Lord of the rings


Dear Artist,

I like Gandalf. He’s a regular wizard. I identify with the guy. As we speak I’ve got some hobbits making my costume — the pointy hat, the heels to make me taller, the long gray hair extensions. After a muggy day here in Kauai, three hours in an air-conditioned theatre sounded like a nice idea. It was my kind of movie — linear — one damned thing after the other. Pretty bad drooling orcs with bad dentistry; bigger, badder thingme called Balrog all on fire with a burning whip. That’s where Gandalf bought it. I’m pretty sure he’ll be back in the sequel. He’s that kind of wizard.


Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White
in “The Two Towers” (2002)

There’s gold in there. Tolkien’s a pit deeper than the Mines of Mordor. Motivational whiz-bangs. Creative potions. Artists take note: The power has been transferred to you. You will do with it the best you can. Though you may have hairy toes, you have greatness in your future. “You are the master of Bag End now.” (Gandalf) Yes, and every new turn gives a new breakthrough, a new understanding. In the fellowship of wizards, dwarfs, elves, there’s no end to the stuff you can learn. “The road goes ever on and on.” (Bilbo Baggins) And time. There’s advice on time-management here. The hour-glass is running out. The race is almost run. “All you have to decide is what you’re going to do with the time you are given.” (Gandalf) Oh, and values. Don’t forget values:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
The crownless again shall be king.

Best regards,


PS: “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” (Frodo Baggins)

Esoterica: Why and how do we get our power from words? What determines authority? Is it because of some sort of perceived success? Is it some sort of magic? How important is poetry? Do great ideas find the man or woman who’s looking for them?

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


Many parallels
by Jan Woodford, Oregon Coast, USA

If you think the movie was good, you should read the book, or actually, the books. I’ve read them all several times, and plan to read them again. I think Frodo’s adventures bring out the longing for adventure that is in all of us, and while Tolkein claimed his books are not an analogy, he admitted that there were parallels. I saw many parallels in the books, and, as with art, different incidents speak to different people in different ways. Tolkein was truly an artist with words, and the meanings of the parallels are in the mind of the reader, just as the viewer’s eye’s and mind interpret good art.


Wizardry of age
by Pattie Schey

Merlin is also a fascinating wizard, in as many different versions I have read about King Arthur including The Mists of Avalon. The wise and seeing wizards have always fascinated me. As I approach my golden birthday I realize what age brings besides the aches and pains we all complain about. It brings insight and the ability to know what is worth the effort and what isn’t. It also brings about a clearer sense of what has been and what is yet to come if you apply yourself and let you imagination and senses guide you. It also can be a time of great awakenings, as you become the next “wizard” or “crone” to pass on your knowledge and insight to the naive “hobbits” of the next generation. In doing this you hope they understand the fellowship of the ring and the meaning of life.


Show up
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I saw Lord of the Rings a couple of weeks ago and remember that line too: “All you have to do is decide what you’re going to do with the time you’ve been given.” Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I do believe that when we decide what to do, and get on our paths, the teachers appear and we tap into some collective creative pool. It feels like the hand of some greater power at work, and all we have to do is show up.


Power of imagination
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, B.C., Canada

Loved your letter on the Hobbit movie, now I MUST see it. I realized that there weren’t any fairies, when I was about 7, but consoled myself at seven that a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis was definitely magic. At 12 my mother gave me a magical book called, “The Patchwork Book,” edited by Marganita Laski (Pilot Press 1946) It is made up of excerpts of many books. There I found instructions “how to call up a fairy,” a letter from Pliny the younger to his uncle, with an eye witness account of the destruction of Pompeii. Divided into 8 parts, with headings like “Fights,” “Time is Past,” “Mystery & Fantasy,” “Ingenious Oddities.” It is old and much tattered but still treasured as my favorite bedtime book. I think artists retain the childlike wonder and awe of the world around them, and most of us try to share this emotion to others through our paintings. Words stimulate our imagination to create pictures in our minds. The most powerful proof I have of the power of imagination is seeing The Poseidon Adventure and being thoroughly annoyed that actors who played the parts weren’t as I “remembered them”! A friend insisted there had been a remake of this movie, but I saw the original (and as far as I know only one) and it didn’t match MY vision! As for magic, I touched my hand to a stone hand design on a wall, in the ruins of a castle once, your wishes were supposed to come true. I wished for the end of World War 2, and it did end shortly after my visit to the ruins. So in my mind it WAS magic, and I commanded it!


Words of guidance
by Joe Blodgett

Your final and excellent questions are the basis of this letter. What determines authority? Is it because of some sort of perceived success? Is it some sort of magic? How important is poetry? Do great ideas find the man or woman who’s looking for them? Too many of us are willing to accept the authority of those who are not yet fully formed in their own ways. As I see it your essential message is that we are our own best gurus and must be very careful who we choose for guidance. I agree that magic and poetry are part of what we allow into our lives in order to get an understanding. But there is another slant: Anything will do if we believe it enough.


by Lars Jensen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Poetry has a great deal to do with inspiration. It is often rhymes that make the hair stand up on the backs of our necks and induce glimpses of our capability, immortality, or wisdom we already have. In painting, so much of what we do is mysterious — a poem can take us by the hand.


by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada

Julia Norker hit it right on the head in her letter pointing out that “brands” apply to mass produced articles, not to art, that artists have a recognizable style, not a brand. Yet another example of the benefits we all reap from your letter and its ripple effect.


Taking the big plunge
by David Nunneley

I only discovered your twice-weekly letters recently and have since read many in the archives. They have been a timely inspiration. Though I have sublimated my artistic seeds from childhood and even majored in fine arts in college, I none the less opted to make my living in other ways. No complaints as I have owned and sold several successful businesses and I am currently VP of Corporate Development for a sizable Company — but, this is still not me! My art seeds have finally grown to the point that I have given my 6 months notice and I am taking the “big plunge” into full time art. While I have never been timid about taking gambles, you people that had the guts to declare yourselves full time artists early on have my admiration and respect.


New to acrylics
by Jolene Monheim, Kapaa, Kauai, USA

I just went and bought a bunch of acrylics. I know nothing about them… transparency vs. opaque. Or proper mixing. If you’re inclined, could you help me get started?

(RG note) I recommend that you don’t paint anything specific for at least a few days. I think what you ought to do is experiment with the varied capabilities of the medium — textures, transparencies, overpainting, etc. Acrylic is remarkably forgiving. You can do a lot of odd things and they can still be made to look good. Don’t be afraid of the acrylic medium (the milky stuff in a bottle). Use lots of it. And also gels and textured extenders if you have them. Lay down little swatches of color — both opaque and as you have been used to in watercolor. See the effects of glazing (laying on a transparent overcoat over dry paint.) Don’t be afraid to paint fast and loose with a big hairy brush. See the effects of impasto (thick and straight out of the tube or with the addition of modeling paste.) See the effects of scumbling (opaque pigment brushed onto dry paint, picked up by the peaks) Try opposite on the color wheel, bright red, white and black, for the sake of experimentation. If you’re inclined, try sticking stuff into it — sand, sawdust, doilies, fabric, etc. Keep looking at the surfaces you create and ask “what if?” What if I did this or that, scraped, sanded, scumbled, overpainted, pressed, rolled, etc.

All this is in aid of discovering surfaces that may interest you — so that when you do paint something specific you will be taking advantage of the medium.


No support
(Name withheld by request)

What do you do when your spouse will not support your wish to paint? He comes up with a thousand different things that I should be doing around the house and with the kids… he does not want me to be successful, he does not attend any shows I am part of… it is so hard. I have been married for 20 years, and I worked non-stop at careers for 22. We have lots of money and travel, have two wonderful children aged 11 and 12, and now I have this dilemma to deal with. Any suggestions would be welcome. I guess I might know the answer… I always thought… but never thought it would become reality. The last three years I have pursued yoga and the spiritual side of things… done a lot of reading and thinking. I guess he sees the things around the house with blinders on… he will not talk to me or be open with me.

(RG note) This is a serious one. Surprisingly, it’s quite common. When there is a shortage of money, which there seems not to be the case in your family, a wife can generally impress a husband by showing economic results. In many cases spouses sit up and gain respect when the cash flow arrives.

I might have answered your letter differently five years ago. Currently my conclusion is that raising a family effectively and without animosity is the practical and preferable route, while perhaps not the fully creative path. I know this sounds pretty wimpy, but this goes for many men too — keep the creativity side a little quiet and a little underground — show your trophies to your husband but attend to the domestic business at hand. He may feel threatened because he may be working at a job he does not always enjoy. Sometimes this situation clears up when the man gets another job or retires. A woman artist wrote recently to say that child rearing was the greatest creativity of all. Perhaps there are women (or men) artists who are reading this who have been in the same situation and who might like to advise you here. We will publish this advice in forthcoming responses.


Buddha advises on painting
by Bruce Martin

I was delighted when The Painter’s Keys book arrived wrapped in a reject print and with a hand written note inside. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and have gained some valuable insights and tools from it. Thank you. Sometime later I started subscribing to your twice-weekly letter with, I must admit, some curiosity as to what you might have to talk about with such frequency. Well, I came to greatly value your passion and commitment to the creative spirit and very much look forward to and appreciate the reflection and insights you send out into the ether of the cyber world from your studio and travels. A month ago you responded to a question “so what’s your angle.” Your response really moved me and I’ve been wanting to drop you a note to say your “spade work” is excellent. I look forward to your next letter.

Enclosed quotes from Kzuaki Tanahashi and Tensho, from David Schneider’s Essential Zen.

“When you paint spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots – just paint spring. To paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is to paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots. It is not yet painting spring.” (Dogen)

“When mountains and waters are painted, blue, green, and red paints are used, strange rocks and wondrous stones are used, the four jewels and the seven treasures are used. Rice-cakes are painted in the same manner. When a person is painted, the four great elements and five skandhas are used.

When a buddha is painted, not only a clay altar or lump of earth is used, but the thirty-two marks, a blade of grass, and the cultivation of wisdom for incalculable eons are used. As a Buddha has been painted on a single scroll in this way, all buddhas are painted buddhas, and all painted buddhas are actual buddhas. Examine a painted buddha, and examine a painted rice-cake. Which is the black stone tortoise, which is the iron staff? Which is from and which is mind? Pursue and investigate this in detail. When you penetrate this matter, the coming and going of birth and death is a painting. Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting.” (Dogen)


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 96 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Annie Bodelier, the Netherlands, who says, “Almost every time there is something in your letter that speaks to me.”


Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

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.