Dear Artist,

Allen Sapp, one of Canada’s most collected aboriginal painters, was given encouragement and support in his youth by a young doctor who believed in him. He was supplied with burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, black and white. Allen worked with this palette for some time before he found there were others available. Today, forty years later, his color range is still modest, but his imagination is great. I think that the remarkable strength of his painting is at least partly due to the self-training that took place under this early limitation.


“A Nice Day for Playing Hockey”
acrylic on canvas, 30 x 48 in.
by Allen Sapp (1928-2015)

I’m in the easel-station of Alexander Mackenzie trying to get the most out of a simple palette. It’s not out of privation — we have on board virtually every pigment that one manufacturer makes. I’m consciously trying to pull paintings together with body color of Jenkins Green and Burnt Sienna. I’m mostly glazing with Quinacridone Gold and Phthalo Blue. There’s none of what psychologists call “analysis paralysis” here. Both Sara and I have noted they’re flowing like hot-cross buns.

The predominant shifts are mainly determined by the time of day, the interaction of the sky and the water, the mother-color of the dominant elements. Over the days of this journey a kind of energetic serenity has set in. Something happens with the mixture of space and time. I feel a sense of story. Others have told me you can feel it in your brush, and I do now. A family of mergansers swims close by — the young are almost ready to fly south. Perhaps you have felt it too — it has something to do with purity.


“John Bear’s Horses”
oil painting 1971
by Allen Sapp

Best regards,


PS: “I can’t tell a story in the white man’s language, so I say what I want to say with my paintings.” (Allen Sapp)

Esoterica: In Cree philosophy, of which Allen is a proponent, they often refer to their god as “The Owner.” This spirit is the source of the land, its fruits and all its beings. The job of humans, apart from the requirement of getting along with each other, is to honor and respect his efforts. Here, in this remote corner of the owner’s garden there’s not a plastic bag or a tin can. I have a distinct feeling of guilt when I release the last of my paint-water into the pristine stream.

This letter was originally published as “Purity” on August 29, 2000.  Allen Sapp passed away on December 28, 2015 at the age of 87 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.


“Inside the House”
oil painting by Allen Sapp

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“All that is necessary to paint well is to be sincere.” (Maurice Denis)




  1. How wonderful to re read this letter.

    My sole regret is not contacting Allen Sapp before his death to reassure him that I had ‘saved’ one of his early paintings from desecration. A colleague of mine, also now deceased, had bought one of Sapp’s paintings of collecting Maple sap in the spring with a team of horses. He approached me with the request to “fix” a part of the painting that disturbed him, an area of snow between horses & wagon. He did not think it was properly painted, distracting from the rest of the painting.

    Leave it with me, I told him. By the end of that day, I had several reasons not to intervene. Most were technical, matching chemistry, composition & colour of paint, divergent properties while aging, conflicting textures of underlying & applied brushstrokes, all of which would set that section apart from the rest of the canvas, over time.

    Certainly, tampering would negatively affect painting’s value. Finally, his discomfort said more about him than about Allen Sapp; that he should take heed of his judgmental tendencies & surrender instead to the significance of the scene that had inspired Sapp.

    He accepted & understood my words but although they presented another set of considerations, did not change his original sentiment.

    I think Allen Sap would have chortled with glee.

    • What a great story – so glad you decided not to repaint another’s work.
      Allen Sap is new to me – will be checking it out.. Thank you

  2. I recall seeing a collection of Allen’s work at the Allan Sapp Gallery in North Battleford and thinking to myself that his work could easily hang among the work of great European painters such as Millet and Van Gogh, it seemed to have a similar quality. Its something that is hard to put in words, I just knew I was in the presence of greatness. A good friend of mine who was the curator of the museum told me he often watched Allen paint and was amazed to see that he did not do any preliminary sketches, he simply started somewhere and worked out from there. Much like sculpting.

  3. What a lovely posting. Thanks for the introduction to this wonderful work, and I am always so appreciative of the inspiring, thoughtful and thought provoking words, your father’s and your own. Love the images and the quote.

  4. Roma Nowakowski on

    Allen Sapp was helped greatly by Doctor Allen Gonor driving him from North Battleford, Sask. to the city of Saskatoon, Sask. weekly to take art lessons from Noni Mulcaster. Before that he was painting from photos on calendars, for example: the mountains of British Columbia.
    He was selling his paintings from door to door for a few dollars until he met Dr. Gonor and was encouraged to paint his aboriginal background. He also had a promoter to organize shows and sales for him .
    Allen Sapp passed away December 29th, 2015, after spending a few years at River Heights Lodge (a nursing home)in North Battleford.
    I knew him well and had lots of respect for him and his work.

  5. I met Allen Sap in my parents’ front room in North Battleford. My dad had just taken on the role of Anglican missionary to the Indian reserves around North Battleford, and I was home from university. I rember Allan a very quiet, shy and gentle individual, and at the time, he was selling or trying to sell his work on the streets of town for $25 or less. Dr. Gonor made a valuable contribution to Allan’s career and Canadian art when he supported and mentored Allan, Because of Allan’s lifelong focus, we have a wonderful collection of art about life on the reserve. I am proud to have one of his pieces, and give it pride of place in our home in Calgary.

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