Yesterday, while disturbing one of the corners of Dad’s studio, I discovered a box of my grandfather’s paintings. Hugh Douglas Genn grew his Victoria, BC sign shop into Genn Advertising, making bus cards and ads for Vancouver Island businesses. His was an era of penmanship, “one shot” sign paint and a properly loaded quill brush. Everything he lettered was finessed with professionalism. On the side, Ad man Doug was a painter.
Looking at them now, Grandpa’s paintings are neat and graphic. He worked from photos or chose local scenery while on road trips with Grandma in his 1971 Chrysler Imperial and camper trailer. His style renounces fuss, his colours are cheerful, and surfaces are layered thinly from a lifetime of careful brushwork. Subjects include provincial flowers, exotic monuments, family portraits and favourite Chrysler products.
In the sunshine, I laid out a few decades worth of canvas boards for their final crit before culling. As well as my own stockpile and Dad’s lifetime of works, I hold the responsibility of archiving Grandpa’s best. On the back of most of the panels, he’d made a brief note — for example, “Photo taken by Bob” or “Official flower of British Columbia” or “painted at Rickie’s using only paper towel!” Among his creations, Grandpa also made something he called, “Oysterart.” He painted scenes on the inside of oyster shells, gilded the outside and mounted them on beach wood. Even in miniature, I savour his rulered, pencilled-in, then painted calligraphy — a tiny, perfect sign painter’s embellishment.
PS: “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” (H. D. Genn)
Esoterica: On visits to our house, I remember Grandpa pulling from the trunk of the Chrysler his recent efforts to present to my dad for a crit or perhaps for some words of encouragement. In the past, Grandpa had taught his son how to pull the squeegee as a summer job at the shop: “When I was about ten years old, Dad took me to visit a couple of Fine Artists. Both these painters seemed to me to lead enriched lives, working with integrity and to be anything but poor. They had no day jobs and, apparently no inheritance to keep their families comfortable. They worked long hours and sent excellent art to distant dealers. The penny dropped in my bony little head that an artist could prosper, and the penny has been lodged there ever since.” (Robert Genn, from Stereotype threat, May 29, 2009)
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Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence. (Honore de Balzac)
A hidden heritage can also make a big difference. While going through my late mother’s papers, I found a small notebook filled with beautiful miniature drawings done in the style of 1920’s romantic images. She did this work while in high school, the class of 1925. Included were drawings of her beau who would become my father and idealized self images. To the best of my knowledge, a busy life, the great Depression, raising a family, all meant I never knew of her art until I discovered it in my 60’s. This discovery was a significant factor in my pursuit of drawing and painting, beginning in my 70’s after I retired in my early 70’s. Mother lived a full productive life, married 68 years, raised a family, lived into her 90’s. I am just a bit sad that that gentle little flower of talent did not have a chance to enrich and bloom further in her world.
I think it was the era… responsibility and an unfortunate fear of artists and what they might do seemed to dominate a lot of people. My own mother, born in 1912 – the day after the Titanic sank – had excellent skills but no one ever encouraged her. She wouldn’t let me take art classes in high school, assuming late 50’s high schools would have nude models. Sign. It is sad. My mother’s side of the family is full of artists and she couldn’t separate the negative from the beauty. I am delighted for you that you found this notebook! I have found a few sketches that my grandpa made when he was young. One, I’m assuming it was of his father, getting dressed to go to sea. The other of the winter, with people walking the snowy path to church in Arendal, Norway. They are treasures!
My great grandparents were married at the State Church in Arendal, Norway. My grandfather grew up on the island of Sandoya, off the coast of Tvedestrand. No artists on that side, but on my father’s side is where I must have gotten my nudge. So, here is to the Norwegians!
Love your grandfather’s work….especially the direct painting of the convertible…a knockout. also, the ship in the shell is terrific. thanks–Pog
Sara, your Grandpa sounds exactly like my Father-in-law. He too was a sign painter when they really did paint signs and did so with great skill and a surprising amount of ease. He too did paintings in the same way you say about your Grandpa. They were about the same age too. Grandpa Joe was born in 1906….Good story from you about a strong family foundation!
you have a difficult task Sara . I had the same task when my father passed . I ended up with cases of books he had written ,and not sold . I kept them in the dark of the shed for years , not knowing what to do with them , and feeling that they where a part of him . Eventually i had a free give away to anyone who wanted to read or own them . I obviously kept a few for myself . Good luck with your choosing
Since the passing of your dad, I have continued to read all of your postings, which are beautifully, thoughtfully written. Your discovery of your grandfather’s work is truly a treasure. The connecting threads of art and life… Thank you! P.S. Some years ago, in the early 1970’s my children, Cora and Ivan Sellers, attended Montessori with you at Crescent Beach!
Beautiful work. All in the family indeed
What an extraordinarily wonderful find. I recently discovered I have a famous ancestor who was a painter. His name is John Pettie (my maiden name) one of his paintings of Bonnie Prince Charlie is currently on display in the Queens Gallery (the queen owns all the art) which is connected to Buckingham Palace, from now till October this year. He also has paintings in the Tate Gallery, London. I was beyond excited to find this out and in all my trips to London send galleries did not know this. I have also been in touch with a cousin who has our family tree dating back to 1600!
Ps…..while I am a very new painter, my website is a travel blog of …..my travels.
Thanks, Sara. Neat story. Perhaps you could share more of your grandfather’s art work with us.
generations of talent -thank you for sharing this. cheers -victor
We all, as artists getting older, wonder what will happen to our work when we are gone. No matter how many paintings I
may have sold, a lifetime as an artist means I will leave many paintings, sketches, notebooks, work from many decades behind.
I hope, that my children and anyone who survives me can enjoy my lifetime in art as you are enjoying your Dad and Grandfathers.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on finding the art treasures of your grandfather and the fact that you are dealing with what to do with your dad’s work, also. What a poignant time in your life. How fortunate you are to be involved in how generations pass on feelings and skills in certain areas of their existence to their family members. It sounds like the artistic characteristics, as well as the moral and ethical characteristics, have been perpetuated in a beautiful way! It’s a rare thing and why so many people have been drawn to you and your father’s blog over the years. The inspiration we receive by reading your letters each week warms our hearts and helps us to ‘keep on keeping on’ with our artistic endeavors! Having been in graphic arts for forty years and seeing the changes in how art and advertising (and signage) is done, makes me appreciative of your sign painting grandpa! Have a creative and blessed summer! Suzanne Gaff
AMEN, SUZANNE…..I SHARE YOUR COMMENTS TO SARA, BECAUSE ART HAS PERPETUATED IN MY FAMILY TOO…..MY MOTHER A WATERCOLORIST IN COLLEGE, MY DAD A LONG TIME SKETCHER, MY ELDEST SON AN ARTIST AND ART TEACHER FOR OVER THREE DECADES, A DAUGHTER WHO IS A PRO FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHER, A SON A DENTIST DESIGNING COSMETIC DENTAL WORK, AND MYSELF AN ARTIST FROM AGE THIRTEEN TO PRESENT, AND I JUST HAD MY 90TH BIRTHDAY…MY SPECIALTY OF PORTRAITURE STARTED WITH MY LATE BEAUTIFUL WIFE, A LONG AGO CHICAGO FASHION MODEL POSING FOR ME, AND AFTER HER DEATH I’VE PAINTED HER AT ALL TIMES OF HER LIFE TO ASSUAGE MY GRIEF….SARA’S GRANDFATHER, AND FATHER’S ART WILL BE CHERISHED BY HER, AND I WELCOME HER STORIES ABOUT THEM……….
My Grandfather was a sign painter for the city of Chicago his father painted in oils,my uncles did sign painting and also did fine art ad I am a watercolor artist. Many generations of artists,my daughter is a collage artist so it continues
So good – a nice feeling of honoring your own destiny when you can “Hie back” to ancestors who inspired your own work.
Thank you very much for sharing
Thanks for this confirming flow of support to Sara’s post. I so much agree with the Suzanne G’s post, and others’ , about the value of these weekly sendings. So many thoughts and feelings are stimulated by them and I always look forward to Painters Keys..and Robert, and now your Grandfather talking so kindly to us.
So many difficulties about being and artist what why who where when.. and afterwards, as you say ALL THAT STUFF . I have been making use of ild efforts via collage to turn around the relics of the long journey..Long ago work in stacks and places ..finding them and seeing strengths and ouch, weaknesses on this long journey of discovery.eg. suddenly finding the use of restricted palette of colours cia attending a lean to paint Botanically.. all colours in every bit..even the whits flower and green leaf etc has a minute granule of the other pigment. Maybe that’s why i love Ivan Hitchens. The value of this shared conversation is that it digs so much deeper that recipes on how to apint etc to connect with the bigger issue and our feelings..as if we are all a good family trying to keep in touch. Thank you Sara,, and everyone, Ann
sorry about all those typos..in my post just now..I hope you could understand it ,I will be more careful and check properly, in future, Ann
This one rings many bells for me. I have other artist s in my family; one is an engineer who worked on the first rocket to the moon (he used to draw airplanes on the margins of his school books) and our uncle was a tool and dye maker for TVA dams (that means he was a sculptor) and our aunt was an artist at home decorating and painted her whole set of Limoge with gold borders and an Old English T. My grandmother was a seamstress. My mother was a singer. My father wrote beautifully in spite of only a 4th grade education. Art comes in many forms. I was a portrait/figure painter and will have my second half of a Retrospective in Oct. here in Little Falls, NY. I am 83 and thinking: What to DO with all these paintings? I give them to charities and our arts center. I rarely sell one. It is people I love to paint. DCV
I love to read these weekly letters and search for the messages I may find in them. I was a school teacher and believe that is/was my gift to love learning and see the world for its beauty. I work with student teachers now and encourage them regardless of how much work they have to do to stop and read your letters as a gift to themselves and an insight into what their gifts and talents are. Thank you and your father for my weekly indulgence
Finding or rediscovering bits of family history and getting lost in that personal past, is wonderfully connecting. My grandfather was a Weekend painter and he passed his skills on to his children, my mother and uncle.i found their drawing copy books once with perspective lessons and animal drawings. I had similar copy books when I was young, and my mom started me off on sketching. It was something that seemed to be passed on in our family, like heirlooms, I guess. I think it was the same in lots of families then.
These letters feed my spirit-thank you so much.
Thank you so much for such thought provoking ideas about ART. I think that we as artists are meant to capture the soul of humanity and leave THAT as a legacy to the beauty of the world.