The joyous mind

Dear Artist, Michelle Renaud is a young painter living in Calgary, Alberta. With a loving and expressive personality, she paints semi-abstract acrylics which she describes as reflecting her feelings. From a very young age, Michelle drew circles — she describes them as “doors.” She likes to layer her work, emphasizing and reemphasizing her favorite shapes. Alternately, she uses petal-like forms and stripes to indicate landscapes and spectrums of colour. Her favourite colour is red, which she says describes fire, the sun, and happiness. According to her friends and family, Michelle is a happy, bright and beautiful person. Michelle has Down syndrome.

Untitled — detail
acrylic painting
by Michelle Renaud

Another young woman, Liz Etmanski, was the first I know of to graduate from a top art school–The Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. Liz has gone on to teach art to disabled folks and has pioneered the use of the iPad as an art medium. All this is of interest to me because our grandson, Beckett Genn, who has just turned five, also has Down syndrome. Beckett gets excited when we bring out his art materials and his outdoor easel. He takes joy in the sensuousness of paint, re-emphasizes shapes and motifs he has already established and seems to favour the warm side of the palette. Beckett is becoming fastidious about removing errant paint from his hands and fingers — a virtue his grandfather lacks. He works expressively and confidently from the center out. These days he takes his time choosing from a variety of his brushes and paints energetically using the full handle. Several of his works have been used as fundraisers.

“Map of Vancouver”
iPad painting
by Liz Etmanski

Observing a trance-like state and the machinations of my own mind as I paint, I’ve been curious as to what might be going on in the minds of others. It seems the act of applying colours is deep-seated, perhaps atavistic, as if some humans are programmed to move pigment from one place to another. Do we, I wonder, have an innate need to plop and smear and modify? When I watch an artist’s tongue, flashing eyes and contortions of the mouth, I know that something is happening in the land of joy. Best regards, Robert PS: “I like to paint and I like to draw because it takes me out of the crazy world. It makes me happy and it makes me laugh.” (Liz Etmanski — from her artist’s statement upon graduating)

Beckett’s excellent brush handling

Esoterica: Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. John Langdon Down, a British physician, first described the syndrome in 1866. The chromosomal nature of the condition was not fully understood until 1959. In the USA, one in every 691 babies is born with Down syndrome and its consequential delay in cognitive ability. In loving and respectful environments, many people with Down syndrome can achieve self-sufficiency and joyful, productive lives.   Young artists

“Original circle” 2009
acrylic painting 20 x 28 inches
by Michelle Renaud


“Trees and Mountains” 2009
acrylic painting 20 x 24 inches
by Michelle Renaud


“Family Routes”
iPad painting
by Liz Etmanski


“Tree Map”
iPad painting
by Liz Etmanski


Beckett Genn, August 2012
age five, at his outdoor easel


Beckett Genn
It feels good to have a wide choice.

              Evolutionary advantage by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic  

spalted maple bowl
by Norman Ridenour

Your letter about Down syndrome triggered something I have dealt with for years; both as an artist and in trying to get others to ‘see’ art. It takes training to get past; what is it? What does it do? Why is it not straight and level? My business oriented students in the Visual Perception course often fight seeing the non-rational. There is a question on the final exam: A species does not long continue doing something which does not yield evolutionary advantage. Mankind has made art for most of its history. What evolutionary advantage does art give us as a species? Modern society values left brain processes and the members of humanity raised in post Renaissance society are taught to under play the right brain; art, puns, poetry, ecstasy, feelings, empathy. Many creative people use alcohol, drugs (LSD), meditation, or other methods to reach the right brain and open its door. (I favor red wine and dance.) It sounds like your young people were given the gift of access to their right brains. In another age they would have been shamans, cave painters, etc. As long as they can adapt to society enough to live independent lives they may not miss out on much they do not, in the end, compensate for. They can find an agent to handle the business world! Face it, nice seemingly normal people like Miro, Magritte, Renoir are exceptions among artists. There is 1 comment for Evolutionary advantage by Norman Ridenour
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Aug 17, 2012

Thanks Norman- I feel so much better now that I can further appreciate how my NOT niceness or normalness can actually be described correctly as having an artistic temperament…

I don’t know about you- but I’ve always been connected to both my left-brain logic and my right-brain visionary creativity. Of course- I’m GAY. So that must be it.

  People with disabilities by Peg Richardson, Gainesville, FL, USA   Robert, thank you for this delightful letter. With a degree in Art Therapy and having taught creativity workshops off and on since the early 1980’s (and a professional watercolor painter), I marvel at the spark of imagination and creativity in ALL of us. At the risk of sounding negative, which is not my intent, thought you might want to know that instead of referring to “disabled people” we now say that they are “people with disabilities.” I often think that folks like Michelle and Beckett are more in touch with their creativity than the rest of us, because what they produce is pure expression, free of editing and intellectual criticism.   A new way to communicate by Bonnie Moench, Lethbridge, AB, Canada   My brother Bruce, who has Down syndrome, is now 47 years old and he, too, is in love with painting and drawing. I have one other sibling, a sister that has Cerebral Palsy. Before my parents passed away they had arranged for both Bruce and my sister to be moved into care of others. With my parents passing I found that my life changed dramatically. I was living in Indonesia at the time and with my family, so when I came home to live I didn’t see a need to change things, as they were settled in with their life styles. Bruce has been very fortunate to be living with a young family for 15 years now. They are loving and kind and Bruce has grown up with their children. I never had a close relationship with Bruce; I am 17 years older and was living away from home by the time he was born. Recently I, too, took up painting and, although I am very new at it, for once in our lives we have something in common. We have a new way to communicate, and it has changed our relationship dramatically.   Best man is friend by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA  

“Across the way”
acrylic painting
by John F. Burk

I am pleased to tell you about a friend of mine. Tyler Carr is his name, and he has Down syndrome. He’s moving on towards thirty now, and these things I can say about him. He has integrity in amounts I find astonishing. He is loyal to a fault, and a good judge of character. He loves deeply and freely, relates in a way that engages. He knows right from wrong and always makes the right decision about it. If a friend of his suffers an injury, he’ll visit home or hospital to help them to feel better, and somehow believes he failed them somehow that they got hurt. In short, he is one of the very few best men I have met, and I am proud he regards me as his friend. There are 3 comments for Best man is friend by John F. Burk
From: Anonymous — Aug 16, 2012

I love your painting, and I love your words.

From: Rose — Aug 17, 2012

…and he is lucky to have you for a friend….

From: Michael — Aug 17, 2012

I second anonymous’ comments.

  Fortunate mentoring by Rebecca Skelton, Tampa Bay, FL, USA  

“Red Ride”
original painting
by Rebecca Skelton

I had the good fortune to work with a differently-abled artist in a program called ArtLink — Creative Clay. I was supposed to be her mentor, but she taught me so much. I had forgotten about the pure joy of moving paint around. In art school/training, we learn so much about the “how to” that the “why” is neglected. We get so caught up in becoming “good” that we often forget to enjoy the physical process.     Painting through and out of grief by Nancy Dusenberry, Atlanta, GA, USA  

original painting
by Nancy Dusenberry

My “breakout” year in painting was 1997. After a year of studio work I held my first exhibition. I retired from my career of 25 years to paint full time. A nice party was planned. Instead, we had a funeral, celebrating the life of our 34 year old son, Tommy, which he ended. Pretty soon, it was clear to me that this ability was going to be my way through and out of grief. First, I painted hoped-for and imagined endings of his life. I imagined him with me as I painted and listened for his pulse. Today, I still call him to my easel when I am vexed and channel a “high five” when I am satisfied. Painting was the relief for me because it seemed to use up all of me. I had to engage both sides of my brain so there was no room for guilt or loss to grab hold. There are 2 comments for Painting through and out of grief by Nancy Dusenberry
From: eleanor steffen — Aug 17, 2012

on-your painting is fabulous and i employed the same method to handle my brother,s death and my son-in-law suicide. thankyou for the kinship i feel.

From: Michael — Aug 17, 2012

Nice colour in those shadows Nancy !

  Special memories by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“MOV 2”
acrylic painting
by John Ferrie

I have a very special place in my heart for children with Down Syndrome. When I was a teenager, I worked as a camp counsellor at a summer camp. The camp was wonderful and two weeks each summer, we specialized in Down Syndrome Kids. I remember being so terrified and didn’t know what to expect. What I found were the most wonderful and loving happy children I could ever hope to meet. If you told them to line up, they lined up; you didn’t have to ask twice. After a long day, playing and having fun, they would go to bed early and exhausted and fell asleep right away. They flourished at arts and crafts. While they could not always make what the regular kids made, they would explore colours and textures and were always so excited to show us what they had created. That and swimming were their two favourites. To this day, I remember working with several of the children and can still remember their names and faces. That was over 35 years ago, but writing these words I remember it like it was yesterday. I think now they had more to teach me than I could ever have hoped to teach them.   Coded lives by Diane Doehring, New Plymouth, New Zealand  

“Coded lives”
iPad collage
by Diane Doehring

You may be interested in the work of my son Andrew, who has Down syndrome. It has not been updated for a while but gives you a sense of the work he does. In my own work, I have done a series of collages and mixed media about prenatal screening for Down syndrome. Attached is one of the collages done on the iPad, titled  “Coded lives.”   There is 1 comment for Coded lives by Diane Doehring
From: Peter — Aug 17, 2012

To be perfectly honest,I find Andrew’s paintings to be much better than those of several well-known, established artists! Certainly much better than mine, and I am supposedto be normally ‘abled’.

  Art from the Heart by Cheryl Bailey, Oakville, ON, Canada   I am a Director of Joshua Creek Heritage Arts Centre in Oakville, Ontario. Our founder, Sybil Rampen, is an art teacher who has a son with Down syndrome. She is therefore very interested in art for the differently-abled. Last fall, we were made a grant by the Oakville Arts Council to help in funding the first 6 week long show of “Art from the Heart.” Differently-abled artists’ work was displayed in our 1857 barn-turned-art gallery. The Opening Tea Party was an incredible success with many of the paintings being sold to those attending the packed gallery. We had artists showing including, but not limited to, those with Down, autism, blindness, developmental, brain trauma and Alzheimer’s. I have to say that it was probably the ‘happiest’ looking exhibition that we have mounted. Most Sundays during the show, we had a Tea Party on Sunday afternoon with a speaker focusing on one of the areas with relation to art. It is to be an annual show now, in January.   The power of colour by Mary Helen Garvin, Innisfil, ON, Canada   Reading your last letter, The Joyous Mind, made me think of a CBC Ideas program I heard on the radio yesterday. It is a 3 part series on The Power of Colour which aired last November and is on again Aug. 13, 20, & 27th at 2:00 p.m. here in Ontario. Not sure when that might be in B.C. and you may already know of it. But if not, I’m sure it would be of interest to you. I spent a week working under the tutelage of Art Cunanan this summer at the Haliburton School of the Arts, Fleming College. Very challenging, and in the end, rewarding. As we used to say during my psychotherapy training, “No pain, no gain!”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The joyous mind

From: Jill Klaehn, Toronto — Aug 14, 2012

Robert, you touched my heart with this post. For 30 years I taught preschool children with special needs before retiring to renew my artistic life. I’ve lost count of how many children with Down syndrome that included. Beckett, the handsome lad, is lucky to have a Grandpa with whom to paint. You, and your family, are lucky to have Beckett through whose eye you may discover the wonders of the world. Enjoy your joint creativity and together you may learn to wipe your hands and Beckett may learn to leave his messy.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Aug 14, 2012

All the young people with Down Syndrome that I know have joy in their hearts all the time. How great it is to have that when there is so much for them to cope with in life.

I think all young people enjoy pushing paint around and watching the colors mix and mingle. Our pre-school art classes at Brush & Palette Studio are full of joyous children. At some point, their individual differences lead them in other directions. My two children have more scientific minds and though appreciate art, are more interested in building things and medicine. I have never gotten past that joy of watching the colors mingle, like Beckett. I get in a trance watching the colors contrasting with one another in ever more complex ways.
From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Aug 14, 2012

If only we could always retain that childlike glee when facing our canvas.

From: Dwight — Aug 14, 2012

This is truly great stuff. The art is wonderful and I write this with more than one tear in my eye.

From: Barbara Sterger — Aug 14, 2012

The smile on Beckett’s face brought a smile to mine. The paintings are wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

From: Pat Stamp — Aug 14, 2012

I used to work with Down syndrome children your grandson’s age. Have you ever given him clay? I guarantee it will be a wonderful experience for him and it helps develop fine motor skills. Just make sure the clay isn’t too wet or too cold because my kids hated to get their hands wet and cold.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Aug 14, 2012

You have a wonderful, happy, good looking boy there Robert. It is obvious that you are enjoying every minute together. I had a grandfather like that and there is nothing else in life better than that and I am not exaggerating!

From: Marie Martin — Aug 14, 2012

When I’m really lost in my painting, the world disappears and my heart soars. Pure joy! I hear nothing. If an “intruder” dare knock on my door in one of these perfect moments, I have no problem whatsoever ignoring the knock or shouting “come back later”!!! When “in the flow” I’m not the least interested in food or drink. I’ve no patience with the details of painting such as refreshing my water tin. I’ve even tossed aside a brush and grabbed another instead of taking time to rinse the messy one in my hand! All of these things remind me of the delicious blurs of outdoor playing when I was six!! Losing time, ignoring the parents calling you inside … All of it! What a blessing to have this attachment to these things called Creation and Art!!!!

From: Liz Coomes — Aug 14, 2012

I have enjoyed your letters for years but today’s touched me the most. I have a son with a disability (a psychiatric one) and cousin with Down syndrome. My cousin with Down syndrome is now in her early 50’s and doing well and has led a full, happy life! With my son, I struggled to accept the ‘condition’ which came on in his prime but the longer I struggled the more I learned that though some of us are different, our joyous moments really unite us. I am so happy to see your dear grandson painting! Wonderful!

From: Marie Jeanne Mailloux — Aug 14, 2012

Your grandson truly looks happy painting. It’s important to emphasize ability rather than disability. My son is diagnosed with ADHD, and a serious learning disability. He’s so creative. At 2 yrs old he blew me away with his use of a brush.

From: Naomi Shriber — Aug 14, 2012

Kids just paint from the senses.

From: Ginny Stiles — Aug 14, 2012
From: Butchie Neely — Aug 14, 2012

You grandson looks so happy. What a blessing for him to live in such a loving environment and for you that he can bring such simple joy to you.

From: Elle Fagan — Aug 14, 2012

I was my mother’s signer till she mastered lipreading. She does not know how she has enriched our lives and fulfilled our characters with her disability.

My nanny said to me at age 5 “you are going to have to grow up – your mommy may need you to help her” and at first I was frightened and then depressed but then the LIGHT. Something happens and we realize that it’s an opportunity not a burden. Each day and life in general gets magic and more fun and more successful in work and love. Look at Beckett Genn – is he suffering? No. He has you and your family and knows love and comfort and all the best lights on earth to work with. My daughter worked with autistic children for some years and loved them very much and found them a revelation and path to love and lights herself. And the works of Liz and Michelle show it too. Disability is no prison if dealt with well.
From: Karen R. Phinney — Aug 14, 2012

Thanks so much for sharing the art and stories of Michelle and Beckett…….. they are delightful and their creations, too! The joy is evident in what they do. And that is the gift of the Down’s child. We all need more joy in our lives, and in our creating……..

From: Elizabeth Chapman — Aug 14, 2012
From: Shaun Dziedzic — Aug 14, 2012

Beckett Genn looks wonderful. He has a fantastic face. You are both lucky to have each other.

From: Sally — Aug 14, 2012

Robert I just retired after teaching for 37 years. There is nothing like watching young artists begin the journey of art and really start to enjoy it. As they make more art they develop their own creative systems for making their art. It is a pleasure to watch and support. Your grandson is so beautiful. Can’t wait to see a video of him painting one day.

From: Susan Marx — Aug 14, 2012

Yes, painting puts me into a trance. I lose the concept of time when I paint and am amazed that time has passed when I step back. I lose myself in my work and the result is that I am contact with my innermost primal gut emotional sensations. It is pleasurable and sensual when I put color on top of color on top of color on my canvas.

I am happy to hear that your son does the same. He is painting from a place beyond his disability.
From: Jan Ross — Aug 14, 2012

Thanks for sharing the delightful images of your grandson, Beckett, and Liz’s paintings! Indeed, their work is fresh, happy and expressive.

Your letter and their paintings serve as a reminder that painting is supposed to be fun and we can overcome our limitations, whether self-imposed or not.
From: Rosemarie Manson — Aug 14, 2012

This letter brought tears to my eyes. Art is freedom, art is a release, art is satisfying. To have the innocence of Michelle, Beckett, and Liz is a gift. May we aspire to their purity of heart, and clarity of expression.

From: Patty Cucman — Aug 14, 2012

Our youngest grandson, James, just went home after staying with us for a month. He too took brush in hand, painted his heart out capturing Waterton Lake on a 8 x 10 (a birthday gift for his mother), stood back and declared it “very professional”. He signed a false name (Jean Blanc) to ensure his mother would know it was a professional work. The joy of creating and sharing what comes from the heart even if it is a secret that you made it yourself.

From: Susan Perez — Aug 14, 2012

This is the loveliest letter I’ve received from you so far. It touched me to the core of my being.

From: Terry Gay Puckett — Aug 14, 2012

Thank you for this beautiful post. I loved seeing the children’s beautiful work, and it reinforces the feeling of joy that art brings. It also reminds me that must get with it and buy an I Pad.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Aug 15, 2012
From: Sylvia Hicks — Aug 16, 2012
From: Dawn Banning — Aug 16, 2012

I was touched with your personal interesting letter yesterday. What an uplifting & inspiring composition. Beckett is fortunate to have such a loving family, and you are fortunate to have him. I have a feeling he will teach you all many things.

My Uncle Barry was born with Downs Syndrome. He was a bright light in all of our worlds, surrounded by 6 siblings, dozens and dozens of nieces & nephews, then great nieces and nephews. He taught me about unconditional love, loyalty, laughter & joy and forgiveness. He embraced everyone with his heart, all races, cultures,ages and genders. He also taught me about commitment and work ethic. He had always wanted to read. Thou he learned a few written words, this skill eluded him. So, he spent most of his adult life, copying, letter by letter, in exact font, huge texts. Treasure Island was his favourite. He worked on his’ homework’ every day, even thou he also worked full time at a workshop in Regina. Retiring after 35 years of service. He loved to dance, to eat, to swim, and to hug.
From: Charmian McLellan — Aug 16, 2012

The paintings by these youngsters are truly joyous and pure inspiration for us all who strive to paint something luscious. Sometimes we become so “regimented” and overtaken by painting formulas and rules that we risk becoming bored and boring and forget to just “go for it”. We forget what it is like to just play. Thank you for this posting. Your grandson is adorable.

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 16, 2012
From: Joan Rhodes — Aug 16, 2012

Art is a big part in helping people with disabilities. I have organized a group from Longmont Artists’ Guild (a past president) to once a month go to Longmont United Hospital Homestead and teach an art class. Homestead was created to give caregivers a time away from watching special need seniors. A large majority has Alzheimers. It is very important for organizations get involved in helping special need people.

From: Virginia Wieringa — Aug 17, 2012

I was honored to teach art at a school for kids with special needs. Among the many delightful students was David, who greeted me excitedly with hands flapping every time I came in the room saying “takahom-takahom-takahom”. He loved art because he could “Take it home” to share with his family. What a thrill to be a part of that happy process.

From: Martha L. Barker — Aug 11, 2013

I would like to sign up today, but this is my fifth attempt to decode the text below.

From: Comments moderator — Aug 12, 2013
     Featured Workshop: Sharon Rusch Shaver
081712_robert-genn Sharon Rusch Shaver workshops Held in Ireland   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Lake and Cathedral Sunset (Geneva, Switzerland)

oil painting, 50 x 70 cm by Peter Hobden

  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 Xelisen Isthmus who wrote, “Non verbal communication is so simple, joyful & honest. Feels like plop/smearing is like eating blueberries fresh off the bush, compared to eating a cooked meal that may be tasty, but requires a lot more steps.” And also Tony Angell of Seattle, Washington, USA, who wrote, “In many of us there is an innate inclination to create, whether we’re pushing color, a pencil, shaping clay or carving. The endorphins are kicking in when we do so and we’re quite soon spirited away from the mundane and swept up into the possibility of giving order to chaos and form to our feelings. What a blessing.”    

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