Letter of recommendation


Dear Artist,

Recently, a young artist who is self-taught and self-employed asked if I might help with a letter of recommendation for grad school. Knowing her work and self-starter style, I agreed and asked her to draft the letter herself, in order to feature the details she thought would be most helpful. She replied with a list of bullet points about what drew her to the school’s program, her artistic aspirations and a mostly completed letter draft. She also sent me an updated CV listing the eight shows she’s participated in since graduating from university in 2017.

Wunderbild, 2018 Acrylic on draped canvas by Katharina Grosse (b.1961)

Wunderbild, 2018
Spray-gunned acrylic 
by Katharina Grosse (b.1961)

I thought about her paintings and scanned her bullet points. And while re-composing the recommendation in my own words shed light on what had drawn me to her work in the first place, it occurred to me that the benefit of the exercise was in her compiling the letter herself. Zeroing in on the object of going to school to learn how to paint — and what that really means — can crystallize in a few short sentences. I remembered an old friend who once told me that his MFA at Yale was the most joyful period of his life — for the sheer beginning of it — and the creative energy and cross-pollination of its milieu, teachers and friendships.

Later that evening, Peter and I had dinner with friends — one of them, a local sculptor who is married to a life coach. “What’s the difference between a life coach and a therapist?” asked someone. “A therapist is the person you break up with, once you’re happy,” said Peter. “A life coach,” said the sculptor, “can help you identify your limiting beliefs, then offer ideas on how to leap over them.”

Untitled, 2000 acrylic on wall by Katharina Grosse

Untitled, 2000
Spray-gunned acrylic on wall
by Katharina Grosse

We drove home under Orion’s armpit star, Betelgeuse, which is 700 light years from Earth, dimming in brightness this winter. Astronomers have identified Betelgeuse to be in its final, near-explosive stage of life, with only about 100,000 years to go. After that, it will collapse, rebound in a supernova explosion and probably leave behind a black hole. Or, say the scientists, it could just be old. Elderly stars are moody, they say. In their transformations, they cough up gas and dust that can make them appear temporarily dimmer, while simmering inside as their cores evolve and change.



PS: “My money all along has been that Betelgeuse is going through a somewhat extreme, but otherwise normal quasi-periodic change in brightness.” (J. Craig Wheeler, expert in supernovas at the University of Texas, Austin)

Yes, No, Why, Later, 2015 by Katharina Grosse

Yes No Why Later, 2015
by Katharina Grosse

Esoterica: When seeking a letter of recommendation, draft the letter yourself, so that the person sending it need only tweak it to be personal and truthful to them. This is both to be specific to the goals of the letter and as a sign of respect for the recommender’s time. In art, a letter should include details about the nature of your relationship, then three or four features about your work and its suitability. Be specific, but concise. Your recommender will have the option to embellish with personal observations about your practice and sign off with her contact information. The whole endeavour is an exercise in knowing yourself and pinpointing your “why”s. The application itself is also a test to see if you can follow instructions and see the process to its end. In my experience, in art, this little marathon will make an appearance in some form, in every stage of your professional life.

Katharina Grosse in her BErlin studio. 2014 Mathias Wasik photo

Katharina Grosse in her Berlin studio, 2014
Mathias Wasik photo

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Growth itself has the germ of happiness.” (Pearl S. Buck)






  1. Sara- your wisdom and sense of what is right are always so impressive to me. What a generous gift you gave this young artist!

  2. I always thought that letter writers who asked for “ready-made template” letters were being lazy, and copping out of writing a thoughtful, original letter for the applicant. But you really make good points, Sara, about respecting the writer’s time, and also the bullet points the applicant would like to have considered that the writer might not know about. Thanks for the different P.O.V., and thanks for posting Katharina’s work…it’s amazing!

  3. Wise advice Sara and thanks for sharing your letter of recommendation journey.

    My one request for such a letter for my art was when I was seventeen and just graduating from high school. I had been in the adult community oil painting classes since I was fourteen years old. I wanted to go to on to attend an art college. My art teach who had an art degree put me through a serious of exercises. Then she asked which work I preferred doing and which work I thought was the best. She agreed with my assessment that when I could do whatever I wanted was much stronger and alive.

    Then we talked further about process and the development of a painting practice. In the end, she recommended that I not go art college because I already had the skills, mindset and training to paint and I knew what I wanted to do. So because money was very tight at the time, I didn’t apply and went on to do jobs I could do with just my high school diploma and painted on the side for the next couple years. I continued to take college and community classes on the side until my last art teacher passed away suddenly when I was in my late 40’s.

    In my 20’s I went on to get a university degree in another subject and further to take a master degree in a couple of other subjects, while still painting on the side, working and raising two children as a single parent. I entered into group shows and did a few of solo shows in galleries during the 1990’s. Then in 2010, I saw my way clear to paint full-time and now have my small gallery that has grown larger this year and will include the work of three of my students as well as my own. But I always wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t asked for that letter of recommendation. Would I have gone on to art school? Would I have been sucked up into advertising which was big in the last 1970’s or would I have got frustrated and quit because the school wasn’t teaching me anything new? I will never know of course but it is an interesting musing.

  4. Dear Sara, Your piece today gave me great insight into my own artistic process, and the last letter I read about a single Mom with two children who found her own path to a gallery and teaching . I feel at a crossroad myself this year, tired of the local art scene, seeking a wider world. I have a splendid mentor at the moment, so we will see where I am in six months, a year, five years. You featured me years ago in my first solo show at the DiFiore Center for Arts and Education, and I have been grateful to you and your father ever since!

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Featured Workshop

Exploring Still Life in Oil with Laura Robb — Advanced Techniques for Capturing Light and Depth in Your Paintings
January 15, 2020 to January 22, 2020


This workshop/retreat will be ideal for artists who are serious about improving their painting skills, but who also enjoy great food, terrific accommodations and a bit of adventure. The instructor has many years of experience in both teaching and painting and is dedicated to passing along her knowledge to those who are eager to learn. Small class size will insure individual attention. We will be working from life and previous experience mixing color will be necessary.


Casa Buena Art Retreat, between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, is a calm and beautiful place to relax and explore your creative energy. Please check out their website for photos and detailed information about this exciting opportunity http://www.casabuenaartretreat.com/Retreat_LauraRobb.htm Non-painting travel companions are welcome too.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/219927-Turn-in-the-Road-24x30-1-wpcf_300x246.jpgTurn In The Road
24x30 acrylic

Featured Artist

My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me.  I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.