The fine art of giving


Dear Artist,

On Friday a man phoned to say he had an old painting of mine. He thought it might be “something personal” and he offered to give it back to me. Two days later Frank and Fiona Evans, both of them cane-carrying seniors, came by. Frank was gripping a small package folded into a blanket. “We’ve lived with it for years,” said Frank. “We bought it in a junk store in Victoria. It had a terrible frame on it. We’re getting rid of things now and we thought it should go back to its rightful owner. We’d be interested in knowing the story.”


“Orange Tip”
oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 inches
In the painting, I had the courage to put a ring on her, 1962.

Frank slowly unfolded the blanket. The mystery painting appeared. It was an oil sketch of an attractive woman. There was a Whistler-like butterfly in the upper right hand corner. It was on canvas-board, unframed and with the title “Orange Tip” on the back.

“Who is she?” asked Mrs. Evans. “We paid five dollars for her,” as if the price would clear up some of the mystery.

Gradually the circumstances came back to me. It must have been in the early sixties. I was bird watching with acquaintances on Little Saanich Mountain near Victoria, B.C. At the summit, near the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, there were lots of orange tip butterflies. One of the young women in the party, who I hadn’t met before, was quite taken by the butterflies. Later that afternoon, we visited someone’s home in a place called Ardmore and I painted this sketch and gave it to her. I never saw her again, nor do I remember her name.

Yes, it was I who carried the sentiment for this unnamed butterfly-girl. And now the painting had come full circle. We wondered at the circumstances of her letting the painting go. Had she passed on, or perhaps just given it away?

“Santa bringeth but doesn’t taketh,” said Frank. Stuff has to be disposed of by us, the blessed recipients. But what of this one-day connection, this passing caress now brought out like a dried and dusty butterfly pinned in a glass case? And where will this transience go from here?


In her new frame. Does anyone know this mystery girl?

Best regards,


PS: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” (Cicero)

Esoterica: All art is a gift. It is first of all a gift that the maker can do it. It is then a gift to someone else, whether they pay for it or not. The wonder of it is that we cannot get the production of these gifts stopped. Art is life seeking itself. It is our intractable expressions of love for the beauties, ideas and epiphanies we regularly find. I framed the painting. It’s now hanging in our den. “I have walked this earth for 30 years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir.” (Vincent van Gogh)


Preservation of life’s connections
by Henry Stone, UK

Our brief lives are made of fleeting passages of meetings, greetings and minor encounters that prove up the gregarious and flocking tendencies of mankind. We can preserve these encounters through phone calls, greeting cards, emails and the bundles of photos we all keep. But nothing preserves like a painting. It’s an attempt, however inadequate, to capture, to freeze, as if we could, the connection that makes us all one humanity. Some of these captures, like the Mona Lisa or Dr Gachet, have a life beyond the ones they depicted, and like the Shakespeare portrait, we recognize their presence and their being only by the art that now depicts them.


Exchangeable art
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


“Art History Lesson”
by Peter Brown

A “Picker,” is a person who culls through the art bins at second-hand shops in the hope of finding something special or valuable. Such a fellow stopped by my office and handed me a painting, while asking if it was one of mine. It was, and had been a gift. The Picker had found the painting at a thrift shop and had paid 50 cents for it. A few weeks later I got a letter. My little painting had been resold for $500, and the Picker had kindly sent me a check for $50 as something of a consolation prize. It was a kind gesture on his part and a lesson for me. In the years since, whenever I have gifted a piece of my work, I include a little note which says that the gift is exchangeable. A few people have taken me up on that offer. This seems much better than having a painting in somebody’s closet, or ending up in a thrift shop art bin.


Completing the creative cycle
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada


“Homeward Bound”
acrylic painting
by Loraine Wellman

Your comments that being able to make art is a gift and that then it becomes a gift to others is so true. When I know who has bought one of my paintings, I like to send them a note telling them a little more about the painting and also saying that, for me, the creative circle is completed when a painting goes out to a good home. I also think it is good to be able to give paintings to good causes and public places.





Electricity between artist and model
by Bill Westerman, Worthington, OH, USA


“Everglades storm”
pastel painting
by Bill Westerman

The look that a model passes back to the artists is very telling. What you recorded in your painting of the Butterfly woman was that which I perceive as a look of high interest in the artist. Sometimes the model has a look of a mask or of amusement. Other times the model falls in love with the painter. There is frequently an aura of electricity that passes back and forth from model to artist and vice versa. Those instances produce a painting that is generally unique and the future audience can perceive this if they are observant. Too bad you don’t remember this model’s name. I would venture that she still remembers yours and her thoughts about you.


There is 1 comment for Electricity between artist and model by Bill Westerman

From: Rose — Dec 29, 2009

Those clouds are wondewrful.thank you…


A fleeting gift
by Karen Shaw, Laguna Woods, CA, USA


original painting
by Karen Shaw

Here is the image of the little girl I painted from life at an outdoor show with Alliance Francais in Costa Mesa, CA. She was 7 years of age, and sat so sweetly for me after asking her father if I could paint her. I painted her portrait in 50 minutes, alla prima, and the painting has been juried into several shows. Her name is Rebecca, and I have never seen her since. I was disappointed that her father did not purchase the painting, but he was not interested. If I could find her today, I would give it to her.




Pure gold in old reveries
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Adriennes #8”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Obviously the ‘butterfly girl’ inspired you to do her portrait at that special moment of her life and your life. I am a butterfly nut myself and if the orange tips were out, it had to be early spring. In your area it was probably May. Butterflies are like beautiful women in that regard. They appear, dazzle us and are gone. If she’ll sit for you, you can take a shot at immortalizing that inspiring beauty. I wish they would have had digital cameras back in my college days, myself. I rarely did well on my sketches, though I certainly tried very hard! The painting process etches it into your memory bank. I remember seeing this beautiful woman at a bank once. Something about her stirred my memory and then it occurred to me. I chatted with her. “Is your name Natalia? I did a portrait of you twenty years ago.” She was very impressed that I had remembered both her name and her image. Once you give these sketches away they drift about like balloons released into the breeze. It’s a blessing to reconnect with one of these old paintings. Like a reunion with an old friend, they stir up wonderful reveries and as we age these reveries are pure gold.


The mystery woman
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada

It is really an amazing story and it is something that challenges the imagination. I am also curious if somehow the lady could be identified and how she would look today. I hope someone knows who she is. It somehow has a bit of a mystery; would she recognize you too if you met again or if she is still alive today? Please publish an update. Thank you.

(RG note) Thanks, Edna. So far no info on the Butterfly Girl. She would be about 68 years old now I’m guessing. Also, I’d like to clarify a small misunderstanding due to my poor letter writing. Several writers picked up on this including, Dwight Williams of Idaho: “What’s really got me is, in 1962 you gave the lady that ring, she put it on THAT finger and you can’t remember her? Do we need to worry about you? I don’t think I would forget a thing like that.” Thanks, Dwight. What I meant to say was that I put that ring on her finger in the painting, not on her actual hand. I would never have proposed to a woman in such short order. I would have had to have at least one martini.


by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA


“Baron Davis”
by Keith Cameron

I couldn’t help but wonder as the work was revealed to you how you thought about it? Did it evoke a time when perhaps you would swim in a different stream, or perhaps a different current? Did you think about your evolution as an Artist? A human being? Given the time then at the work’s inception did it make you think about the voice you possessed then, and now after that journey? The great Canadian privilege (in my humble opinion) is the time to think before action. I often wonder about the Canada I knew, and what it is now. I wonder about your experience with the work, and the people, and I again appreciate you sharing it.

(RG note) Thanks, Keith. Like many of us, I float along on a gentle river of nostalgia, remembering my first kiss, my first car, my first cigar. When coming across early art, my main concern is how bad it often is. Then there are times when nostalgia overcomes my nagging perceptions of quality.


A Christmas gift
by Sandra Fein, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA

As I sit this early Christmas morning waiting for everyone to arrive, I had a few moments to spare and began my day with your letter to me. Robert Genn and Saraphina I hope you realize how inspirational your articles are to me as well as to thousands of other artists. I thank you, you were my Christmas present this a.m. that I unwrapped as my computer opened and turned on and there you were giving me hope for a new day. I will begin sketching right after this e-note to you, but I felt I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me.

There is 1 comment for A Christmas gift by Sandra Fein

From: Barbara – Panama City — Dec 29, 2009

I would like to add to that….Thank you Robert!!!!


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Bluffs, Crimson Flowers

acrylic painting
by Coral Barclay, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Barbara Noden of Amelia Island, FL, USA, who wrote, “What a touching story for the Christmas season–of all your wonderful letters I loved this one. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.”

And also Paul Valerie of Limoges, France, who wrote, “There is no beauty like the beauty of a passing glance.”

And also Mark Larsen who wrote, “Butterflies are oft-used symbols of the soul in art. Perhaps the answer is in not knowing the answer.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The fine art of giving



From: Allan James Young — Dec 24, 2009

Your book arrived Christmas Eve and I have not yet been able to organize my proper Santa Clause activities. It is a beautiful gift that will go on giving. Thank you so much. And Merry Christmas to all in our wondrous Brotherhood and Sisterhood.

From: Faith — Dec 24, 2009

And so say I! Merry Christmas! The feeling of coming full circle is there again. Whether or not you subscribe to the religious connotations of the Christian rituals, you can’t avoid the seasonal jamboree unless you hide out beyond “our” civilized world. So let’s just think for a moment what it means to be “civilized” enough not to be in fear of violence, terror, natural (or unnatural) catastrophes and other menaces to humanity. How many can truly claim that? I’d like to think we could change at least the man-made the evils that have devastating effects on the victims.

Let’s start with the children of this world. Let’s make it possible for ALL OF them to grow up in a peaceful world free of abuse, slave labour, poverty, prostitution, cruelty…. It’s supposed to be the 21st century, but all those elements are still menacing. Merry Christmas.

From: isabel Benson — Dec 25, 2009

I have had 3 painting come home to me now. One is almost the first watercolour I ever did. Not very good and made me wonder why they had kept it near 40 years. Two from friend and relative’s estates. The other from one of my sisters. A nice oil that I repainted a bit that need changing and it is now much loved and hanging in another friends hone.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Dec 25, 2009


What a gift you’ve given us this special day…sharing the gift of your wisdom and knowledge with your readers twice a week, without fail; sharing this story: its mystery, Frank’s gift back to you, and your sharing its provenance with us, and the greater message, and true meaning, of the gift of art, and its measure in our lives. In this troubled and troubling time, when peace, the joy of giving and the meaning of the things we seek in our lives often lost in mundane efforts, thank you for bringing us back to the essence of what we are trying to achieve.

From: Chris Bolmeier — Dec 25, 2009

Merry Christmas my friends, may God Bless you all and keep our world safe and peaceful. I was touched to receive a gift of art from an artist friend, Carol Wiebe, of Silver Springs Studios.

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 26, 2009

This reminds me of Charles Russell’s habit of including small thumbnail sketches in his correspondence. Those hundreds of sketches became cherished memories of many people who otherwise may not have owned an original painting.

We email in this generation instead of write. Pity. There was a time I painted a quick watercolor “Nativity” as a Christmas card to friends. Of course, I can blame the lack of time and pure laziness …. I haven’t done that in years. I’m lucky to get out standard Christmas cards. Maybe next year I’ll pick up the habit again. It would be a nice gift.

From: Lynda Davison — Dec 26, 2009

What struck me by your piece was that idea of art as a gift the artist gives. I have to say that the most difficult part of art for me is letting go of my art. It’s kind of like watching a small, private piece of yourself leave you…and a little spot remains forever void. When I look back at photos of pieces I have given or sold, I not only think about the time spent creating it, but also the feelings and thoughts I had at the time it was created. I would like to be a commercially successful artist, but those special hours spent with paint and canvas are almost reward enough. The only problem is how to store all these pieces of me…lol. I wonder if other artists feel this way? Tennessee

From: Diane Voyentzie — Dec 26, 2009

This letter was a beauty! It reminded me that someone emailed me a picture of a painting that I had done in the seventies….It had turned up many states away from where I had painted it. I was surprised to see the old thing…..but I felt some deep affection for it….probably for the years that have passed and for the young self that painted it. I understand how you feel about your mystery lady.

From: Pamela Bentley — Dec 26, 2009

Thank you for this wonderful story, and thank you for all your letters they are always interesting and helpful.

From: Jeanne Ainslie — Dec 26, 2009

What a beautiful story, and you have captured the meaning and essence of art.

From: Alfonso Tejada — Dec 26, 2009

It is Christmas and for many of us it is the best time to express our gratitude to the present in which we have had the opportunity to be participants of your conversations with the world. Just for the Record great memories are filed in our memories that tomorrow may bring moments of reflection and enjoyment as well as entertainment and fun.

With full gratitude to your persona and to your twice a weekly visits.

From: Eric Rhoads — Dec 26, 2009

What a wonderful story. It is the perfect example of the result of giving. It gets passed on and though not intended, always comes back in some form. Very good letter Robert.

From: Coco Treppendahl — Dec 26, 2009

I do hope you find out what happened to her. I must tell you I am a new subscriber, joining after a friend had forwarded something from you, and I am enjoying your letters immensely. Thank you for sharing your stories and encouragement from what must be a great big and generous heart.

From: Ron Unruh — Dec 27, 2009
From: Meg Teller — Dec 28, 2009

I had someone give me back a piece I’d made before I should have been releasing anything to the public. A couple found it hanging in a house they purchased. It should have moved with the previous owners, who apparently didn’t want it either. Since my contact information hasn’t changed in twenty five years, the new owners were able to return it to me. Because they’d been so thoughtful, I showed them into the part of my studio that is hung with new work, and gave them ($0) something they fancied. It cost me little, but seemed to tickle them enough to make me happy I’d done it. The returned work languished on a bench for a week or two until I realized that I didn’t want to look at it either. I assume that it’s now being reduced to compost, where it belongs. (Sort of the obverse of your experience, Robert.)

From: Nicki Heileson — Dec 28, 2009

I pulled out a 8×10 painting done on a canvas board and didn’t remember the circumstances of this painting. Did I paint it on location–if so where? Did I paint it from a step-by-step book? I criticized the trunk and branches of the lone tree tree as well as an edge of the water. But the mountains and road weren’t too bad. I just could not bring back the paintings beginnings.

Then, all of a sudden, I remembered that it had been framed in barn wood and hung over the stairs in my mother’s condominium before she died. Bit by bit it all came back. I didn’t paint it at all–it was one of the first efforts of my very young son. I wish I had recorded the date and his name on the back. It would have been so easy. And now that my son’s son has taken up painting, it would be fun to compare work from both.

From: Sue Martin — Dec 28, 2009

I think it’s so wonderful that the Evans thought to return the painting and that you were able to share stories – the inspiration for the painting and the “life” it has had since leaving your hands. I would love to have some of my paintings return someday. I used to think it would be awful to find one of my paintings in some thrift store marked down to $5, but I’ve come to feel differently. If someone can buy it for $5 and enjoy it for a while before passing it along to someone else, that’s a meaningful legacy. And if someday my paintings fetch far more, making that $5 bargain a treasure indeed, that would be wonderful, too. The main thing is that my work is circulating and being enjoyed, bringing joy and meaning to those who hold it for a while or forever.

From: Vikki Armour Fuller — Dec 28, 2009

One early December day,about twenty years ago, I was enjoying a browse in one of my very favorite antique stores when I discovered a small primitive style oil painting on wooden panel of a Newfoundland Dog, who looked so very much like our own family dog. Unfortunately for me, and much to my dismay, the painting had a green sticker on it, and the owner of the store told me it was on hold for someone else. I wanted very much to give this painting of the dog to my husband for a Christmas present. I telephoned the store that following week, just to see if the painting had been purchased, and learned that the painting was still in the store. I was told that the person had not been back to purchase it, but she would need to hold it for the rest of the week. Closer to Christmas I went back into the store and there it was, still with it’s little green hold sticker. I learned that she had not been able to contact this person for some reason and that because it had been on hold for so long it was easy for me to persuade her to let me buy it!

It was one of those presents that I just loved to give, and was very excited and could not wait for my husband to unwrap the painting on Christmas morning. I remember the look on his face, as he peeled back the tissue and ribbon, and read my note. He looked at me for a long moment, smiled and told me that this was the painting he had put on hold and had wanted to buy for me! When he had phoned the store, it was the day before Christmas, and he was going to arrange for having it delivered as he had not been able get to the city. He learned that it had been sold and was very disappointed as he knew how much I would love this little painting. I do not know who the artist is as the signature is illegible.

From: Dorothy Sevcov — Dec 28, 2009

I received your new book from my daughter, and am so thrilled. After all the years I have read your letters I have them all together to read and enjoy. You can’t beat holding a book, a nice cup of tea, beautiful music, what more could anyone want. Thank you for all the inspiration.

From: Stephen Pate — Dec 28, 2009

Thanks for your site and great stories. I read them all. There are a lot of stories being published about what the boomers will do when they retire. Finding our life’s work and living it is what we are doing. The Internet gives us an unparalleled opportunity for expression and communication. Without the internet I would never likely have come across your painting and other creative works.

From: Vicki Jones — Dec 28, 2009

Thank you for telling us of the traveling portrait. It gave me goosebumps. If that painting could talk, would its story be like Black Beauty?

From: Jack Thompson — Dec 28, 2009

Your book arrived today and it is wonderful. I spent the first hour just dipping here and there–everything stands alone as a separate idea, so succinct, tight, brilliant, full of fun and inspiration. A classic.

From: SD King — Dec 29, 2009

Another perspective on the depression ration might be due to the fact that while you say “Men are in control”, most of the time the women are not free to put all their energies into their art. They are usually still the ones who have to shop, cook, clean and keep the home for controlling men and then, sad to say, in the art world men still hold a higher status. It is very DEPRESSING! Maybe moving to Norway or a snowbound cabin might be the answer for their freedom from depression. Liberation is truly liberating, releasing a wellspring of expression in all the arts. There are precious few men who know how to nurture and emotionally support others, least of all their wives.

From: Brian — Dec 29, 2009

Just love the letters, Robert. A Happy New Year to all.

From: Susan Kellogg — Dec 29, 2009

Vikki Armour Fuller’s story, a modern “Gift of the Magi”!

I collect boring postcards, cards of places that are seemingly so uneventful that one wonders why they were ever printed. I did a painting based on one of them, a view of Bickel’s Knob, W. VA. When a friend said her father had been born there, I gave it to her for him. His wife died, he remarried, and later, died. Apparently his widow had no use for this small remembrance. I found it in a thrift shop and after integrating my shock at the experience, bought it and still have it, and this story.

From: Esther J. Williams — Dec 29, 2009

In my college years I gave away some of my art to a girlfriend that was abstract flowers. I wanted to actually throw them out but she hinted to me that she liked them, so I gifted them to her. I moved 3,000 miles away and visited her 5 years ago. She still had them and said they are very special to her. They were a reminder of our friendship and a time when we were learning how to live life. Whenever I think about that, I get emotional. She has no idea how that is a gift to me that keeps on giving. They say that’s what friends are for. I just gave another painting to a friend recently because she bought one also. I don’t expect these shows of emotion and gratitude, it’s just so rewarding to me. I gave an ink drawing away 25 years ago to my Karate instructor that I would like to see again today. Maybe he will contact me and allow a peak at it, it took me 3 months to paint. That’s if he still has it. There’s one that I still wonder about.

From: Jan Ross — Dec 29, 2009

Happy New Year to Robert and our fellow artists worldwide! I have a question for everyone: If you saw a collegue’s painting in a flea market booth belonging to someone other than the artist, would you ever mention it to the artist? Undoubtedly, knowing one’s art has been discarded is embarrassing and hurtful, but knowing someone is trying to profit from a gift is also awkward. As the old saying goes, “When in doubt, do nothing”, so did I, but I still am bothered by it. Thanks!

From: Jackie Smith — Dec 29, 2009

I too would like to thank you Robert. I wonder how you are able to work in writing these letters to us and to do all the research necessary. Your letters are an educational blessing for me. As for the new year, I wish you health and happiness as well as the ability to continue writing your letters. Thanks!!!

From: Edyta Naideth — Dec 30, 2009

What a delightful story. The fact that your painting came full circle is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it and the lovely photo too. I once bought a Garage sale painting that I was drawn to for it’s use of color and the intriguing models face. I went on a quest to find the artist. Deciphering the signature was a challenge and left me with several variations. Every once in a while through the years I would search. Long story short I found the artist living in my own town. She was in her 80’s and delighted that I found her. She was a fairly well known artist and at the time actually had some of her painting showing in a lovely gallery in Pasadena, CA.. Another Full Circle Complete.

I hope you treasure your circle I know they are rare gifts that only an artist can understand it’s deep meaning.

From: Gwen Williams — Jan 01, 2010

I’m afraid I don’t know the young lady, but it’s a lovely painting and it’s hard to understand why anyone would give it away in any manner. Your work is beautiful. I’m a lifetime portrait artist, mostly in pastels and semi retired. For some obscure reason, a few people located me and I had six commissions to complete in the past month. Not used to working that hard!

From: Claudia — Jan 21, 2010





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