Just a way of living


Dear Artist,

Nine summers ago, a New York friend told me of an American writer she knew living in Italy and looking to swap studios. I scraped together a ticket and rented a piano to be delivered the day I arrived. A few months later, the writer’s neighbour picked me up at the airport and, as she placed my bag inside the door, invited me to come later to a small dinner party in her apartment. “I’m here to work,” I ached, but her eyes, like grey almond Modiglianis, turned minutely downward at my stupidity. “See you at nine-thirty.”


Bob on the walls of Lucca, July, 2008

Lucca is a Tuscan jewel, a once-strategic fortress city that safeguarded the olive border of the Italian peninsula with what are now perhaps the most preserved defensive walls in Europe. Just 30 kilometres inland from the Ligurian Sea, you can get to it in less than two hours by train from Florence. Here is a kinder, gentler, perfect microcosm of art, bedazzled with the efforts of local Renaissance geniuses and nightly recitals of the arias of Lucca-born Giacomo Puccini. In the center, a narrow track has barely changed since the Middle Ages and delivers an ancient amphitheatre, its soft edges now furnished for sipping an Aperol spritz while the pink lardo of Gombitelli melts on your tongue.


“There is much beauty here, because everywhere there is much beauty.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Lucca’s 16th Century walls are crowned with plane trees, which flank a wide gravel walk-and-bike path. Because they make an ellipse around the city, the walls capture the day’s shadows and light, depending on where you are in relation to the sun. Included in my swap was a bicycle named “Rilke.” “We see the brightness of a new page where everything yet can happen,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. I stacked a dozen linen boards and some Italian acrylics into Rilke’s basket and set out to question the dappling light and cloud pockets of Tuscany’s big dome. “Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”


acrylic on linen board, 40 x 40 cms
by Sara Genn, 2008



PS: “Art, too, is just a way of living.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Esoterica: Today in Lucca, Peter and I have re-wandered the micro-labyrinth of Lucca and re-read the eight letters my dad wrote to you during the weeks he and my mom came to visit me here in 2008. My neighbour Isabella, my life-friend now, coaxes fall’s local porcinis into a pot of risotto on the stovetop. Through the shutters, Turandot’s “Nessun Dorma” floats up from a distant nave in a kind of obscene art blanket, and Mario, the miniature apricot poodle, pulls a ribbon of prosciutto from a platter teetering in still life at the table’s edge. “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”  (Rainer Maria Rilke)



  1. I love the “Live the question now” Rilke quote…simplicity, truth, beauty. It rings particularly true these days for me as my husband, partner, best friend, artist (we both are painters) suffered a debilitating stroke in June. The long hard road to recovery, the hope of recovery, begins anew every day and is a constant lesson to be here now, in the moment living the question now and moving my way back to the easel simultaneously. That last quote rings true to Self as well. Rilke. What a light. Thank you.

  2. “If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

    This is true. But a 40 x 40 inch linen board on a bicycle? . . .

  3. “Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.” Wow. Thanks, Sara, for a beautiful message today.

  4. Your prose is so poetic, deliciously en pointe! As it happens, I’ve just published my German poetry debut: “Göttertage” – fictional monologues of one of Rilke’s friends, German Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. The bits you quoted from him are the major issues of Paula’s tragically short life. I feel you wrote this “letter” for me! Thank you. Gabriele Glang

    • Lovely Lucca! I rode the train from Montecarlo to this medieval looking gem to get solvent for my oil paints. I chose Tuscany for my 2 week sabbatical in 2014 to draw and paint. How I long to return for a much longer time! Thanks for arousing my memories!

  5. Thanks,Sara, for continuing the work of your father. Robert had a great influence on me and I’ve been at the joy of sketching & painting now for some sixty years – still forward to each day’s challenge.
    I lost the love of my life, Judie, to complications of COPD, after four yrs of serious pain, in 2011. I had to get a serious challenge to help put this great loss and continue my life as an artist.
    I decided to plan a driving tour of the U.S. , sketching, painting, visiting old friends, making new ones and visiting old favorites and new haunts, for a year… Robert advised me to do it – going ‘ blue highways’ and other tips. I departed Ohio, September 2012 , taught over fifty ‘watercolor & ink journaling’ sessions , traveling over 18,000 miles in the process. I am not sure that I could do this, even tho I had taught workshops since 1970. The support of your father made the difference – and I missed the opportunity to thank him… We all miss him very much.
    Don Getz, A.W.S.

  6. What an eye and heart opening post, Sara. Something has turned in me, and opening to new possibilities. This post added new light, and makes me appreciate both what I have and other possibilities. Working on art more than ever since the heat broke here in the Southwest.

  7. After thirty five years living in and around Lucca, I feel all the things you have written within myself. So many strange encounters with so many people to whom lardo di Collonata is part of their daily language, and if you don’t know what it is, you better pretend you do. I left three years ago, seeking a new adventure, which I am now living the same way I lived the one over there. Thank you for bringing up this absolutely delightful memory!

  8. I did my first ever acrylic painting class October 2014 , plein aire in Tuscany.
    I am so grateful gor this post.
    Reminds me I miss Abrezzo, Florence and all the beauty in between.

  9. Christina MacLean on

    Ohhh Sara, this brought back such lovely memories of painting in Lucca with my darling daughter and friends. Lucca is truly a Tuscan treasure. While painting we were treated to a “Fiat” parade on top of the wall. Hundreds of vintage Fiats, ancient suitcases strapped on the back… drove by much to our delight! Sipping a glass of something delightful and noshing at our favourite little trattoria ended each lovely day.

  10. Gabriella Morrison on

    The magic of which you and Rilke is very much present in the place where one inhabits in a true sense of belonging and minute appreciations, as well as in Lucca. Sinking down roots and lifting the senses to take in what is, is a part of the art of living.

  11. One of our favorite places in Italy and a place we could actually live. We spent only 3 nights in Lucca on a 10-day un-escorted bike ride which started and ended there. My husband had a bike made for him which we picked up at the end of our ride. Wonderful light, food, liveliness in Lucca!

  12. Thank you for such a lovely letter. You help to rekindle the energies that compel me to paint. I know you to be an artist when you chose the beautiful quote by Rilke: “Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.” Only poets can boil down the feelings of others in such perfect way. I will look the book up. Thanks again for your labour of love with your letters.

  13. Thank you for this letter which speaks volumes to me on a monday morning when I am feeling less than motivated after a busy weekend hauling paintings around for various shows. Your painting is so full of the experience and joy of looking and so I am encouraged to “go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”

  14. I remember being in Lucca just before you and your Dad were there in 2008… and feeling such joy when you both were looking at the same places with the same feelings of great love for Italy. Your letter and comments just brought it all back to me with full force. Thank you again for ‘unlocking images within me’!

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Featured Workshop

Travel Sketching with Watercolours in Italy
April 7, 2018 to April 14, 2018

joanne-hastie_workshop-1Join Vancouver artist Joanne Hastie to sketch the landscapes of Italy. Joanne will share her art process during this 7 day adventure.

Highlights: See all 6 Mosaic’d churches in Ravenna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Visit & sketch the places where Michelangelo sketched in the late 1490’s in Bologna; Wander the house where Renaissance artist Rafael’s grew up; Tour the castle that inspired a chapter in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Paint while watching the sunset over a cliff-top castle; Ride a bicycle along the beach to a Roman Bridge built in 10AD that is still in use today!; Sketch alongside Canadian artist Joanne Hastie & experience how the Italian countryside inspires her art.
Included:  7 nights accommodations, 7 gourmet breakfasts, 7 gourmet dinners (wine included) at Hotel Belvedere in Riccione;  transportation to and from Riccione to each location; watercolor sketchbook, plein-air starter kit (watercolor), ink pen, eraser

$3325 CAD per person
Click here to learn more.

https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
11 x 14

Featured Artist

I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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