Memory vs. Creativity

Dear Artist, One of the participants in our recent workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, B.C., Canada was Dick Lee of Amery, Wisconsin, USA. A Viet Nam fighter pilot who flew more than 200 sorties, he’s long since settled into watercolour. Blessed with curiosity and a gentle, soft-spoken nature, Dick makes friends easily. Good stuff is running around under his graying pony-tail. He thinks about “the safety of orthodoxy,” “the poverty of logic,” and “memory vs. creativity.” With a wry smile and a wink, he says his wife’s favourite oxymoron is “military intelligence.” We talked about the job of being a professional killer and the terror of seeing buddies blown out of the sky beside you. We talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the lingering price of wars. Dick is the same age as I am, but he’s lived a thousand more lives. The issue is memory and what you do with it. Like many before him and many who will come after, Dick creates each day anew. In our life in art we coax this miracle from paper or canvas. Each blank space is a new opportunity and a new beginning. Our personal efforts become a sanctuary and a shelter. Creation, we realize, is the guiding principle of our earth and our universe — every day tiny flowers reappear in our gardens and stars in the heavens are being born and reborn. As artists, we dare to become part of this principle. We are the ones who know that every created thing is a treasure. We are the lucky ones. Our job is daunting because it’s possible to think we might be in competition with the great Nature — a power so magnificent and diverse that it would seem to dwarf our puny efforts. But we need not feel that way. Nature herself is fully familiar with her own false stars and failures. Designs stumble and promising lines become extinct. Nature, like art, is an ongoing creative experiment with no security or guarantee. Faced with a blank canvas or a clean sheet of 400 lb. cold press, we need merely ask, “Why not?” Best regards, Robert PS: “The painter’s mind is a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating the many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.” (Leonardo da Vinci) PPS: “My trip to Cortes was a meld of ‘down the rabbit hole,’ ‘a stranger in a strange land,’ and a dose of serendipity.” (Dick Lee) Esoterica: Dick and I concluded that creativity was the opposite of destruction. Creativity, we figured, has to do with love, tenderness, caring, respect, invention, courage and audacity. Dick told me that on the first day he moved onto his acreage in Amery, a deer entered the property. He went for his gun and shot it. Seeing the life fade from the animal’s eyes made him realize this sort of thing was no longer for him. Dick’s guns are now permanently put away. While memories persist, these days Dick has other things on his mind.   Opening up to creativity by Alana Dill, Alameda, CA, USA  

body painting
by Alana Dill

After trauma, its one thing to try living life on life’s terms on a mundane level — one foot in front of the other, not giving up, getting the job of living done. But it’s another thing to feel really alive and trusting. I think creativity is innate in human nature but if we are taught to shove our feelings down, it can become hard to feel anything and trust that it won’t kill us by making us too vulnerable. Opening up to creativity — even just a little bit at a time — is an essential part of the healing process. I wish art was offered to every human being, especially those in painful circumstances such as armed services, prison, reform school, shelters, etc.       Not a ‘professional killer’ by Trish McKinney, New Carlisle, OH, USA  

watercolour painting
by Trish McKinney

Usually, your words challenge me to greater thinking in my art and within. Today, however, you lost me at the phrase, “professional killer.” I am both an artist and veteran myself. While I never served in a war and I cannot begin to understand what Dick has gone through with PTSD, I can assure you I was not trained as a “professional killer.” I was trained to be a “professional defender.” You could have made your inspiring point of “celebrating each day anew,” without that phrase. I enjoyed the rest of the article.   There are 4 comments for Not a ‘professional killer’ by Trish McKinney
From: Anna H. — Sep 10, 2012

Using prettier words does not change the action. Sometimes one simply needs to be brutally honest in order to give meaning to a subject. I’m sure Dick knew exactly what he meant to be saying when he and Robert used the phrase “professional killer”. It takes courage to look at the subject in the face.

From: Jackie Knott — Sep 11, 2012

I’m a veteran as well and can affirm yes, we do train soldiers to be professional killers. I can’t think of any war waged by any country, regardless of the reason, where eliminating your enemy was not a goal. Neither is being one dishonorable in fighting aggression. Our particular contribution depends on what we were trained to do.

From: Stella — Sep 11, 2012

I agree with the above comments that a soldier is at least for the period he/she is engaged in military service, a professional killer. You have indulged in some semantic gymnastics to avoid a painful truth, a soldier is trained to kill the ‘enemy’. Whether in defense or offense, it amounts to the same thing — the enemy is equally dead. Maybe if we as a society could stop using such euphemisms it would be appropriately agonizing to sanction sending our youth off to kill or be killed in a war.

From: Delores Hamilton — Sep 11, 2012

Your painting is exquisite!

  The ravages of war by Susan Hirst, Olympia, WA, USA  

“Vet Portrait”
pastel painting
by Susan Hirst

My thoughts go out to Dick Lee. My Brother Gene, a Marine fighter pilot in the Viet Nam war, also flew over 200 sorties. He passed away suddenly in June, 5 days after turning 70. He suffered his entire post war life with severe PTSD. Several years ago I invited him to sit for me for a drawing session and took some photos. I then did 5 large pastel paintings of him that reflect his struggle and our relationship. Now that he is gone, I (and his family as well) are thankful we have these paintings. Rather than portraits of him, they evoke emotion and understanding of his difficult life. Attached is one of the images.   There is 1 comment for The ravages of war by Susan Hirst
From: Marie Pinschmidt — Sep 11, 2012

This is an amazing portrait. I find it difficult to look away from this man who gave his all.

  The value of destruction by Marlene Lewis, Webster Groves, MO, USA  

ink painting, 24 x 18 inches
by Marlene Lewis

For me, creativity and destruction go together. It seems that that is part of being “audacious”… I definitely feel the other emotions that you speak about, but sometimes I just have to annihilate a part of a painting to find something new. Sometimes it works… often times, it doesn’t. But, it does feel necessary if I’m going to stretch my boundaries. I found the part about the deer very sad… I’m glad your student felt a change occur inside himself.     There is 1 comment for The value of destruction by Marlene Lewis
From: Beth Sebring — Sep 11, 2012

Lovely and unexpected. This painting leaves one to wonder and consider the state of these definite feminine curves. I love the question this painting is asking. I could presume all sorts of things. It leaves me to fill in the blank. Thanks so much for that beauty. I also like the comment about breaking off. It’s part of the process isn’t it? We have to do this to move ourselves out of the picture so our art can be born.

  Destructive creativity by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA   Destruction is part of the creative cycle. I’ve heard it called “anal creativity.” It’s that part of creativity that knocks down the old building before the new one can be built or the mess that occurs when the lady of the house decides to rearrange a room. It’s not bad in itself; it’s just part of the process of creativity. (RG note) Thanks, Marlene and Julie. You and many others who voiced this opinion are in good company. Pablo Picasso said, “In order to create you must first destroy.”   The lessons of Shiva by Annie Shaver-Crandell, New York City, NY, USA  

“Clearing Hounds and Hunters”
original painting
by Annie Shaver-Crandell

Our readers may be interested in looking up images of the Hindu deity Shiva as Nataraja, dancing the dance of creation and destruction. This from Lower Manhattan, where we have witnessed a thing or two about destruction and creativity. As I write this, September 11 is four days away. I am a retired art history professor and mostly now landscape painter and tango dancer. There is 1 comment for The lessons of Shiva by Annie Shaver-Crandell
From: Sarah — Sep 11, 2012

Really love your painting–you have evoked the mood of the dogs before a hunt so well.

  Awesome creator by Peter Zdenek, New Jersey, USA   I like what Leonardo da Vinci said best in that “The painter’s mind is a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating the many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.” As an engineer for fifty years I know how much thought and effort goes into making a single useful product. Never, in billions of years would those components come together on their own. Often, it takes a lot of smart people to make something work as it should. When I paint, I am making my own feeble attempt to re-create a glimpse into the divine mind. Only an awesome creator could make us as we are and even create time itself as we know it. There are 2 comments for Awesome creator by Peter Zdenek
From: Jill Paris Rody — Sep 10, 2012

So well put… thank you for sharing your thoughts.

From: Pamela Sweet — Sep 11, 2012

Thank you, Peter.

  ‘Creativity is God’s work’ by Lucy Foglietta, St. Johns, Nova Scotia, Canada  

“Lillians’ wheel”
watercolour painting
by Lucy Foglietta

I had the pleasure of meeting and (getting to know), hosting (at my bed and breakfast) and taking a class from Calogero Termine (Sicily, Italy). A mutual friend connected me to Calogero and during his 2 month visit to Canada, I had the pleasure of his company a half dozen times. I was lucky enough to get a private lesson from him and as well as have him agree to be a guest instructor at the Artist Workshop of Norfolk County for a Still Life oil class. He got as much out of teaching as did his 10 students. I will never forget what he said to me. (Luckily I understood Italian.) He explained that “creating art is continuing God’s work. When you create art you cannot be any closer to God, for you are continuing his work. Nothing could be more rewarding; what a great honour.”   Accessing the ‘winner self’ by Roos Schuring, Netherlands  

“Cityscape Amsterdam #4 Munttoren”
oil painting
by Roos Schuring

No matter what we decide one day to do or say, how we decide to say that, it will all be crap if it isn’t from the heart. A normal individual is sometimes high, sometimes low, and will reflect that in statements, comments, text. I think the way to come across is to just be your humble self, or winner self at times. The variety seems to me just ‘ human,’ and truth will have positive feedback, because people sense its truth.      

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Memory vs. Creativity

From: Jenny Linn Loveland — Sep 06, 2012

Once again appreciate these thoughtful passages. It’s nurturing to read the virtues of painting, art making because it’s so difficult at times to keep going. The will to create is renewed daily whether at the easel or the keyboard, especially in community with others.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 07, 2012

I am moved to write in response to your student’s account of putting away his guns. My heart broke a little. As someone who loves watching generations of deer families explore our place, it made me think about art and the NRA. Not that I came up with anything; but within the heart of every hunter there must be buried the emotions surrounding the death of the first kill. Your student is lucky and resourceful to find his way out and into the light. Thank you for sharing his story.

From: Marlene Lewis — Sep 07, 2012

For me, creativity and destruction go together. It seems that that is part of being “audacious”…I definitely feel the other emotions that you speak about, but, sometimes I just have to annhialate a part of a painting to find something new. Sometimes it works…often times, it doesn’t. But, it does feel necessary if I’m going to go to stretch my boundaries. I found the part about the deer very sad…I’m glad your student felt a change occur inside of him.

From: Kim Rodeffer Funk — Sep 07, 2012

Thank you for sharing Dick Lee’s touching story and thoughtful insights. It seems to me every artist (visual or otherwise) tells a story of extreme struggle at some point or points in their lives and the exploration of that not only makes one’s life richer, but often develops into amazing work. This is a conversation I would have loved to be a part of as there seems to be so much which went on that there was not room enough to share it all here. Thank you, Robert and Dick, for poking at my brain and my heart! I wonder what will come of that?

From: Jean McLaren, Gabriola, BC — Sep 07, 2012

thanks for the conversation with Dick. there is something magical about Cortez Island that brings out the best in us. I have been a peace and environmental activist for 64 years and listening to bad news in the world is painful…funny when I typed that word it came out paintful. Which is the activity that keeps me going. I just do what I can about the world and then PAINT. PS. I took into my home the young people who refused to kill in Vietnam and came to Canada in the late 60’s. Thank you for reminding me and I am happy that Dick realized killing didnt work for him.

From: Mikulas Kravjansky — Sep 07, 2012

Reading your letter just emphasized the topic of our daily discussion that we have every morning during breakfast with my wife. It’s always kind of meditative challenge. Last time we were talking about positive and negative, God and evil, good and bad. The result for that day was that we are a creation that is created with a mission to create. If we don’t, then there is a deadpan, emptiness, dark. Empty canvas in the corner of the studio still waiting for some brush strokes. That is the brainchild of negative energy, destruction of (creative) time. If we rub out a picture or line, it is still part of creation, just repairing what was a wrong turn. We have to paint, write, design spaceships or bake bread. Nothing else is created with that task. That is our human mission. If we don’t do that, there will be darkness in the universe from our stand.Ambrose

From: Dwight — Sep 07, 2012
From: Liz Reday — Sep 08, 2012

The subject of memory has been the genesis of a series that I started two days ago. I was thinking about all the wild and formative things I’ve done in my life – why don’t I paint them? It’s like a self portrait, except instead of painting my image in a mirror, I’m painting the feeling of sailing across the Mediterranean, being in a temple in South India, dancing with wild hippies one summer in Positano, climbing Ayers Rock and spending my childhood in Japan. It turns out to be much much harder than I thought. A lifetime of experiences expressed into paint without resorting to copying my endless snapshots. My snapshots don’t tell the story of how my spirit was moved, why one memory is engraved in my head while thousands were forgotten. How do you translate ecstasy? I started out with a map of the world in broad strokes of color. The next day I turned it upside down and began again. Magic and the spirit world makes an appearance. I’m on a roll now with the mudheads of New Guinea, my friends dancing in the Sixties and my collection of African deities and assorted souvenirs. After struggling for six – eight months with acrylic, I’ve finally fallen in love with them. Bit of a learning curve, lots of medium and experimentation. Now I’m doing everything I used to be able to do with oils PLUS all the new tricks and techniques that acrylics can allow you to do. It’s actually getting exciting and I’m now in the rhythm with the drying time. Stick all the paint in a giant turkey dish of ice so I can minimize spraying the top (gets too runny). Mix up my fave colors in small jars and only open up a few at a time or stick the big old box palette in the ice & lay on the slo-dri gel. Love the transparent colors and sanding with wet sandpaper. yum.

From: Jeri Haas — Sep 08, 2012

Indeed “every living thing is a treasure.” Indeed, we are the lucky ones….but not all know this, even many artists. When it referes to humans, or to nature, Nature is the kinder, more respectful, more giving.

From: John DeCuir — Sep 08, 2012

Memory vs Creativity was something very special. Thanks for your thoughts.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 08, 2012

The longer I live the more I realize it is we humans, not Nature, that affects our destiny. Nature is! Simple as that. It doesn’t sit in judgement of us. It cares not if we occupy the space we live on. The sun rises not for us, the winds blow, the stars shine and the animals who share our space on this earth function of their own accord and not for us. Nature won’t shield us from harm, won’t weep over those gone before and perished. Nature isn’t beautiful or ugly on our behalf. Nature just is! Nothing is good or evil in nature. Nothing happens to us because of Natures intervention. The grass grows not for us and the rivers follow there own eventual path regardless of our intervention. It is only our observation and memory of what came before in nature that change all this. We have the power to see the beautiful; to change the course of rivers, remember those passed. We alone have the creativity to affect Nature if only temporarily. When we remember her principles and show our creativity; only when we work in harmony with Nature; can we believe we have control over our destiny. Every day is a new beginning. A chance to get it right.

From: Leslie Tejada — Sep 08, 2012
From: Norman Ridenour — Sep 08, 2012

I did not fly 200 sorties but I may well be the only man alive, of any nationality, who has taken a major warship into a gun duel. The rush is frightening and one either retreats into a quiet life or spends the remaining years trying to find the rush again. Chaos and large hunks of wood give me a partial rush. Traveling alone does for a while.

From: Todd Bonita — Sep 08, 2012

When are you going to take a break from being awesome so the rest of us can catch up? Looks like you’re in paradise again. Have a blast and thanks for all you do.

From: Gayla Doucet — Sep 08, 2012

Robert, I relish the stuff you create with words. It speaks to my artist spirit and inspires me, as do your featured artists. Finally, I am able to focus on my art now that I no longer need to create for someone else’s purposes. Art is a privilege and a passion I awaken to each new day. Your website and letters brighten the path ahead.

From: Dwayne — Sep 08, 2012

This is the most penetrating and vital of any art site or publication. As a veteran, Sir, I thank you for the understandings you provide. As a veteran and an artist I know well of what you speak.

From: Pat Spencer — Sep 08, 2012
From: Ingela Stromberg — Sep 08, 2012

Three years ago I visited my home country, Sweden, with my then 7 year old grandson Thomas. He made friends with my host`s grandchildren. I took them to a playground which was surrounded by a fantastic growth of large thistles. The purple blooms were all gone and the beige fluff was showing everywhere. It was so beautiful. The children stood there chatting while pulling straws of grass. This image stayed with me as something I wanted to paint. So I did last spring – on a large (50″x40″) canvas. Every time I see it in our living room I smile and remember with fondness that very day. Ottawa, Canada

From: Elaine Abrams — Sep 08, 2012

Hello Dick, Just felt compelled to say that I felt great tenderness in Robert’s expression and description of you. Thank you for putting down the gun and picking up the brush.

From: Meryl Huxham — Sep 08, 2012

What an inspirational letter this week Robert. Thank you for such insight and for sharing this. I know this made a difference for me and I will be looking at a blank page with much less intimidation from now on. Why Not! Just wanted to say your writing is continued encouragement for many people. I am in New York City for a week and surrounded by so much talent, joy, sadness, heat, humidity,…. but it is all good. Thanks again.

From: Marney Ward SFCA — Sep 08, 2012
From: Jim Warwick — Sep 08, 2012

Without question this is one of your best pieces. Thank you for the picture you painted with your words.

From: Tearleart — Sep 10, 2012

My father was a WWII fighter pilot, having earned among other medals two Silver Stars. After the war he went hunting and as the deer turned and looking into his eyes, he put down the gun and walked away and never went hunting again. He added he never could have been a foot soldier and killed up close and personal.

From: Rosemary Carman-Avery — Sep 10, 2012

Creating – pulls one out of the “mind thoughts” – often dark and grey – to what I call the” outer thoughts” between the mind and the eyes that we put on paper, (or wood or glass blowing – etc;) – what a wonderful therapy for troubled minds (glass blowing has been a godsend to my troubled grand boy.

From: Patty Patty — Sep 10, 2012

I had the good fortune to meet the late Marjorie Lemmon, a weaver in her 80s, at her A-frame home in Nanoose Bay, BC. A friend of Gandhi’s had visited and was astounded to find this western lady spinning fleece into yarn with a drop spindle hanging down from her upstairs balcony. He commented that Gandhi had always said that if everyone spent 20 minutes a day spinning there would be no wars. I think the same could be said for sketching, painting and other creative activities.

From: Len DesRosiers — Sep 10, 2012

Yes, it does seem to me that artists are often the best able to love this universe like no others. How could this be?

From: John — Sep 10, 2012

My father, a painter, was raised to hunt for food and continued the practice to feed his young family. On one hunting trip, the deer he shot was only wounded, but he knew it was suffering and would eventually die, so he followed it for hours in the bush to no avail. He wanted to relieve its pain, but could not. He never again went hunting.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Sep 11, 2012
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Sep 11, 2012
     Featured Workshop: Barry John Raybould
091112_robert-genn Barry John Raybould workshops Held in Tuscany, Italy   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

And the band played on

oil painting by Andy Thomas, USA

  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 Al Etmanski of BC, Canada, who wrote, “This piece about Dick shooting a deer reminded me of Aldo Leopold’s striking essay – Thinking Like a Mountain. (RG note) Thanks, Al. A close analysis of Leopold’s essay, written by Susan Flader, is available at Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests. And also Mohammed Faris of West Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Quite the story… what a transformation. Best wishes to Dick.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.