Something about islands

Dear Artist, In 1856, Royal Navy Sub Lieutenant Edward Hawke Genn was surveying the West Coast of Canada and happened to have a couple of small islands named after him. The Genn Islands lie in Malacca Passage in the inner reaches of Hecate Straits. My distant cousin was stationed in Canada for only a few years. He died in Calcutta, India in 1872.

Curious seals wondering what’s going on. Normally undisturbed, the island was alive with wildlife

My grandfather, Reginald Genn, on his way to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, claimed he went aground on one of the islands. He told us he squared off a tree and wrote his name with an indelible pencil and that’s how the Genn Islands got their name. Grandpa was on his way to Skagway, Alaska at the time, with 30 tons of Yakima potatoes bought in Seattle for $3.00 a ton. Reg reportedly sold the spuds in Skagway for $100.00 per ton. He then climbed the Chilkoot Pass and packed on to Dawson City, where he staked at least three placer gold mines and eventually lost his shirt. Last Thursday, rowing out from M.Y. Mareva, I scrambled onto Genn and Little Genn Islands for the first time in my life. A significant tide running between the two islands made landing difficult. Noisy seals, aggravated oystercatchers, Brant, and several species of sandpipers as well as eagles and gulls added to already wild and remote feelings. Of the two, Little Genn is perhaps the more attractive. A protected beach on the north end is surrounded by finely designed rocks and dramatic old trees overhanging. We’ve illustrated a painting effort at the bottom of this letter.

Surfbirds make an easy living at low tide. Brant and Western Sandpipers were also common.

There’s something about islands. For one thing, they’re not continental. Islands represent the wisdom of isolation and self-sufficiency, surrounded by a common and separating element. Islands promise privacy and the potential for Kingship and Queenship. In works of art they offer a symbolic statement endorsing introversion and the value of keeping your own counsel. Further, there’s preciousness. People who live on islands, or even go on them, pick up preciousness as they would seashells or weathered beach wood. Island owners (or passersby) cruise the perimeters to better know their own souls. An island, especially a small one, is something you can get your head around. If you need to feel special, paint islands.

Departing the Genn islands. As far as I know, I’m the third Genn to go ashore in 160 years.

Best regards, Robert PS: “He who has never seen himself surrounded on all sides by the sea can never possess an idea of the world, and of his relation to it.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) Esoterica: My grandfather looked at my early paintings with dismay. Painting, to him, had little or no practical value and no potential “percentage,” as he called it. He once advised me to “get into the liquor business — that’s where the real profits are.” On the Genn Islands I found no evidence of grandpa’s squared-off tree. But I felt another connection. Boulder for boulder, this place has likely remained practically the same since the Ice Age. The various Genn visits were only a late blip on a vast timeline, and I, too, felt like making a small, indelible event of my passage. Genn Islands

“Little Genn Island from Genn island, Malacca Passage, Hecate Straits, BC” — acrylic on canvas, 12 x 16 inches


Genn Islands from the north, about 15 miles from Prince Rupert, BC — Little Genn on the left


M.Y. Mareva standing off Genn Island — There appears to be no reasonable anchorage near the islands.

            Islands define focus by James Stewart, Sarasota, FL, USA  

“Halifax Fruit”
original painting
by James Stewart

While it’s a great thing to have one’s surname attached to one, islands do have an attraction for many people. I use islands without formally addressing their abstract nature. From a distance, they are clearly defined. You can’t see them unless you are somewhere else. They are just land above sea level and give great focus to the water around them. We were just in Halifax which has Georges Island visible from downtown. In a very busy city the presence of the island becomes very important.   There is 1 comment for Islands define focus by James Stewart
From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jul 23, 2010

“You can’t see them unless you are somewhere else.” Perhaps that is why they are so fascinting and why many things should be viewed from afar. It would leave a little mystery.

  Collectors don’t always prefer regional art by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA  

“Harkers Island Trees”
oil painting
by Brenda Behr

Those fortunate enough to live on the coast of a body of water have access by bridge or by boat to what we commonly refer to as an island. Few of us, however, have the distinction of having our family name on an island. As a child, I painted my first oils in a US Air Force base hobby shop on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Lots of islands there, but I’m not sure I ever painted one. More than forty years went by before I again painted coconut trees. All the paintings I did three years ago in Puerto Rico came back citrus in color. One of my galleries in North Carolina says, “No palm trees.” The very first painting I sold via the Internet was a plein air painting I did on Harkers Island, NC. It’s interesting that old friends in Minneapolis were the ones who purchased Harkers Island Trees. So much for people sticking with regional art when they purchase artwork. I encourage you to explore the fascinating coast of North Carolina. We have a string of islands here referred to as the Outer Banks. Harkers Island, in an area known as Down East, is one of the islands that was cut off from the mainland for so long that many of the inhabitants there still speak a dialect known as “The Queen’s English.” The “Queen” here refers to the first Queen Elizabeth. There are 4 comments for Collectors don’t always prefer regional art by Brenda Behr
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Jul 23, 2010

Brenda, I’m heading to the Outer Banks this weekend. Won’t make it to Harkers Island but am determined to paint some dunes. Ocracoke’s folks have that dialect too. A most wonderful thing.

From: BJ Wright — Jul 23, 2010

We visited Nags Head, NC, several months ago. I did some plein air painting there and was struck by the sunsets and sunrises. I discovered a wonderful natural cool palette of colors living over the wildlife sanctuary there even in the Summer heat.

From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jul 23, 2010

Lovely painting, Brenda. I’ve lived at Carolina Beach in N. C. and also at The Landings on Skidaway Island, outside of Savannah, G. Lovely area and abundant subject matter for painting. I agree, not everyone seeks regional art. Living in south Florida, I sold a painting of a more northerly landscape. The buyer said “That’s just where I want to be.” We can’t second guess the market. Happy painting.

From: Janine Andrew — Jul 24, 2010

Brenda, As a child in 1955 to 1960 my father would take me to an art studio/hobby shop on Clark Air Force Base where the two of us would work on our individual paintings. This was on the island of Luzon in the Philippines…I wonder if this is the same place you were at about the same time?

  Island people by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA  

“Animated Conversation”
acrylic painting
by Nina Allen Freeman

Visiting Newfoundland a few years ago, we were struck by how accommodating the people were. They would stop what they were doing and have a half hour’s conversation with a stranger or escort you across town if you needed directions, even if they were on their way somewhere else. We wondered if all islanders were like this, not having any experience living on an island. We left loving Newfoundland and its people.     There are 3 comments for Island people by Nina Allen Freeman
From: Marney Ward — Jul 22, 2010

Love your painting, I was at a local Japanese Garden yesterday and this just feels like the rock and the green leafiness of that wonderful place.

From: Liz Reday — Jul 23, 2010

Nice work!

From: Liz Schamehorn — Jul 24, 2010

Love your painting. Newfoundlanders are the best. They treat people as if they matter. Their island is very beautiful.

  Living in on a small island by Paula Swann, Calgary, AB, Canada   Our family of 4 lived on the 4 acre island called Deadman Island in the Ganges Harbour off Salt Spring Island, B.C. during the mid ’90s. From Alberta ranch life to the isolation and beauty of the West Coast, we lived in awe. I felt as if there was another dimension to life. We shared such intimate contact with the elements, flora and fauna and of course the constantly changing sea and flotsam and jetsam. We were simply spellbound for 18 months. I felt such ownership of our refuge, every rock, flower and creature. We had no running water, electricity, bathroom or closets. The two simple homes were to be renovated by us. Eventually a generator was installed, bathhouse built but we never missed television or telephones. I guess the most enduring memory was the quality of the light and the ever changing textures on the sea as seen from every window in our little cottage.   Pie Island by Terry Culbert, Amhurst Island, ON, Canada  

“Pie Island 5”
original painting
by Terry Culbert

For the past seven years my partner and I have lived full time on Amherst Island at the head of the St. Lawrence River, a 3-mile ferry crossing from the mainland. Amherst Island was settled in the early 1800’s by farmers, fishermen and ship builders from the Ards Peninsula, County Down, Ireland. Today Amherst Island has 400-full time residents, two of the largest sheep farms in Ontario, hundreds of deer, owls, hawks and voles. It is a piece of heaven. Affectionately, it is known as “Pie Island” because of the fabulous bakers.     All eyes are on you by Pamela Simpson Lussier, Willington, CT, USA   For about 10 years my husband and I have been painting and teaching a few weeks each summer on Monhegan Island. When our 6 children were younger we would take them for one of the weeks. They had the freedom to roam around without us in this safe environment. We just asked them to behave well since what they did would be a reflection on us. This summer David’s oldest boy, Ben, is working on the island. I was over for the day and we were talking about island life. He told me a friend was coming to visit. I said, “You must be happy about that.” He said, “Yes, happy but also nervous. This is a very small island. Everyone will be watching. What my friend does will reflect on me.”   Visitors impact island culture by Michael Fenton, New Jersey, USA  

original painting
by Michael Fenton

An additional thought comes from some folks I met in Dublin, Ireland a few years ago. They were trying to explain to me the Irish character and psyche. These folks were trying to clue me in about taking everything said to me as “accurate.” They attributed the blarney as a byproduct of living on an island. They said that living on an island teaches one to not trust outsiders or people from “the land.” Blarney was a way of putting a safe distance between the islander and the outsider without causing undue offense. I found this to be interesting advice, often useful, but I am not sure about it being the true reality of things. Over a long history island people must develop a feeling about “the landers” who visit and it probably does impact the culture some. There’s a difference between living on an island versus visiting one.   Passion for islands by Peggy Kerwan, Novi, MI, USA  

“Isle Of Palms 2”
mixed media
by Peggy Kerwan

Islands are a passion with me also. There is something about being isolated and undisturbed, surrounded by water. I was fortunate to have lived two years on the island of Puerto Rico. Some other islands I have explored: Boblo (between Michigan and Canada), Long Beach Island (NJ), Liberty Island, Governor’s Island (NY) and the island of Manhattan. My favorite so far was a vacation on Isle of Palms.       No artist is an island by Bill Erlenbach, Edmonton, AB, Canada  

“Winter Sunset Over Lynn Creek”
acrylic painting
by Bill Erlenbach

There is an interesting paradox between our love for Islands, the implied self sufficiency and isolation, and the previous post on master-apprentice dynamics. It highlights the tension we, at least I, feel between withdrawing to the safety of “Island” where I am “king” versus the mainland where I am one among many. Perhaps it is my introverted nature, but I find solace on the islands as if in some sense they reflect my inner being. In the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks, the island looked like paradise and it certainly was a life saving refuge, yet it became a prison. I wonder if this too reflects on our lives as artists. We need to retreat to the serenity of an island for a time, literally or figuratively, but return to the mainland to be shaped by others. On a different note, it is interesting how in the movie, even the little things became significant. Perhaps that is the real beauty of an island. We are forced to fully appreciate the small things. Right now I am thinking of an island I have canoed around on a modest lake in the interior of British Columbia. The island is not much bigger than a small house, insignificant really, too small for anything except finding beauty.   Balance of tutoring, focus and hard work create success by Marlien van Heerden, Pretoria, South Africa  

Nelson Mandela receiving a painting done by Marlien van Heerden

I am a South African artist who studied Domestic Marketing at the University of Pretoria but I loved painting and drawing since childhood. Fortunately, my parents realized the different talents of their five children. They always signed me up for drawing or painting lessons with artists coming and going on the little town in the high fields of Transvaal. Their names long forgotten, but everyone with whom I took lessons formed and shaped the person I became. One of the most important lessons I learned was that drawing is 90% looking and 10% drawing. When I signed up for oil tutoring with Lucy Doran while studying in Pretoria, she opened a new world to me! Involving the viewer’s imagination to complete, not to say too much, but just enough; experimentation with different techniques; the living and loving (agony and ecstasy) of being a fulltime artist… and so much more! I realized though even how good a tutor, you can’t stay with them – you need to be on your own to develop your own style and signature. Today we get so much information through books and Internet! It’s almost overwhelming. But again in the end, you need to work hard, only then will the rewards come. One needs to take the step, take the challenge, sell your work and give yourself a chance.

oil painting by Marlien van Heerden
Presented as a gift from Kenneth Kaunda and Brylyne Chatsunge for Nelson Mandela on his birthday

I started with exhibitions in parks and shopping malls, where agents saw my work and I was moved into galleries. Today my work is exhibited by a few selected galleries and I work a lot on consignment. I am so grateful for my clients, what’s the use of painting without people to enjoy them. I think the biggest challenge is to be able to create every painting as a unique piece of art in a way that other people look at it and recognize you. I met an aged painter when I just started to exhibit my work and his words were, “An artist never arrives!” The delivery of the three paintings went well and President Kaunda signed and wrote a prayer on the one portrait for old president Nelson. What of it now, I do not know. Marketing, building one’s name, that’s the catch I guess. It’s not the painting, it’s the name at the corner which determines the perceived value. There is 1 comment for Balance of tutoring, focus and hard work create success by Marlien van Heerden
From: Liz Reday — Jul 23, 2010

The “value” is the joy and wonder in the doing of it.

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Pursuing a Dream

oil painting by Mian Situ

  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 Brad Greek of Mary Esther, FL, USA, who wrote, “Too often we take for granted of where we are and what we are doing. On a remote island, I believe it’s possible to feel the presence of the past visitors. See what they saw, hear what they heard and smell what they smelt. The timeline is short when it comes to history. I envy your experience to have shared that place in time with your ancestors. Bravo!!” And also Mel Davenport of Diana, TX, USA, who wrote, “Once I had a similar experience in an old saw mill when I touched the very lathe my great, grandfather had used to keep the saws in working order. The experience rose the hair up on the back of my neck and somehow connected me to him though he’d been gone for many a year. There’s something to be said for a time and a place to connect you to the past.” And also Deena Welde Peschek of Nashua, NH, USA, who wrote, “Islands are romantic. They invite you to explore yourself within a limited perimeter and parameter. Its distance from “the mainland” cuts you off from unruly distractions. Simplicity is easier to discover and absorb. The water around an island becomes a great filter for visitors. Only those who really care will generally make the effort to visit. Islands are sublime hideaways and I’ve loved them for ages.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Something about islands

From: Brad Greek — Jul 19, 2010

Too often we take for granted of where we are and what we are doing. On a remote island, I believe it’s possible to feel the presence of the past visitors. See what they saw, hear what they heard and smell what they smelt. The timeline is short when it comes to history. I envy your experience to have shared that place in time with your ancestors. Bravo!!

From: Norah Bolton — Jul 20, 2010

In a workshop this spring, a Newfoundlander observed, “When you live on an island, you know where the edge is”.

From: Dwight Williams — Jul 20, 2010

A high point in my younger life was spending a summer on a five acre island out in the river and lakes about 5 five miles from Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I was a flat-lander, newly minted high school graduate with two buddies. Robert’s right, even if the water is fresh instead of salt, there is magic on an island.

From: Haim Mizrahi — Jul 20, 2010

Very nice. I am happy for you trying to connect with the past and family, but I wonder if you are telling this story only so you can tell artists they should paint islands. You forgot to mention the danger involved in living on islands, the level of abuse and disregard from people living on islands and the necessity to educate people as to how to protect and respect them. You should snap out of your holier than thou attitude and encourage painters to constantly seek the alternatives, utilize their talent and express themselves through painting and go for the unheard but felt sounds, the confusion of mother nature and above all to paint the music we hear no matter what subject matter lies in front of us.

From: Tullah — Jul 20, 2010

Islanders are precious alright. I love visiting BC gulf islands for the scenery, but the inhabitants make it sure you know that you are not wanted there. They are very protective of what they take as their own. There has been some desire to take visitor’s dollars, since the economy isn’t doing that well. But, they would prefer that you stay on the ferry and just throw the dollars to the island(s)…or better yet, mail it in. Same sort those ones criticizing tourism and new housing pushing into the “bear country”. None of them would complain about their ancestor who was an intruder once into the pristine wilderness. They faced the “guardians of nature” with guns in those times. Lot of beauty and hypocrisy up there…

From: Thierry Talon — Jul 20, 2010

I had that experience on some islands, Tullah, like Saltspring, but the people on Pender Island are quite welcoming and warm. Haim’s message is not clear: should Robert snap out of encouraging people contstantly seeking alternatives etc., or the opposite? Can’t he write what he wants? Freedom of expression, and he is also paying for this site! He gives us that freedom. I am not sure what this has to do with painting . . .

From: Justin Ballard — Jul 20, 2010

No man is an island, entire of itself every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee. ( John Donne )

From: Haruko Takahashi — Jul 20, 2010

But it is simply that we are all, every one of us, islands unto ourselves–thus the eternal appeal of islands.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Jul 21, 2010

It would be difficult to find someone less holier than thou than Robert. I get the impression of a kindly and rather self-deprecating man, well aware of his good fortune, who shares his experiences with us because he feels we will understand and enjoy them vicariously. Most of us do, Robert; ignore the others. I love this story. How many of us have one island, let alone two, named for our family? Grandpa should have learned from the potatoes – providing food is a sure-fire way to make money; people always have to eat, but they can live without gold! Large the island of Ireland may be, but it has that special feel, peace being the most precious. And we have lots of little islands, both offshore and in loughs, that we can visit so easily too. I’m feeling a little bit smug… ;-)

From: Chris Everest — Jul 21, 2010

Lindisfarne – Holy Island – Drinking Mead – Imagining Vikings – Illuminated manuscripts – Low tide causeway – History – Art – Memory ….all caused by the word “island”. Cheers Robert. From Great Britain. Another Island.

From: Frances Stilwell — Jul 21, 2010

In my opinion, isolation is good for us if we have the option to row ashore.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jul 21, 2010

Islands always have a sense of mystery and mysticism about them that inspires whether in music or in art. Legends and myths often are told about islands.The sad part of it is the natural beauty of these islands are defaced when commercialism enter in the picture. Some smaller islands were made as testing grounds for the arsenals of war.Their populace are still suffering from the effects of these testings. They are also settings for some of the timeless movies like “South Pacific” and inspires romance. Islands tends to beckon the artistic inclination .”Bali hai” will call you!”

From: Pamela Manson — Jul 21, 2010

Lovely reading while having my coffee and sitting on my rock bluff in Water Bay, Buccaneer Bay, Thormanby Island. I am 3rd generation with adult children being the 4th – like my grandmother and mother I am enjoying the eagles, otters, ravens, crows, towhees, herons and gulls. Peaceful and fulfilling with wood stove smoke moving across the bay.

From: Garry Girvan — Jul 21, 2010

In a couple of well crafted paragraphs you have encapsulated much of the mystique of the psyche of this islander. Born and raised on an island, I spent 40 years on continental North America. For the past fifteen years I have been rediscovering the particularities of island psychology. Your perceptions shed light on subtle differences in the human condition.

From: Diane Voyentzie — Jul 21, 2010
From: Russell Henshall — Jul 22, 2010

I was most interested in your ‘Island’ letter. I would like to tell you a little about the islands where I live if I may. My island is quite a big island as islands go but nowhere near the size of your great continent. Speaking as writer myself and for my artist daughter; we both appreciate the great diversity of our land. Contained within the perimeter of our beautiful coast line with its multitude of golden sands, rocks and muddy estuaries lie incredible sights: grand hills and mountains, woods, dales and dells, sweeping fields of oats and barley. There are thousands of wonderful streams and rivers with falls and deeps and twinkling shallows where trout dart and splash. There are villages and towns small and large and fully vibrant cities which house the nations of the world. All shapes, sizes and colours of folk speaking a dozen or more different languages. I was raised in the countryside and learned about stoats, weasels, foxes and badgers. Rabbits ran wild and ate the farmers crops! There were frogs and newts and huge dragonflies every summer that swooped and dived over the pond in the field at the end of our garden. Our people are inventive and exciting and proud of their island heritage. My forefathers built great cities and industrial centres and our explorers sailed the seas and settled in new lands. Yes Robert, despite the undoubted beauties of the island on which you have found such artistic inspiration, I wonder if you have ever enjoyed the kind of rugged scenery found in the highlands of Scotland? Or the gentle pastures of Devon and the smuggler influenced coastline of Cornwall or the great skies of Norfolk? From which you may gather that I am talking of the islands I so love. My British Isles. And now two of my sons are American citizens – how proud I am of them. They have followed in the steps of the explorers of old Come my friends, come here to my islands and find peace and quiet and stimulation and food for the artist, the writer and the sculptor. Trunch, Norfolk, England.

From: Amber Tyrell — Jul 22, 2010

Yes, islands need not be small to be great.

From: K. Nguyen — Jul 22, 2010

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,– This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), “King Richard II”, Act 2 scene 1

From: Hamish Everley — Jul 22, 2010

To paint an island to look like an island you need water on both sides.

From: David MacNair — Jul 22, 2010

The number of islands at the mouth of the Rice River on Lake Winnipeg allow for intense reflection for the soul and would be for me, a special canoe retreat. Their relationships between the open water and the coastline are of immense beauty.

From: Margie Murray — Jul 23, 2010

Islands fill the artist’s mind with endless images to paint – sand, surf, birds, ships, lovers, children playing, dolphins, and more which connect our souls to the beauty and wonder of nature. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” Henry David Thoreau quotes (American Essayist, Poet and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Jul 23, 2010

Mainlanders seem to have a different sense of islands than those who live on them, or within them. My family were not island born, but member after member of us moved to an island not far south of you, where we were absorbed into the island community, about 1000 at the time (in the winter) on a rural island whose economy was based largely on fishing and acriculture. We had summer people, too, but they were also part of our community while they were there. Our sense of the island included a deep appreciation of the beauty, but also a recognition of ourselves as belonging to the community, and our collective responsibility to maintain that sense of connectedness, even among disagreements about other things. The growing tourist trade was a pain in the rear, because they trespassed through people’s yards, camped on private land, blocked roadways, expected people to defer to them, and too often treated us like servants. I am serious. In the fall, we had a going away party AFTER the tourist season was over. We could get back to being a community again. Things have changed, as they do in places like this these days. Summer people were replaced by people with weekend homes, who didn’t become part of the community, but were there “to get away.” The tourist economy grew. Good zoning saved acriculture, but traditional small farms growing sheep and vegetables are becoming vineyards. The fisherfolk have mostly moved to other places and the fish processing plant closed from pressure by weekenders. Most of the people I knew have moved off-island (though I still have relatives there). The board of “Friends of …. Island” all have mainland addresses. The majority of businesses now cater to tourists. It’s still an island, it’s still beautiful, and I still love it. But the community I knew (and waved at, always) is largely gone. And so part of the meaning of island is missing for me. I mostly paint memories of islands.

From: mars — Aug 04, 2010

Re- living on a small island– paula from calgary alb. HOw often did U come 2 the m ain land —  & how often did U get intouch with someone by phone — or whatever?? Just curious — how one can cut oneself off like that — now adays!!!


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