Signature moves


Dear Artist,

A small painting was brought into a gallery under a woman’s arm. “My ex bought it at an estate auction,” she said. “It’s mine now, but I’d like to sell.” The dealer had represented the artist for many years, so was familiar with his paintings. Formerly, they came to him direct from the easel. More recently, they arrived once in a while, like this one — by way of custodians ready to pass along the provenance. To this dealer, the artist’s larches and firs, sky flicks and French greys had been burned onto the back of his eyelids. And the calligraphic name, laid-in lower right like clockwork, was the signature move.


“Mamalilicoola, BC, Canada”
1979 oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

I was stalking pelicans along a soft, yellow shoreline when my phone buzzed — an email from the gallery. “We’re wondering what you think.” I opened  to an image of an oil sketch — an abandoned camp under an active sky, foreground saplings tentatively-formed and dusky totems retreating into the atmosphere. Bottom centre, scratched into the art board with a stylus, was the name “GENN” in italicized capitals. I dialled the phone. “Is there anything on the back?” I asked. “Nothing! So strange for Bob,” he replied. “It’s his,” I said. “Looks early — very early — like he was in his early twenties, but I can feel his signature moves.”

The painting told the story of a young artist beguiled by local themes –- coastal villages in weather, disappearing places, childhood islets, visions to be captured for a lifetime. It betrayed the conviction of an artist composing the language of wind and sea, of weather-worn yellow cedar and baby evergreens. Like a teenaged soprano lassoing her coloratura range, the painting testified to ease, to grit and to what would become the vibe and handling of no other artist. If a sapling is a future redwood, this one was signature Dad.


Robert Genn early undocumented oil painting on masonite panel, 12 x 16 inches



PS: “The style is the man himself.” (George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon)

“As we grow older, we realize just how limiting were our earlier conceptions. Art is something else. Art is fluid, transmutable, open-ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: With each inbox Genn, there’s the chance to know my dad through a painting that may pre-date me. His early expressions, trials and signatures (I’d seen this version before in other early sketches from his studio), the evolution of his gestures and devotion to his subjects are the clues to who he was to become.


“Village Pattern Kwakiutl”
oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
by Robert Genn

For the dealers who participate in the beginnings and afterlives of artists, mysterious outlier paintings are part of the magic. My friend and art dealer Stew Turcotte, regularly dropped in at Dad’s easel-side and, finally, his bedside, where they winked in mutual understanding of life’s bigger forests. Perhaps Dad’s sapling is in the window of Hambleton Galleries today, if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. “Art is the soul and spirit of each generation to be passed along to the next and beyond.” (Stewart Turcotte)

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“To bring about the celebration of some small piece of the world we live in or to take someone’s experience to a new level of awareness — that is a challenge I gratefully accept.” (Stewart Turcotte)



    • A beautiful testimony to a great artist who was also a caring and thoughtful man. His paintings evoke tremendous emotion and brought tears to my eyes. This letter touched me when I needed it the most. I have been going through a painters block for 4 months, trying to get my energy back and really feeling very sorry for myself and my afflictions.
      When I read this, it made me realize that Robert Genn never gave up. I will pick up my brushes again and think of him.
      Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring messsage.
      Sincerely and with thanks,
      Alma Pancir

  1. Thank you Sara. It has taken a lifetime to come into my own. I sometimes wonder if anyone could see what is to come in what I have done before. Were my saplings identifiable? I doubt it. Yet through all the exploring, the passion remains. Thank you for inspiring so many of us on the path…

  2. Hi Sara, Great to see your dad’s work from early years and that there are good art dealers around like Stewart that know the artist and their work. I believe it becomes even more important as we rely on computers and the internet so much. People like art are irreplaceable.


  3. I so love the letters you share and write. I struggle with adding my signature to my art…it seems to ruin the look to my eye so many times. I know what you mean by “signature” in this letter but also wonder…is this other artists struggle with too? I would like to have a single symbol sometimes to avoid the signing. Thank you for all your insights and sharing. Joan

    • Lis Pedersen on

      Joan, I too struggle with “signature” and like you I feel it takes away from my art. I have recently developed a small simple symbol that incorporates my initials
      . I have been told it looks very unobtrusive and adds a unique element. Lis

    • Linda M Merry on

      I agree completely. I developed a signature from my 3 initials that is compact. I often paint it on the back of my painting when the painting is small. I paid a friend of mine to put it on disc and make it scaleable. Could it be copied? Yeah. I’d like to be famous enough that someone would want to!

  4. How lovely to have your dad appear so unexpectedly through this painting. I came across a brief handwritten memo of my father’s the other day (he died recently). Though his writing reflected his advanced age, it nonetheless embodied everything I understood about him, much the same way as the characteristics so integral to your father’s work embody him. One’s signature mark, whether it’s made writing a list or applying paint on a canvas, carries in it the essence of the mark maker.

  5. “With each inbox Genn, there’s the chance to know my dad through a painting that may pre-date me”…past treasures possess a timeless beauty as the person evolves their Self….Sara, many thanks for sending your Dad’s beautiful beginnings and your/his touching words…another rich sentiment “they winked in mutual understanding of life’s bigger forests”…YES!

  6. As always Sara, your letters and words are like sweet jelly beans.
    Thank you for sharing. ..It is really an honour for me to be part of the Hambleton Gallery.

  7. Sara, you are an oracle, and as I sit here reading your letter I am in tears. You have brought you father to life again as you have investigated this small painting, and reminded us of the power that he had in brush, pen and spoken word. I was moved at how you developed this letter from the small inquiry that I had and how it turned into something so powerful. Your communication skills are stellar and your interests so varied that we all recognize how important it is that you carry on down this path. Thank you, peace and love.

  8. Hi Sara….all great comments that I can’t improve upon! Nor could anyone improve upon
    Bob’s work…..I have loved every one that I’ve been privileged to see.
    Love to all, Steph

    • Hi Sarah

      What moved me about this column was how like your father’s “voice” it was. I realized that it was you about 3/4 of the way through. I appreciate your keeping this site going. It is so helpful. I feel like a friend of the family.

      Beth Mahy, Dallas

    • Yes, so very moving and resonant with my own stage of life (approaching 90) and my passion as a painter. I began painting late in my life, 1990, and now I feel a special excitement about the work I’ll leave for my friends, family, and, especially, grandchildren to contemplate. Thank you, Sara and Robert.
      John (Jack) Martin

      • Gentlehawk James on

        John, you are also inspiring…I’m mid-70’s, also started late, next lifetime I’m starting earlier….went to your site, you’re good! Thanx, and “Create a good’un! Gentlehawk

  9. Virginia Urani on

    Sara, thank you again and again for all you share. I just copied the quote by your father to remind me to not be afraid when things start changing …it is the nature of the act of making art and part of the gift.

  10. Suzanne B HURST on

    Last year was a year of detachments for me, with selling the cottage ( my home base) and adopting condo living. I had to sort out my art collection and consider selling many pieces that I enjoyed for many years. In the collection was a small painting by Robert Genn that was a selling possibility UNTIL I wrote to Sara and signed up for Painters Keys. With your inspiring words….. from today and from the past, the love of nature and the care for animals that is so prevalent in every post, I realized how much this painting means to me. I will never sell it – The painting entitled ‘flooded forest’ is a reminder every day of you and your family and the respect that we should all have for life! Merci !

  11. Thank you for another wonderful letter, Sara. I don’t think there will ever be a painting of your father’s that you wouldn’t recognize. That is also a gift.

  12. I feel inspired by the sensitivity and appreciation of these comments. How fortunate to be privy to such a perceptive letter and the conversations it evokes.
    Robert so embodied the Rumi quote
    ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do’

  13. We just saw the Lawren Harris show in Boston. Robert’s paintings would have been very comfortable in that space. I mean that as a compliment to both. Good letter.

  14. Sara, your comments on your father’s painting touched me deeply. I hope when I’m gone my children will look at my paintings and express the warmth, love and memories of a time past as you do. I’m sure they will but it is so nice to read how well you stated your experience.

  15. I've **seen** the birther death threats toward Obama. Many of them probably haven't even been arrested yet since there are so many. Sites like Badfiction have documented the many threats from sites like resistnet/etc …Stop lying thru your stinkin fascist teeth ORYR!!!

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Featured Artist

Sheila is comfortable in nature. It’s evident in her art; and she hopes her paintings give others an opportunity to visit those places with her. The comfort transfers to her work, and acrylics allow her to start quickly with bold brush marks and layers of translucent colors; techniques that have developed over time and through exploration. Her work can be seen at Michelangelo Fine Art. She is a member of several local art groups including the Federation of Canadian Artist and The Alberta Society of Artists.


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