 2013

Walking that path with my mother less than 2 years ago, it is still fresh in my mind. Though I am not one to normally send comments, I have appreciated your newsletter since someone turned me on to it (probably 6 years or so ago) and there were a couple of things I wanted to say to you.

First is that there are many precious moments and blessings to be mined from this experience. Just from the way you write, I suspect you already know this. Though illness requires a kind of suffering, it also provides time to talk and love and laugh which is very healing in a spiritual (and sometimes physical) way. The second thing I wanted to say is that, as you have lived a life of art and given that gift to the world, there are really only a few people who will have been able to afford to purchase your work and enjoy it daily. Your greater gift may well be the thing you have given everyone for free – your newsletters filled with advice, humor, and (as I am a reader and quote collector, too) connections to other artists and thinkers past and present. Raising a daughter who seems to be able to pick it up without missing a beat is yet another gift. The care and enthusiasm you have both spread into the world has many ripples you will never know about.
From: Claire Evans — Nov 22, 2013

Ditto, Bruce Wilcox!

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 25, 2013
From: Cheryl R Long — Dec 14, 2013

This comment is about the law of recent memory. I just returned from Thailand and my head is buzzing with images. During a private class to demonstrate a technique to students I produced a really nice painting “Astral Travel in Thailand.” It was fast and spontaneous and filled with joy. I let my golden retriever be my guide and Robert Genn too, strike while the iron is hot, go for the gold. Thanks for this excellent post. Cheryl Renee Long

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photograph by Kyle Thompson, USA

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