Painting as tribute


Dear Artist,

There are lots of reasons to paint. This morning’s inbox included about a dozen. They ranged from “spiritual need” to “$1800.00.” Another subscriber mentioned, “A nice memorial for my friend’s gerbil ‘Alice,’ who recently passed away.” After her lengthy explanation I was not sure if it was her friend or the gerbil she was memorializing. Then there was the guy who said he was painting today because he didn’t feel like mowing the lawn. Ah yes, Spring. “Spring has sprung, the grass is riz. I wonder where the mower is?”

Bright Counterpoint, c. 2000 Acrylic on canvas 16 x 20 inches by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Bright Counterpoint, c. 2000
Acrylic on canvas
16 x 20 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

But I digress. No matter how seemingly banal your painting motivation might be, something else can be implicit in virtually every project. You just need to think of art-making as a form of tribute. A tribute, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a thing said, done or given as a mark of respect.” When you think of it, all of nature and a great deal of what mankind has done are worthy of tribute. Further, when you consider appreciation of beauty or history or even the possibility of life enhancement, our art takes on greater meaning and more power.

There’s a simple way to put this idea into action. When you approach a subject or a motif, pause and contemplate. Ask yourself what a possible back-story might be. Recently, Peter Segnitz and I made a little video that tries to describe this attitude. It’s called “Painting as Tribute” and we’ve put it at the bottom of this letter. Some of us may come by this attitude quite naturally. For others, it’s easy to get stuck in the gumbo of commercialism or clock watching, as if we had a job in a gerbil wheel factory. While our work has job-like elements, it’s not really a job. It’s a calling. It’s a supreme opportunity to honour and make permanent our time and place in the nature of things. With such an attitude, there’s a greater imperative to do it well.

Arnica, 1998 acrylic on canvas 10 x 12 inches by Robert Genn

Arnica, 1998
acrylic on canvas
10 x 12 inches
by Robert Genn

Best regards,


PS: “The artist fills space with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.” (Willem de Kooning)

Esoterica: Without getting sidetracked by the self-importance of our creative missions, we all have an obligation to try to extract the maximum from every opportunity. Even that tiny gerbil — what a temple of design, miniaturization, spirit, persistence, forward planning. What wondrous lungs, heart, brain, nervous and digestive system. What miracle its DNA carried to her offspring from every cell. That gerbil is a subject so noble, so holy, that it deserves a considered attitude. “The whole world is a church.” (Sylvain of Athos)

This letter was originally published as “Painting as tribute” on April 29, 2011.

Easthope, c. 1975 oil on canvas 16 x 20 inches by Robert Genn

The Easthope, c. 2008
acrylic on canvas
16 x 20 inches
by Robert Genn

I wish each and every one of you well during this global health crisis and encourage you to flatten the curve by staying at home with your creative materials. I hope our Painter’s Keys community can be a source of friendship and creative inspiration during this time and always.
In friendship, Sara 

Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing?  With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work. Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)



  1. Thanks, Sara–The letters are a huge help in this crisis time. We live in NYC but fortunately were able to come up to Vermont until the situation becomes less dire.
    I love this painting of your father’s. I really like all his work, but this one is really so powerful and exciting.

    all best to you,


    • Laurel adams on

      Thank you Sara for enlivening your dad’s work…especially this video …It mirrors my aesthetic. It is a beautiful think to share the same prayer from ones heArt.
      Thank you, Laurel

  2. May I inquire as to the gerbil and friend photo? Maybe a huge coincidence but in 1971 I took some pictures of my dear friend Gayle holding my gerbil named Alice Bloom. Gayle died last week. Is it possible that your subscriber is referring to my dear friends’s photo? It would be so meaningful to me to hear back from you. Thank you. Rebecca Briley

    • Hi Rebecca,
      Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the subscriber who told my Dad about Gerbil Alice in 2011. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, Gayle…was she an artist? If so, perhaps they are one and the same. If you wish, please email me at with Gayle’s last name and I will check our subscriber list for more clues…
      In friendship,

      • Rebecca Briley on

        Thank you so much for responding to me Sara. You have already solved my problem. My friend Gayle Doub died 2 weeks ago this year. Friends were posting photos of her past and current. One of the photos posted there on Facebook was a photo I took of Gayle in 1970’s holding my gerbil named Alice Bloom. . I don’t know who that was either. Gayle wasn’t a practicing artist, more of a writer and free spirit living in San Francisco. Someone cosmic might be going on here… thanks again Sara.

  3. Here’s a version of the rhyme about Spring I learned as a child growing-up in the UK….

    Spring has sprung
    The grass has riz
    I wonder where the birdies is
    The birdies is upon the wing
    That’s absurd…
    I always thought
    The wing was on the bird.

  4. Beautiful. You may or may not know what a lifeline you throw to each of us Sara. I’m certain that many like myself don’t often express it to you.
    Your messages, and your father’s, messages, especially in this video today, is an affirmation of my long-neglected joy, a vocation I embraced from the moment I saw a painter at five.
    Although my brushes may have collected dust, I’ve ‘painted’ every day and hour, composing in my minds eye. Ha…Painting can be like fishing. You should have seen the ones that got away!
    For some reason, today I have the impetus to get it all out and make marks. Your father gave us permission and encouragement. What a teacher and father you had, Thank you for sharing him with us. ‘

    With sincere gratitude which I hope did not turn muddy from an absent minded mixing with nostalgia,

  5. Thank you, Sara for your wonderful letters and especially Robert’s video. I will keep forever. Also, thank you to John Francis for the delightful poem. Blessings to all the artists in this universe. Namaste.

    Gerri Bradford
    Colorado Artist

  6. Thank You Sara for the beautiful letter and Robert’s video. It reminded me of this quote: “ In the midst of winter , I found within me an invincible summer. Camus

  7. Thank you. I am doing online one-on-one art with 9 grandchildren. Some co-create paint with me. The 3 and 5 year olds get to call the shots of what we color (bunnies, space shuttle, cathedrals). When we are together spontaneity and love are the main colors.

    Thank you for your inspiration. I, too, love the paintings you featured.

    Love and joy during this changing time.

  8. Ruth Rutledge on

    I love this video almost brought me to tears to see your Dad.I am devotee of your posts and of your Dad’s too! Bravo

    • Trudy Wardrop on

      Tears in my eyes. This is a keeper video. How can I miss someone I never met… but I do. Thank you for continuing to keep your dad’s memory alive, and continuing in his legacy sweet girl.

  9. Thank you Sara,

    What a fantastic letter you put together! Seeing your father with his amazing sprit is truly very good medicine. I love his description of what painting is. He is such a brilliant painter.
    And thanks to all for all of the wonderful comments, so nice to feel a community.

    With great appreciation,
    I think I will go to my room now :)

  10. Raymond Mosier on

    My goodness!
    I have been moved beyond expression. Robert’s words struck me like a thunder bolt!
    Thank you Sara!

  11. The whole world is a church.” (Sylvain of Athos)

    While I am ot a religious person in most ways, I consider every part of God’s creation as being a piece of God, made from his/her own spirit. Every person, animal, rock, sea is a part of God which he/she has given us. Thus, we must treat each living thing and each created thing with utmost respect. Sylvain of Athos saw this, I think and admonished us to treat our earth and its inhabitants as sacred.

  12. Great video and thoughts from Robert, reminding me in better words of things I’ve thought about. Love the images of the Stewart Farm. I did a bit of volunteering in their garden a long time ago.
    Re. Sylvain of Athos, sadly this is a truth the world has, and continues to, willfully ignore. There’s no sign that sense will prevail any time soon.

  13. Lately, I have been asking myself to what purpose do I paint? “Robert Genn: Painting As Tribute” spelled and spilled out the answers for me. ‘So grateful for this, it brought me calm & peace in this moment of uncertainty.

  14. Lynn Nickols on

    Thank you from Canberra, Australia, for your efforts. I will go out to my neglected “art cabin” and consider a new project, now that I can understand why I enjoy creating. In these uncertain times, your father’s words make me feel calm and more purposeful.

  15. My dad painted–but only two paintings—both landscapes; one on Masonite and the other on burlap as canvas. He was an observer of life—interested in how things worked and enjoyed life with a sparkle in his eye and a chuckle at times—-Sara, your father reminds me of my dad—-I enjoy your father’s paintings—they reflect his spirit. We all miss him—but I’m so happy you are continuing….it gives us all hope and inspiration—and you have that same contented outlook on life as your father.

  16. Your father expressed so beautifully the reverence I feel when inspired to paint something! Thank your so much! And I love his Gerry Rigged chair easel. Did he ever shown how he put it together?

  17. Mary Gayle Selfridge on

    Such a beautiful experience watching and hearing Robert as we face the struggles of this pandemic. His words touch my heart and encourage me to create and appreciate each and every day. May his walk on Spirit Road be filled with Light and Peace

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