Depicting greatness


Dear Artist,

As part of the visitor’s tour of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., you can look at the recently restored, nearly 200-year-old Capitol Rotunda — a massive, domed, circular room that marks the geographic center of the city and where eminent citizens lie in state and important works of art are dedicated. Constantino Brumidi’s The Apotheosis of Washington is painted 180 feet up on the 4,664 square-foot rotunda canopy. The neoclassical fresco shows George Washington majestically ascending to a godly rank, surrounded by Liberty, Victory/Fame, 13 maidens representing the original states and six groups of figures embodying the arts and sciences. Brumidi’s $40,000 commission came at the end of the Civil War and took eleven months to complete. For a country still smoldering with devastation, the Capitol Rotunda with its artistic depictions of greatness emerged as an act of hope and permanence. The style of the Rotunda itself was intended to recall the Pantheon of ancient Rome.


“Sioux Superman”
oil painting by James Bama (b 1926)

Just above eye level, the Rotunda’s curved, sandstone walls are divided into eight niches framing large historical paintings showing the landing of Columbus, discovery of the Mississippi, embarkations, declarations and surrenders. The heart-striker is John Gadsby Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas. It shows the teenaged daughter of Algonkian Chief Powhatan after being captured and held for ransom in 1613 — she is being baptized and given the name Rebecca in an Anglican Church at Jamestown, Virginia. When Chapman painted it in 1839, Baptism celebrated the earliest native conversion to Christianity, with the ceremony and subsequent marriage to tobacco farmer John Rolfe helping to establish peace between the colonists and the Tidewater tribes. Four years after her baptism, Pocahontas would fall ill and die en route from England to Virginia with her husband after a tour of English society to help inspire investment in the settlement at Jamestown. She was twenty.


“Alberta Oil Sands #6”
Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007
fine art photography by Edward Burtynsky



PS: “Aurora borealis
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water
In a long and hurried flight
From the white man
to the fields of green
And the homeland
We’ve never seen.” (Neil Young, Pocahontas)

“One does not sell the land people walk on.” (Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota Tribe)


“Oil spill #14” 2010
Marsh Islands off Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico
by Edward Burtysky

Esoterica: On April 1, 2016, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an elder member of the Sioux Standing Rock Tribe, along with her grandchildren, established on her own private land a Sacred Stone Camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172 mile-long underground pipeline to carry over 450,000 barrels per day of hydrofracked crude oil from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil tank farm near Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline, which runs through state parks, public lakes, gravesites, agricultural land, flood land, sovereign land and beneath the Missouri River, threatens the largest watershed in North America and the ten U.S states and two Canadian provinces that depend on it. It also endangers the only water supply of the Standing Rock Reservation and disturbs burial, ceremonial and buried artifact sites there. Allard’s Sacred Stone Camp is a center for spiritual resistance and has drawn thousands of indigenous people and their allies from across North America — the largest gathering of Native Tribes in the last 100 years.

“The Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world; a world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations; a world longing for light again.


“Oil Fields #19ab” 2003, Belridge, California
photograph by Edward Burtynsky

“I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again. In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.

“I salute the light within your eyes where the whole Universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am that place within me, we shall be one.” (Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota Sioux, circa 1840- Sept 5, 1877, four days before being fatally wounded by a bayonet-wielding military guard while resisting capture and imprisonment at Camp Robinson, Nebraska and four months after surrendering to U.S. troops under General George Crook in May 1877.) “His ferocity of spirit remains a guiding light for all who seek lives of defiance.” (Chris Hedges)


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“I think you learn about pictures in yourself… being true to things that you personally respond to… this is the only way you find your original voice, by following your own instinct.” (Edward Burtynsky)



  1. So sorry to point out this little completely irrelevant piece of information… but if Ms P- forced to renounce her native religion in favor of oppressive christianity- died at age 20- 4 years after her “marriage” to Mr J- using today’s standards- Mr J would be labeled a pedophile and put in prison for raping an underage Ms P. See how all those silly religious and cultural traditions we all hold onto so tightly and so dearly- are just garbage?

    • I think your comments are garbage & without thought and without the hurt they might cause. Many things done in the past were not good and many things in the past are wonderful. TO YOU religion might be silly, but that does make Christianity silly .. Christians are not silly nor is what they believe some phony cultural tradition just because you think so. That kind of talk is what is garbage. Shame on your thoughtlessness

    • Even though I may agree with your sentiments J. Bruce Wilcox, I feel that this is not the forum to express this type of personal belief. It is essentially an ARTS forum and Sarah has given us an historical arts perspective relevant to those times.
      Sadly there is plenty of divisiveness in the world today due largely to a lack of understanding and tolerance and negative comments here don’t help.

  2. Thank you for bringing this to the attention of your readers, Sara. It’s horrific what’s going on there right now, in the name of short-sighted thinking. Time to move on to the energy of the future. Water is life.

  3. Thanks for posting this and raising awareness about what’s happening at Standing Rock. However, I would have liked to see art by contemporary Indigenous artists, writers, intellectuals and musicians profiled rather than works and words by settlers. There are so many amazing Indigenous artists doing incredible things right now.They are and should be in charge of how they choose to represent themselves and should have been centred in an article like this. See, for example, Rebecca Belmore, among many others. Thanks, Sara.

  4. Young women of all kinds have been married off to older men for a long time. My own Grandmother was 18 when married to my grandfather who was 35. At that time the man had to be sure he had a good job so he could support a large family. This practice is still going on in other countries, probably in this one and in other religions and traditions as well as some forms of Christianity. One can never lump all people of one faith or race or religion into one mold. That does not make right what was done to the indigenous people here. Customs were what they were then and the same goes now. We might not all agree. I recently watched a documentary of that time and the settlers did do some terrible things to the indigenous people. A lot of it was that these two cultures came at one another from totally different realities. Neither had a good understanding of the other. It was a clash and it was inevitable, considering that the people of Europe thought they were doing to a land that was not owned. The indigenous people did not understand owning and selling land. Forever was not in their thought as far as treaties were concerned. They did not build fences. We shoved them all out of the way and settled this country. We do not really need to do that now. We have other choices. It is very hard to get a strong business stopped once it gets going. It has a lot of power. People invest a lot of money and they do not want to lose it and do not want to stop. So how to get them to stop? I do not know. Donna Veeder

  5. Time has no meaning. As a teenager I felt I was so very ready for life as my youthfulness and beauty became my sword and shield. I learned how to attract what I desired and protect myself from most of the things I did not want, until a stranger took advantage of me. With a glance and a smile by the fire’s embers, and with naivete, I allowed him in. Dashingly handsome, his Native American heritage with high cheekbones, strong built, with black eyes, and long wavy black hair to his shoulders, brought an excitement and heretofore unknown quivering in my body. With a vengeance he swept me away. I did not have a chance to run. Only now, with a fading memory of the sadness and countless wounds long forgotten, this letter by writer Sara Genn, has brought me back to re-kindle embers of youth-filled, failed dreams and potent sorrows. Painting brought me back from an abyss of ruin so long ago.
    Never let the past rule you. Give your dreams those moments they need, to help you realize who you are now. Wallow in them, so that you will see a vision of who you are becoming in time for an eternity.

  6. The only “religion” I have- or respect- or follow- is my connection to All-That-Is via my own creativity. As ARTISTS- that should be obvious to everyone in here. You want to think that christianity is all good- that the christian version of god- is good. But christianity- and christians- murdered an uncountable number of the native population of this country without blinking an (evil) eye- as they did to people all over this planet- in an attempt to usurp and take control. And none of it was good. You’ve been brainwashed. I woke up.

  7. Crazy Horse was a visionary. His vision matches many others who see unity of Spirit. We have denied our connection and therefore our potential for far too long. Perhaps the moment is approaching when we will have evolved enough to embrace the perennial wisdom of the ages. It is found in all religions. Time we stopped to listen instead of arguing about being right. Thanks Sara.

  8. Ok Bruce, pile up the bodies savaged by the Christians. Now, next to them let’s pile up the 30 million killed by stalin,, yes he was a seminary student at one time yet can hardly be called a Christian. Now add 60 million killed by chairman Mao, 51/2 million by Hitler, a couple of million by pol pot, amin, and the list goes on. I am sure the non-Christians have a greater tally. Enough already. We understand your disagreement with Christians and why.

    • So you’re suggesting that it’s all humans and just human nature? Actually- I dislike organized religion in general- not just organized christianity. And power-hungry politicians- too. And anybody who thinks they are better than someone who is not like them. And men who think they are better than women. And women who think the same thing about men. And one race- who thinks it is superior to all other races- when decoding humanities DNA has proven beyond any doubt that race- as it is defined by the pigment in your skin- is virtually meaningless. Of course- CULTURAL human differences hold some meaning- but none of them make anybody better than anybody else. And since my direct understanding of things spiritual has confirmed for me that we are in fact all connected- ANYTHING that makes us think we are separate from each other is an illusion. And of course- the worst of those would be- WAIT FOR IT- religion and politics.

      • You pretty much nailed it. Evolution of the soul is an exquisitely personal journey, with planet Earth being one of many incubators and playgrounds. But it’s not something to be discussed, debated or argued, is it, as there can be no consensus? It’s totally experiential……

        Stay in the Light,


  9. In your original post you specifically mentioned Christians, not all religions, or politics. Your reference was to body count of people murdered in the name of Christianity. I merely pointed out the non-Christians have slaughtered more people in general. I feel however mankind does have a propensity for violence. As to feelings of superiority over anyone, yes you have a point. However education helps us to overcome this because studies have shown a marked parallel between violence and lack of education. I feel our role as artist is to create such beauty with our art that we draw people to it causing them to create rather than destroy.
    DNA studies have shown man started out in Ethiopia and he was not white. Time, migration and environment caused him to change. Change as he no longer needed dark skin as he moved into cooler climate but light skin to better absorb the benefits of the sun. Not thick curly hair but lighter thinner, or finer, hair for the same reason. The world is growing smaller and we are constantly being confronted by change. My only real concern is change for the sake of change is not always a good change.
    In any number of ways I agree with you/all of you about a kinder gentler world.
    I have read a good deal on several religions and found Christianity works for me. I have found adequate proof of the life of Jesus in a book by Bruce Metzger called The Early Beginnings of Judaism and Christianity. We are given a description of Jesus by the Jewish historian, and member of the Sanhedrin, Josephus. I have personally found that the creative process, drawing and painting, is a form of meditation and many times has led me to prayer.
    As to politician, well, that is an entirely different story. Peace be with you.

  10. It’s December in Canada, I’m grateful for the natural gas that heats my home and studio and prevents me from cutting down trees to keep warm. Ed Burtynski didn’t paddle to Fort McMurray or levitate for his aerial photos; darn it, he had to count on fossil fuel like just about every other person in this world (even David Suzuki). You want to know what the world would be like without pipelines? Well, let’s turn them all off for even a day and check the news. Until we have an alternative, that’s the way it is.

  11. We do have an alternative called thorium. Look it up, read about it and then ask the question, ” why is it not being used”.

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Featured Workshop

to Through
oil 12 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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