Master class


Dear Artist,

Patterns jump out of glaciers and fill snow patches, as interlocking warm and cool greys zip through scree and shale. Light moves across a thicket of evergreens. The first time Dad and I went up the mountain, I came face to face with the origins of abstraction. Yoho National Park and its jewel, Lake O’Hara, are nestled in the western slope of the continental divide in southeastern British Columbia. At the end of our first day, Dad and I hammered a few more presentation nails into the log walls of cabin 3 and climbed into our beds for a friendly crit. “That one’s a little bit potato-like,” he tendered, eyeballing a blobby mass on one of my canvases. “We might eschew form altogether, or try to get things more or less right.” I stared at my potato, now blurry through a tear of acquiescence to the cliff of learning ahead.


Sara paints, Yoho National Park, 2009
Stan Munn photo

A few backpacksful of paintings later, my strokes had settled into a rebel’s tack. I memorized O’Hara’s entangled foregrounds of baby larches and blocky granite polka-dotted with lichen, backdropped by towering peaks and racing clouds. Brush energy — loose, fanned-in gradations of alpenglow — felt like a fair consolation for other blaring limitations. I fought for the accurate shapes and personalities of Yoho’s summits, working to harness the feeling of being there, humbled by the shadow I painted in.


“Soulmate” 2013
acrylic painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Sara Genn

October larches radiated from green gold to amber, and O’Hara’s champagne air was crisp for trail-striding. The name “Yoho” comes from the Cree word expressing amazement, and our canvases were wild with it — mine striving for order and a clearer translation of my wonder. “Try to paint just one area neatly,” Dad nudged, but not particularly in my direction, while he pulled a pink-dipped number 5 bright across a shimmering foreground tarn. I sharpened the point of my sable with a wet thumb and fingertip.



“Snow Clouds, Lake O’Hara” 1929
oil sketch by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932)
“To paint from nature is to realize one’s sensations, not to copy what is before one.” (JEH)

We stalked the locations of J.E.H. MacDonald, who painted Yoho for seven autumns between 1924 and 1930. At night in bed, I studied his oil sketches, which oozed efficiency of strokes and relayed every weather drama. I drooled at the scratchy scumbles of his hog hairs on wooden panels and the poetry in his shapes and greys. Almost 90 years later, Dad and I were grappling with the same event: the same hard rocks to sit on and the intermittent sleet dotting and washing out our sketches. We sipped tea and ate sandwiches in the company of MacDonald’s 90-year-old paint gobs, which remain wiped on the undersides of Yoho’s thousand-year-old boulders. The only things really changed here are the glaciers, receding, and the larches, defiant to the alpine freeze, a little taller than before. “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (T.S. Eliot)


“On Opabin Pass”
acrylic on canvas, 34 x 30 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)



PS: “I had a little cabin, with cedar walls and floors, with mountains in the window, and spruces at the door.” (J.E.H. MacDonald, journal entry, 1927)

Esoterica: One day, we set up to paint in O’Hara’s nearby meadow with a video camera filming from a distance. When reviewing the footage, we noticed a difference in style: Dad was almost zen-like as he laid in zones, zoomed in on details, composed and embellished with a Yoda-like calm. By contrast, I — or rather my arm — wagged around like an out-of-control manufacturing robot, panic-stricken and grabbing at the mountain before it got away from me. I brushed off my embarrassment because I was safe with my teacher. Then he said, “I’ll take a page from your book. I’m too tight! Less constipation is in order.” “Let’s split the difference,” I gasped with epiphany, “I’m gonna calm down and tidy up.” “Look three times, think twice, paint once.” (Robert Genn)


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“Made a sketch later on the cabin verandah, but it was impossible to keep up with the changes. Oh the difficulties of mountain art for too little genius.” (J.E.H. MacDonald)



  1. What a great article (you’re inspiring me to get out more & paint), and sweet, wonderful memory with your Dad, Thanks for sharing that, and I hope the good feelings it brought far outweighed your sadness at his loss.

  2. Marty Cochrane on

    Love the variation on the carpenters motto Sara Made me smile and I shall do my best to embrace that mantra
    Look three times. Think twice. Paint once. Brilliant!! Thank you !

  3. I lover your honesty! You can see yourself and accept your limitations and, I hope, celebrate your uniqueness. I am still thanking you for your lesson in grays at Hollyhock. I passed the wisdom on to my daughter who got all excited about how she is going to combine physics with artistic interpretation. All a quiver! It is a wonderful world we live in.

  4. Dear Sara;

    I capture your words – feelings and personalities…… because I am always in awe when I see a painting that somehow captures the inner being of the artist and is able to express the artist’s connection to the spirit of place….. and so I feel that connection when I see this painting of yours entitled ” Soulmate”….. you seem to be able to do that with ease ……..
    thank you for this letter….. I will add it to my favourites…

  5. I love your honesty, your tenderness and feeling in what you paint and what you write. Many thanks for this loving effort to all of us in art. Thanks too, for the fabulous quotes – I love what you choose to share! Onward -= we are with you!!!

  6. “Face to face Abstraction on a mountain”- This pinnacle of an experience shared along with your dad and his incredible mentorship and presence, plus following where EJ McDonald left his marks and the resulting paintings including your own are all inspirations worth noting. Thanks for taking me to those places in your writing and sparking the love to “look three times,..etc” Loved it all – This letter is a visual masterpiece!

  7. I feel like you Sara – arm flying around as I serve to capture – something! I would love to see the video – for fun and learning! Thanks, great stuff!

  8. Eugene Kovacs on

    Hello Sara,

    I love your paintings. You are really master in arts . You followed your father’s footsteps and already became well known all over the world.

    On the other hand, I am just an amateur but enjoy painting.



  9. What an enlightening article. I felt every word and stroke you shared with the wisdom of your father. To paint the sensations and not copy what is in front of me will be a challenging adventure that I look forward to. Thanks for sharing

  10. Inspiring article. Beautiful memories. Beautiful work. Wish all the articles could have illustrations! Thank you.

  11. Katarina Vlasic on

    Sarah, you are simply wonderful!!! I am awestruck by your writing today.

    All the best… I am sure that you make your Dad proud….

    Katarina Ana Maria Vlasic

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