How to do it

29

Dear Artist,

My mail carrier, a guy about my age with a gentle smile, always brings the deliveries to the front door, sneaks a glance through the windows and gives me a wave. Yesterday, when I opened the door to thank him, he stopped and leaned on the gate. “How did you do it? — How did you become an artist?” he asked . “All my teachers, when I was a kid and all through university, told me I could do something with my art — I was always drawing.” “My Dad was an artist,” I replied. “It looked like fun. It takes a long, long time and a strong stomach.” He laughed. “But how did you do it?” he said, and I understood what he was getting at. It was not enough simply to decide, or to have the desire, or to imagine oneself doing it. He was wondering if there was a process.

Black Tusk from Blackcomb Top, 1998 Acrylic on canvas 20 x 40 inches by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Black Tusk from Blackcomb Top, 1998
Acrylic on canvas
20 x 40 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

When we were growing up, people were always asking my Dad how he did it, and he always replied by telling them they could do it, too. Over the years, we watched chartered accountants, investment bankers, middle managers, high schoolers, hippies, housewives, grandmothers, jocks, architects, the handyman and even his own art dealers drop their current lives and pick up painting. I think he may have even convinced the local chapter of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept his material. “People quit their jobs when they meet your father,” my Mum once observed. She was sober to the hard-won triumphs and workaholic commitment he lived, while what he called his “survivor guilt” compelled him to leak only his joy onto his studio visitors. There was something in him that refused to share that there was a chance that what he was doing was nearly impossible. His unwavering belief in the universal availability of the power of creativity is why these letters exist.

Yoho Dusk, September, 2013 Acrylic on canvas 11 x 14 inches by Robert Genn

Yoho Dusk, September, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn

I told my mail carrier that my parents encouraged my brothers and me, by example, to believe that art was a worthy cause. I told him that I went to university to study it, but that wasn’t really the point. And while I was given the chance, early to show my work and gain some very valuable professional experience, I soon left my hometown to restart anonymously in a place where no one knew my Dad. There were some significant and inelegant sacrifices. I entered enough open-calls to have forgotten about them when the rejections came. I continued to paint, non-stop. I told him that you have to make a lot of work — more work than you think any one person should really be polluting the planet with, over the course of several decades — in order to find out who you are and to pioneer your own techniques and creative voice. “Painting is like tennis,” I said. “You have to hit a lot of balls.” One day, if you’re lucky and prepared, the right person will see the right painting at the right moment and it will be another small chance to lay another stone into the cathedral that is your journey in art. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m building Rome,” I said. “You can do it, too. It’s never too late.” He was climbing back into his truck, but he held my gaze and I could see in his eyes that I had not lost him. I raised my voice as he drove away: “You can do it!”

Visages of Haida Gwaii, c. 2000 Acrylic on canvas 16 x 20 inches by Robert Genn

Visages of Haida Gwaii, c. 1995
Acrylic on canvas
16 x 20 inches
by Robert Genn

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Sometimes you have to go through something else to find what you’re looking for.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: “A young person wanting to become an artist might simply go purposefully and with dedication to his or her room with a few books and a thousand blank canvases for four years,” I heard my Dad say a few million times to those wondering how it was done, including his children. Now, it’s my Mum I call, with news of every art triumph and setback. She is the ultimate compassionate witness, having done so for almost all of her adult life, now deep into her second generation of artists, plus my young nieces and nephew, who are, perhaps, about to step off the cliff, too. I can see my Mum lovingly preparing them for the journey, stuffing their dream-shaped parachutes into unavoidably perforated bags. “You’re so lucky, Dad,” I once said to him, small amongst his paintings and tools, standing in his studio in my nightgown. He glanced up from his work. “Is it luck?”

Robert Genn and his family in his South Surrey studio, 2013

Robert Genn and his family in his South Surrey, B.C. studio, 2013

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“Do not be frivolous with the gift of a day. Right now it’s all you have. Yesterday is history.” (Robert Genn)


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29 Comments

  1. I like this…..I teach beginner adult watercolor and I use almost these same words. Yes, you can do it. It is only hard until you learn how to do it. Just like anything else that you learn, learning takes away the mystery. You may never be an artist who is showing in galleries, but you can please yourself and that can be just as important.

  2. Thank you Sara. Tears come to my eyes when reading about your father. I never met him, but his letters (and yours) inspire and nurture. What a wonderful thing he did by writing these letters, and you do as you continue the tradition!

  3. Breathtaking pieces by your dad, Sara! I’m so glad he did keep up with his art and encouraged you. I’m doing that with my daughter Annika now and she’s continuing to hit those balls! Who knows if she will make it as an artist but she is enjoying the process.

  4. Wonderful. And thank you so much for including the wonderful photo of your family in 2013. A former art teacher and now and artist, I think of myself as an encourager, as well.

  5. Oh Sara, it is a good thing I read this before I poured my first cup of coffee or it would have been swine swill from my tears. Nothing to add. You have told it as is for so many of us. We shall keep doing it and doing it again, like your dad and your mom and you describe. Keep going! Our painter’s journey continues until the last time we pick up a brush.

  6. Thank you Sara. This dose of encouragement from someone that has exampled the journey of an artist well livened my spirit today.
    Your dad’s example of his unwavering dedication to his process has infused not only your work but so many unsuspecting artists along the way.
    I do believe there is an “artist” in all of us and it is up to us to find where this “artist” thrives within ourselves. May our easel, brush and canvas lead the way!

  7. When I was a kid we got to go to a Monkees concert and Jimi Hendrix was the opening act. Just thought somebody would think that was interesting. Awesome letter as usual!

  8. Hi Sarah. Great post today. Forty years since I got serious about my work and still painting in studio or plein air most days. Robert has been there for me as has been a great many friends. Thanks to you I continue to enjoy receiving each blog.

  9. “Sometimes you have to go through something else to find what you’re looking for.”
    Great letter, Sara! I was fortunate to have met your Dad [and you and Dorothy] at one of his presentations. The quote above reminds me of something one of the new breed of gentle western horse trainers said:. “You have to give something you never gave to get something you never had”.

  10. This was a great shot in the arm for everyone doing the work as well as for those wondering “how?”

    There’s no substitute for a lot of work and commitment and willingness to keep trying. There’s no one workshop or class or teacher that makes it happen. Keep on and accept guidance from others and from within.

  11. This is a beautiful letter, Sara! It really brings back happy memories of spending time with your Dad – and you – at his studio. Always so inspiring!

  12. Best letter ever, Sara. Thank you. At a time when I look around my studio and wonder how I can possibly justify “polluting” the earth with more stuff, you provide an eloquent reason. What else would I do with this life?

  13. Such encouragement that I need right now. I am an adult art teacher and I love passing on the knowledge. Every once in a while I get discouraged but I try to give my students positive feedback and tell them how long I have been painting (21 years in watercolor) and still I don’t have all the answers.
    Thanks again for these great letters-I will try to be more diligent in reading all of them.

  14. I look forward to your letters and enjoy them all, but this one really hit home! Eloquent, as has already been said.
    Thank you.

  15. My Brother was a Letter Carrier and has similar character attributes as the one you described. Those little efforts of encouragement that we speak to others ripple out to eternity. Positive and encouraging people like you and your late Dad, make the world a better place, Thank you for sharing the letters, Dad’s artwork and the insightful response to an everyday visitor.

    Love the family photo, too! Cheers Sara!

  16. Thank you Sara. This is a beautiful and timely letter. I just forwarded it to a friend explaining that the only way that I got to where I am today is to continuously paint, evaluate, and paint again. I also had some awesome teachers. I remember thinking how good they were and that I would never be that good. Well my work is now juried into shows alongside their work. And not only that I am winning awards! And so I keep painting. And as the esteemed Yoda said- There is do, or do not, there is no try!

  17. Katharine Ambrose on

    Wonderful to see how you in your turn are breathing life into the dreams of those like your mailman who had thought them long dead. Thankyou your letters are a great gift to us all

  18. “Give yourself permission,” I offered a surprised young dancer as I handed her a bag filled with a starter kit of art papers, brushes, and materials. A couple of weeks later, almost at the end of their RV trek across the country, she sent photos of her four beginning works – as different as they could be from each other. I felt like a proud mother hen.

    What a wonderful surprise to see the photo of your family, Sara. I’m thinking there’s a proud mother hen smiling away in that bunch, too.

  19. I feel so blessed to have been able to take a workshop from your dad, I remember every word he said, his expressions, his way of making me feel inspires, yet calm, while being told ways to improve my work, his message to just go to my room and do it, and even if I think I can’t, do it anyways. Still sad to think he is gone, but so thankful for all he has left for us, which includes one of his greatest prides and joy, YOU!! thank you, Sara!

  20. I have been reading you and your father’s offerings for a dozen years. I remember when you took over from Robert I sent you a “complimentary” observation that I hadn’t realized who the author was until I saw your byline.
    You have honoured your family well today, it was nice to see the faces all together. My compliment remains applicable.

  21. What a touching letter. One that really hits home and a wonderful reflection of the process. I think that would be my response as well, ” Is it luck?” Love reading these letters. Thank you so much for sharing them. Your father’s paintings are always an inspiration as well as his thoughts and insights on art, and the life many of us are partaking in as artists.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/sage-beauty-autumn-16x16-acrylic-on-bd-3-20-wpcf_300x300.jpgSage Beauty, Autumn
16 x 16 inches
acrylic on board

Featured Artist

We all need beauty, especially at a time when it appears to many that the world is in chaos.

Painting is the way I view my life, and it helps me keep my mind straight and my eyes on the positive. I look for beauty wherever I go. For that reason, I know that my life will not be long enough to paint all the ideas that I have.

I am painting because the Lord put the passion and desire in my heart to glorify Him in this way.

I have dedicated my life since 1983 to creating a body of work that testifies of His Creation, majesty, power, beauty, life and love.

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I paint the landscape because I believe that we can see the Creator in His Creation, if we just look for Him there.

Since all who are sighted may see our surroundings, I believe this is one of the most evident ways we may see Him.

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 Beauty, order, and the possibility to love is all around us—all we have to do is want to see it.

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