A small spirit


Dear Artist,

In The Dreamway, the wise bag-lady says, “Children in the dreamway are closely studied for the lessons they give.” Recently, on a school tour of my studio, an eight-year-old pointed out that I’d be better off if I cleaned up the place. Another from this group said that my habit of hanging on to old and useless brushes was “nice but dumb.” Children give us pause to think, and as these ones were going out my door I was actually thinking about cleaning up my act. It’s something about innocence and uncluttered honesty. Being an adult, it’s easy to miss stuff. Cut the kids a little leeway, I found, and they’ll swing from the curtains. And that’s good, too.

“The child is father of the man,” said William Wordsworth. This is perhaps because children have clearer values — they are as yet unsullied by disappointment and failure. Their education is more pure because most of it is still in front of them. Fyodor Dostoevski noted, “You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.” Artists, and those who would make an art of life, know this. “Paint like a child,” said Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “It takes a lifetime to become a child,” said Picasso.

Those small people going hand-in-hand up my driveway reminded me that all are not so lucky. Nkosi Johnson was not so lucky. He’s the diminutive child from South Africa who was stricken with AIDS while still inside his mother. She died when he was two. Nkosi was taken into the home of a white family. Gail Johnson, his adoptive mother, nurtured the boy and helped him to develop his talents and to find his voice. Nkosi began to speak eloquently in public and draw attention to the plight of children with his condition. Jim Wooten, a senior correspondent for ABC News, has written a book that ought to be read by everyone. We Are All the Same quotes Nkosi and tells his story. Against the backdrop of apartheid and its aftermath, this book is deeply moving and laced with a mother’s love and a boy’s heroism. Life, we learn, can be an unfinished work of art. Never, never, underestimate the importance and potential of a small one. Never underestimate the value of a small spirit.


Nkosi Johnson

Best regards,


PS: “Do all that you can, with all that you have, in the time that you have, in the place where you are.” (Nkosi Johnson)


Esoterica: Nkosi Johnson died in 2001. He was twelve. There are currently 30 million children in Africa who have AIDS. Most will die at an even younger age. In the country of South Africa alone there are 1700 new cases reported every day. It’s estimated that 20% of black women now have it. In Jim Wooten’s words, “The effort to help these people is a mere drop in an ocean.” The current president Thabo Mbeki insists that HIV doesn’t exist. Nkosi Johnson gave AIDS a human face. He had charm, intelligence, wisdom, and a small squeaky voice.


Make a small spirit big
by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada

I can relate to the studio clutter and the endless quantity of used brushes. I can relate also to the directness of the children, to the small ones. I am lucky, though, because I have never met a small one with a small spirit — they always have a great big one. It’s us, the big ones, who sometime have the small spirit. As we clean-up the studio, let’s open the windows and refresh our spirit with that of the little ones and make it big again!


Soul check
by Jane Hinrichs, Harold, SD, USA



Every one of these letters has caused me to pause and think and come away with a bit better understanding. This one about “it takes a lifetime to become a child” rings true in my life. My three year old adopted daughter from Bulgaria has such a strong will. There are times she infuriates me. When her outbursts make me frustrated I have realized that this is when I need to check my soul and get back to center. Very freeing.


Hang onto old brushes
by Nader Khaghani, Sunnyvale, CA, USA


“Blue Abstract”
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
by Nader Khaghani

The child’s comments about your old brushes is wrong. Old brushes are broken into work and have developed a mind of their own and respond to our mind beautifully. They must not be discarded. Should you decide to get rid of them send to me! I love old brushes. The kid was inexperienced and does not understand making art. Ignore his/her comment and hang on to old brushes like gold.



Love of kids
by Dana van Westrienen, Corrales, NM, USA


original painting
by Dana van Westrienen

I work as a counselor of elementary school age kids and your letter touched home — I love them for their way, I love them for the way they don’t dwell forever and can be with you right now. I paint to keep my soul happy — if I don’t I can’t do my work and can’t keep my perspective. I love how you take these letters to bed.



Keepers of public morality
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia


original painting
by Vasily Perov (1833-1882)

Sincere art brings us together, the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind. History shows that the artists and their spiritual colleagues — art dealers and art collectors were always better keepers of public culture and morality than any Ministries of Culture. We in Russia had a Union of Traveling Artists (in Russian Tovarischestvo Hudozhnikov-Peredvizhnikov) — from 1870 that had enlightened the minds of the great public masses. Those paintings are still important today. Here is one example — a picture of one of the prominent members of the Union of Traveling Artists — Vasily Perov (1833-1882). The painting, done in 1866, is called Troika. Thanks to politics we have millions of homeless children in the Russia today, but also millions of children were rescued during past years by enlightenment with this picture of human minds — thanks to Vasiliy Perov. This picture is exposing today in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.


Disaster room
by Laurel McBrine

This morning, while trying to get my two sons focused on getting ready for school, I discovered my four-year-old in his room constructing a Spiderman costume for himself with paper, scissors and a red marker. His room is always a disaster and he refuses to get rid of anything willingly. I think a lot of creative people tend to be like this and if managed (organized piles) it can work for us!


Our problem, too
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, ON, Canada


“Best Of Friends”
watercolour, 12 x 16 inches
by Mary Jane Mailloux

Thanks for bringing the world into focus. As we complain about the cost of brushes or the lack of time to paint or the inability to decide on blue or green, many are dying of hunger and disease. I hope the purchase of the book will help the struggle against aids in Africa. It is so easy to think that this is the problem of another nation, and not ours.

(RG note) Jim Wooten is contributing his profits from We Are All the Same to the war on AIDS.


Catastrophe looming
by Jan Zawadzki

You might be interested to know that Canada, recently and unofficially, sent medical observers to South Africa. They found that there is an imminent catastrophe looming with the future intellectual class currently in universities there — 70% of the male students are HIV positive. This has been affected by financed whores (specifically those who are carriers of aids) to provide free sex for students.


Cultural practices and traditions
by Jenny De Bruyn, UK

There is nothing that is quite as unforgivable as the suffering of a child. Unfortunately there are many children in many parts of the world living in appalling circumstances, and in South Africa there are many black, Asian, coloured and white children who live in terrible conditions. A larger percentage of black people, though, are HIV positive than any other race in South Africa. It is of great importance to provide treatment to those who have already contracted the disease, but it is of course even more important to stop the spread of the disease in the first place. Cultural practices and traditions play a large part in the continued spread of the disease among people in South Africa. Therein lies the challenge. It is not only a matter of educating people or even just raising awareness about the risks, but in some instances it’s a matter of implying the change or adjustment of long-held beliefs and practices which form part of a culture.


Some solutions to the epidemic
by Rita Putatunda, Poona, India


Rita Putatunda

Regarding the runaway AIDS epidemic in Africa — please do not put the whole blame on President Mbeki. It is evangelical Christianity, for one, that encourages ignorance, and gives people the least leeway to think for themselves, and discourages the use of condoms (because Christianity disapproves of birth control) that is largely to blame. As usual, religion, in its most fundamentalist form, is the root cause of the greatest human misery. And what about the trade and business regulations that are skewed towards the rich west and against third world countries? Pharmaceutical companies of the rich west will not allow cheaper drugs against all forms of illnesses, including AIDS and Malaria and TB (other ailments prevalent in pandemic proportions in poor countries) produced in India, for example, from being sold in poverty stricken areas of the world — don’t they have a share of the blame for the Nkosis of the world?

Equal trade and not aid will get rid of world poverty which is the actual root cause of medical scourges like AIDS. In fact, I am convinced that aid ultimately cripples more. Instead of giving fish, it is better to teach a person how to fish, is a true enough adage. But if you grab all the fish yourself with larger nets, then it’s pretty useless to even have the knowledge of catching fish, isn’t it? Perhaps Wooten should write about that. But maybe that would not make him a bestseller being feted by the media and people like you, Bob, who seem to like pretty, tearjerker stories. Which is the ultimate exploitation of the Nkosis of the world. Hypocrisy rules!


Must do something
by Jennifer Bangser

That little boy was absolutely an angel. I have ordered Wooten’s book. I told my son Adam that people and events like this can be as much a part of his education as school and play. Nkosi Johnson made my heart swell, my eyes brim, and my spirit yearn to DO SOMETHING.


AIDS worker Stephen Lewis
by Dennis and Velma

One of my personal heroes is Stephen Lewis who, for years now, has been working for AIDS victims in Africa. At one time he was a Canadian politician and after retiring was appointed Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations. He is now special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, appointed by the U.N. He has put himself totally on the line trying to get the “have” countries to contribute a meaningful amount of money so that treatment can be provided to the affected people. The United Church of Canada started the ‘Beads of Hope’ campaign and set a goal of raising $1,000,000.00 for AIDS work. Anyone who contributed $25.00 or more received a beaded broach that displays the AIDS symbol, made by people in Africa. They have surpassed their goal but are still accepting donations.

(RG note) The “Beads of Hope” campaign is accepting donations at www.united-church.ca/beads/


Prince Harry’s Fund
by Alison Dare, South London, UK

After reading the letter about Nkosi it made me cry and reminded me of the TV coverage of Prince Harry in Lesotho and his attempt to help the AIDS orphans. He has set up a fund for AIDS victims through the British Red Cross. I was so moved by the plight of these children that I immediately produced a painting for the purpose of selling it to donate half the profit to the fund. The painting is currently in an exhibition. I hope it sells. Now after reading this I want to be a lot more proactive in helping to raise funds for AIDS victims. I’m wondering if there are any artists out there who would be willing to help, maybe donate the proceeds of one painting or have a percentage of the price go to the charity.

(RG note) I’m with you, Alison. Today’s painting cheque will go to the Red Cross and the AIDS kids in Africa. Since my letter mentioning Nkosi three days ago there have been 18 artists who have let us know that they have voluntarily pledged part of their art proceeds to this project. Please keep informing us. It’s not necessary to state the donation amount to us. Also, it’s simpler for artists to get a tax receipt if you send it to an organization in your own country. For example the Red Cross AIDS program websites are: UK>, USA, Canada and Australia.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent are well run and channel a high percentage of the funds to areas of need. They are set up to do the work. Some recent figures from UNICEF give an idea of the problem: Every three seconds, around the world, a child dies from a preventable disease. In 2003, 10.6 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday. In Zimbabwe, 24.6% of the population is infected with HIV. I firmly believe that our art can make a difference.


African Humanists
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA



Discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS in Africa is a real problem. One of the ways that the word is spread in Africa is with colorful posters. Posters not only educate people about various topics such as HIV/AIDS but are colorful pieces of art that many put on their walls. (You may not see framed art in villages. You do find lots of posters, especially those that are distributed at no cost to the recipients such as by the African Humanists.) I became involved and donated my services for an art poster about nondiscrimination against those with HIV/AIDS. I learned a tremendous amount about regional clothing, customs, special problems, etc. while donating services to this all-volunteer organization.

(RG note) The Africa Humanists is one group that is working to educate people in Uganda and Kenya. This organization can be found at: AfricanHumanists.org


Beauty and love have gone
by Barney, UK

I was lucky enough to be Gra-anna’s partner and love in this world when she made her choice. I don’t know how to write this. One of the most beautiful strong loving sharing people on this planet is no longer with us. Gra-anna took her own life on Saturday night. She was the most amazing inspiration to me and I’ve no doubt to many others that had the joy to meet her and share in her beauty. She had the most amazing wonder and ecstasy for life. She taught me to see the beauty of life in the smallest thing, in a flower, in a tree in everything. For one who had seen so much darkness in her life, more than anyone should have to endure, she came through the other side with the most wondrous sense of life and love. I shall miss the way she made me feel about life. It is indeed a sad day when such beauty and love is gone from the world, but her inspiration lives on in everyone that she touched.

(RG note) Our sincere condolences to you Barney, and also to Ian and Anna her mother. Gra-anna contributed two poems to our site. They’re near the bottom of the letters The Wyeth dynasty and the Strokes of pleasure.








acrylic painting by 12-year-old
Stanislav Shpanin, Baku, Azerbaijan


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, 2004.




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.