A memory of Thailand

Dear Artist, “What are you doing?” a voice asks from behind me in clear, almost musical English. Turning around I find a saffron-robed monk. He is a round little man with a round, shaven head, flatter than it is deep — a face like a bas-relief. He is smiling, friendly.

Patience of the elephant

“I’m trying to paint an elephant,” I say. He moves closer. “But are you painting the power of the elephant, or the patience of the elephant, or the spirit of the elephant?” he asks. At the point when the visitor appeared I was running low on Payne’s gray, but now I realize, with this guy standing behind me, I have a more serious force to contend with. While I’m thinking about some smart or even intelligent reply, my model lets out a prolonged and agitated trumpeting. I’m in the Karen village of Kareang Rummit on the Mae Kok River near Chang Mai in northern Thailand. There are several elephants tethered at the river’s edge. These are working elephants — used for moving teak logs from the forest to the river. On their days off they can be hired to take tourists on treks in various directions. Brightly-clad handlers stand around their charges as if they were the owners of giant classic cars. If there were running-boards to put their feet up on, they would. There’s no business today. One of the elephants is getting soaped down with a long-handled mop. “It’s my first elephant,” I say. My visitor puts down a plastic shopping bag and points to the tusks on my elephant. “They curve more. Yours are like a fork-lift,” he says. All this time I thought I knew to some degree what I was doing. I thought I had those tusks just about right, but when I take another look I have to agree that something might be gained by making those tusks more dynamic. Showing off a bit, I quickly put them in again: bigger, longer, more curved. I improve the shape with the negative area around. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says. “I’ll be back.” He picks up his sack and disappears. For a few moments I had the fearful feeling that I might be hopelessly and forever in need of his artistic and perhaps spiritual guidance. Best regards, Robert PS: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T. S. Eliot) “Teach me to hear the mermaids singing.” (John Donne) Esoterica: A little later that day, while I was working on my second elephant, the monk came back. His name is Jibba and he has become my friend. Yesterday, I followed him in his daily routine. He is very well informed and well spoken. He told me he learned English while working as a laundryman’s helper in Leeds, England. This letter was adapted from a twice-weekly letter previously published on November 9, 2001. My two (and only) elephant paintings have long since disappeared into the Diaspora.   Art appreciation by Arlene Woo, Honolulu, HI, USA  

“Elephant portrait”
watercolour painting
by Arlene Woo

My two and a half year old granddaughter had a friend who loved elephants. Eliott was moving away, so I decided to give him the elephant portrait I had painted after our visit to the zoo. His reaction was better than any artist could expect. He looked at the painting, at me, and then kissed the elephant painting.         There is 1 comment for Art appreciation by Arlene Woo
From: Wendy Head — Dec 18, 2013

What an emotional and mesmerizing painting. It took me aback when I enlarged it. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  Remover of obstacles by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal, QC, Canada  

“Elephant Medley”
original painting
by Cheryl Braganza

Every now and then, elephants keep stomping on to my canvases and I can’t stop them, especially during these cold wintery days here in Quebec. It must be to do with the fact that these mythical creatures immortalized in stone for centuries evoke protective and life-sustaining energies, vital to us all. Both gentle and destructive, they are the epitome of gods and goddesses as is Lord Ganesh, remover of obstacles, who is so revered by Hindus the world over. There are 2 comments for Remover of obstacles by Cheryl Braganza
From: Anonymous — Jan 02, 2014

I love your “elephant medley” painting…loose and playful, with juicy, whimsical colors! Thank you!

From: Cheryl Braganza — Apr 19, 2014

Thank you – I love your comment and wish I knew who you are.

  The power of a line by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada  

original painting
by Darrell Baschak

Your mention of painting elephants and the encounter with the monk reminded me of an experience I had in Saskatoon a number of years ago. I make it a practice to visit the Mendel Art Gallery in the spring of the year when they host an annual exhibit of Art created by K to 12 school children. One of the most memorable pieces I saw, and remember to this day, was a drawing by a grade 3 girl of an elephant and mouse. A simple and powerful drawing of the elephant using a heavy, dark line to express the essence of that beast. The mouse was drawn with a light and delicate line, so exquisite. It occurred to me that many artists might struggle all their lives to achieve such an effect. There are 4 comments for The power of a line by Darrell Baschak
From: ken flitton — Dec 17, 2013

What a beautiful mosaic!!

From: Cyndie Katz — Dec 17, 2013

Love the painting!

From: Darrell Baschak — Dec 20, 2013

Thank you!

From: Karen Astrid Clark — Dec 20, 2013

Such a great description of the Elephant and the Mouse. My friend Sarah has a huge dynamic painting of elephants trumpeting and crushing watermelons that have labels on them such as intolerance and poverty. it hangs in a local elementary/junior high and the students and teachers have talks about the work.

  The dynamism of horses by Cheri Isgreen, Montrose, CO, USA  

“Fluidity & grace”
watercolour painting
by Cheri Isgreen

Have you ever moved your hand quickly back & forth in front of your face? When you do, you don’t see your hand; instead you see the background — what is behind your hand. The color passages, (from the powerful violets directly behind the horse’s body to the attention grabbing roses where the next footfall will land to the lyrical yellows trailing behind this horse) manifest all the beauty & joy a horse expresses through movement. The heavy and lighter blue lines indicate a powerful mass moving through space; yet this 1000 pound animal appears weightless. The ground line is dynamic, changing from thin blue to heavy red at the last point of thrust. I never tire of observing and painting horses; they range from gentle giants, wise teachers, dancers beyond the tether of gravity, to powerful primeval forces, depending on their needs or emotions. All this can be conveyed through distilling their elements into an interplay of shadow & shape, line & color, rhythm & texture… whatever the painting calls for… There is 1 comment for The dynamism of horses by Cheri Isgreen
From: Jeff Barnato — Dec 18, 2013

Horses always have been symbols of power and grace. With less of them around, it’s getting harder for artists to know them and do them well

  Contrarian reaction by Jean Belluz, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada  

watercolour painting
by Jean Belluz

I was painting a fall landscape and over my shoulder I heard the voices of two ladies. One said, “Oh look at the bright colours.” I cringed. The second voice replied, “It shows the joy in her heart.” I finally plucked up the courage to turn around and see who it was. Lo and behold there stood two nuns in their long black habits smiling sweetly. I have never painted fall colours again without hearing those remarks and now I try to keep the colours somewhat subdued!! There are 2 comments for Contrarian reaction by Jean Belluz
From: Anonymous — Dec 17, 2013

Why do you subdue the colors? If the joy in your heart translates to bright colors on the canvas, I say “go for it!”

From: Ken Deveney — Dec 17, 2013

Jean, please say more about why you cringed.

  Profoundly wise woman by Rice Honeywell, White Rock, BC, Canada  

Sister Anne

One of the most interesting and wonderful people I’ve met is an old woman who is a local Buddhist nun. For a time she was a regular patron at my restaurant; showing up in her saffron robes and close-shaven head and I would sit with her for hours chatting. Although originally a farm girl from the prairies by the name of Anne McNeill, she studied in Tibet as one of the first white western women to be accepted into that world. Her truths are simple, her smile is easy and genuine and her knowledge, deep. Although sadly I hear she has been affected by dementia these days, her acceptance of all things and all people as part of “the whole” will never be forgotten. I only wish that all people who fancy themselves belonging to one “religion” or another could have at least a smidgen of the power and goodness of knowledge that she possesses in her simple, easy-going (yet profoundly wise) style.   Art and Gestalt therapy by Oscar Bearinger, Killaloe, ON, Canada  

“The Sea, The Sun”
woodblock print
by Oscar Bearinger

I retired from my clinical career in Gestalt therapy a few years ago. In my work I developed a model which I have since published in the Gestalt field, which links the creative process to the model of Gestalt therapy’s Cycle of Experience. Through my work in art therapy and in my own artistic pursuits, I have come to understand the process of creativity is essentially the same as the experiential model developed in Gestalt therapy.     Think before you throw out the interloper by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA  

“Bessy & company”
oil painting 30 x 40 inches
by Mary Susan Vaughn

This absolutely validates a similar experience — without the elephants, although the “elephant” was surely in the room!! My studio is in my home — in my dining room to be exact — and that makes it all too convenient for other family members to wander in and express their opinions as I progress with my painting. At first, especially with my husband, who works from home most of the time, this became quite the annoyance. He would tell me my perspective was off, or the nose was wrong, the pitch of the roof is at the wrong angle. It would make my blood boil. Sometimes, I’d hear him coming and tell him if he got anywhere near my studio I was going to throw paint in his general direction. Such are the deep-rooted feelings of an artist! But over the years, and there have been 21, I have learned that his perspective is most often than not, correct. He offers me a fresh eye, a fresh perspective that I need to make my paintings come alive. And yes, I am afraid, I am going to need him the rest of my artistic life, to offer me his opinion, or my paintings may surely fall apart. There are 3 comments for Think before you throw out the interloper by Mary Susan Vaughn
From: Anonymous — Dec 17, 2013

Cows and elephants are my anime. I love how solidly they are rooted to the earth. I love how you treated the cows in this painting.

From: Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC — Dec 17, 2013

This image has a ring of truth for me. Nicely done!

From: Karen Astrid Clark — Dec 20, 2013

Mary, your comment on unsolicited opinions from family members really connects. You are right, family will honestly see. They don’t have a lens of self interest that clouds their vision. They may be off the cuff or very well thought out comments but always they are truly from their own point of view. Because we know where they are coming from we get acess to a precious resource.

  Painting at the top of the first group by Fernando Tomas Barboni Urraburu, Montevideo, Uruguay   I read your mails daily and I think that there is plenty of knowledge there. I think that’s a special moment to think, to be reflective. Life gives us good things and several of the others. Painting is at the top of the first group. It makes me feel happy, giving me lovely moments of introspection. Thanks for your support. Very happy Christmas and prosperous 2014!  

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for A memory of Thailand

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Dec 12, 2013

Your droll comments always make me smile – and the critiques of passersby when plein air painting are another never ending source of amusement. What a wonderful life you have had, Bob. Elephants are such lovely creatures, I am quite jealous that you had this experience and wish I could see the improved, curvey results of your impromptu critique. Best to you, drink lots of green juice!

From: Dwight — Dec 13, 2013

Twelve years late, I must comment about the elephant paintings and the use of Payne’s Gray. I really liked the comments of the monk and Robert’s response, but I must say that running out of Payne’s Gray is not a problem. What an awful pigment to use when other, better mixes are available. Payne’s Gray has, among several other pigments in its mix, lamp black. That’s soot…or instant mud. Awful stuff. Twelve years after Robert’s fun column here, my advice, dump the Payne’s Gray.

From: John Ferrie — Dec 13, 2013

Dear Robert, I had a similar experience when I was touring the palaces in Bangkok. I was inspired by the potent robes the Buddhist wore. Bright Bright orange, lined up row on row as they paraded by, I thought they were so wonderful. One marvellous looking guy with alabaster skin and the whitest teeth I had ever seen came over and shook my hand when he saw that I was madly sketching the line up as they passed by he talked to me in a thick accent I could barely understand. Why I was sporting my sketch book that day is a mystery. He said to “be sure to draw our third eye”… I had no idea what he meant. My companion who was also an ex catholic priest (how we ended up together is another issue I won’t go into) explained to me…it is a concept referring to a speculative invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight! So, wondering about all of us who are communicating what we see through our scrambled brain, I continue to try and see things and paint them just one step beyond. This has become my life long study. and so it continues….John Ferrie

From: Martin Bjorkman — Dec 13, 2013

The lesson here is to see the dynamism in the essentials of the material you are working with. In this case the tusks. Artists always do best when they stop and think as they look things over.

From: Janice Vogel — Dec 13, 2013

As a U of Vic Alumni, I received my issue of the Torch magazine today. I was flipping through it and on the back page there was an article about a U of Vic grad who had suffered a stroke in her 20s and is quadriplegic. She eventually took up painting, which has been a wonderful therapy and a way to make a bit of extra money. Maybe I should really pick up a paint brush one of these days… I found it a very positive story. Her determination reminded me of you.

From: Dave Skrypnyk — Dec 13, 2013

Very philosophical. Today I learned of a new theory that somehow resolves pieces of Einstein’s theories he could not solve. The entire solar system, meaning all universes, galaxies, whatever; are a hologram.

From: Nancy Codd — Dec 13, 2013

I like the monk’s response regarding the way one looks at things (e.g. elephant). I have just done a painting for my eldest daughter for Xmas and found it quite a challenge because it was something she wanted & it had to be purple, not something I would do. Personally I don’t like it, (a lilac tree which everyone loves) but it has taught me a lesson in “the way one looks at things” in perspective and colour. Colour is magical. I recently did a painting (15 yr old grandson) with the background black – that was powerful, putting black all over a canvas, and I had such fun doing it.

From: Esmie McLaren — Dec 13, 2013

I love those inspired moments. Thank you for sharing.

From: Ruth Violet — Dec 13, 2013

You have sustained me for many years. As your letters came in I got to a feeling that they would never end. Of all the people I know, you are the one who has contributed the most to artists’ lives. Almost daily wise encouragement in all forms from you has kept so many in front of their easels going on in this difficult world. Thank you. Thank you. Blessings to you and your family. So many are with you in this difficult time.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Dec 13, 2013

These little friendly encounters with new people are admirable and they are to be cherished. The world is so full of unfriendly people it is isolating. Thanks for the anecdote; it is so encouraging. We need to be open to receive friendly gestures and kindness in chaotic world.

From: Morgan Julius Higgs — Dec 14, 2013

Anyone who comes along is seeing your work with fresh eyes and can often point out what’s wrong. Even a monk. Even, perhaps, an elephant.

From: Karen Bandy — Dec 14, 2013

“But are you painting the power of the elephant, or the patience of the elephant, or the spirit of the elephant?” he asks. I love this, we are taught to paint what we see, great advice but it goes deeper than that. Paint what we see in our third eye…perfect! That’s how I interpret the 3rd eye comment! Thanks Robert and John Ferrie too!

From: Grahame Joyce — Dec 14, 2013

In your radio interview you expressed disappointment that you would not be able to visit Australia or New Zealand. While you have never physically been to NZ I can say from my perspective you have shared so much with me through your emails that you are like a friend one never meets.

From: Nancy Boren — Dec 14, 2013

I loved that story! I also am often so literal and so straight forward – this was a good lesson in another point of view. I have enjoyed your letters so very much–my very best and warmest wishes to you and yours for health and happiness! Thinking of you a lot lately…..

From: Ligorio Viegas — Dec 14, 2013
From: Vera Tarnowsky — Dec 14, 2013

I am writing for the first time to thank you for your wonderful letters that I have enjoyed, learned from, and have been inspired by. I have greatly appreciated reading them and have kept many as a reference.You indeed have touched the lives of many and made a difference in the Art world! By profession I am a violinist, having performed in Canada and Internationally so I have been most fortunate in my career. In my forties I ran into a muscle disorder which gave me time to pursue my second love, the Visual Arts. I know how important your letters have been to me and am confident that you have also helped many others. With deep gratitude, I thank you for so much.

From: Arnold Hammond — Dec 14, 2013

Without being preachy, there is always a worthwhile lesson in every one of these Genn letters, Sara’s too.

From: Claudia — Dec 15, 2013

Regarding “A return to awareness” I wish that THE WORLD would make such a return… We are surrounded by an ocean of unconsciousness and i feel so…..powerless even if i am aware that it can take ONE to make a change. I try to never give up but some days…………. Merci, thank you, for your wonderful letters.

From: Douglas L. Stone — Dec 15, 2013

In a way, these last two letters are about the same thing–being more observant and aware. Sometimes it takes someone else to help out, but the ideal situation is for the artist to see for himself (herself).

From: Gillian Redwood — Dec 16, 2013

I absolutely love this story about the monk and the elephant. I’ll use it if I may, in my workshops. Learning to feel the movement and spirit of a scene is lots more fun than attempting to reproduce what the camera sees.

From: Michael Fuerst — Dec 17, 2013

A drawing or painting, before being displayed, should always be subjected to the comments and view of one or two trustworthy, insightful persons.

From: Nellie Gill — Dec 17, 2013

On day when I was painting on location and gentleman asked if he could come look and I said sure. After a compliment or two he told me that his 16 year old daughter painted and was quite good. I asked him if he had framed and hung any of her work and with a shocked look he replied that he had never thought to do such a thing. I told him that would be the best gift and encouragement he could give her. He then told me that it would be done before the day was over. Encouragement goes such a long way and you have encouraged so many artists through the years.

From: Janice moser — Dec 18, 2013

What I love the most and what is now becoming increasingly clear to me about your beautiful letters is that you have once again created…a rich and brilliant community of artists. You have somehow joined us all together not unlike a string of pearls stretching from one end of the world to another.thankyou will never say enough for you are surley the clasp that joins us all together.much Love Janice

  Featured Workshop: Tony van Hasselt 121713_robert-genn-workshop Tony van Hasselt Workshops Held in Amelia Island, FL, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Ram Das

photograph by Joey L., Ontario, Canada

  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 Stewart Turcotte of Kelowna, BC, Canada, who wrote, “As proven by the monk who unnerved you a bit, it is not necessarily the information that you get from what you are looking at that is important, it is asking the right question to get the information that you need.” And also Ginger Rouse who wrote, “Your letters make me feel like an old friend, even though we have never met. Recently a potter passed me as I painted a longhorn cow. She said, ‘The horns are larger.’ She, too, was right.”

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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