Spirit and specificity


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from M.V. Mareva, near Chatterbox Falls at the head of Princess Louisa Inlet on Canada’s west coast. Surrounded by the glaciated walls of sky-scraping mountains, it’s a wonder that we’re getting satellite service in here. The rocky defiles are vertically lined with narrow rivulets and cascading waterfalls, some of them hundreds of metres in height. Today, Chatterbox is swollen and thundering from the melting snowcaps above, producing a mist that hangs out over the glass-smooth inlet like a shroud. At the base of the falls there’s a lush ecosystem of startling abundance. Through the glowing mist, lichen-covered rocks sparkle and shine. Below, at water’s edge, multiple rainbows arch above leaping salmon as in a fantasized mural. Salmonberry, bunchberry, wild rose, maidenhair fern and buttercups dance under the moist forest canopy. Hermit thrushes, unseen, defend their privacy, chickadees kibitz in the cedars, and sleek black slugs take their time along the mossy trails.


“Chatterbox Falls II” 2006
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 40 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

For realists as well as poets, this is the kind of environment that asks for decisions: There’s the overall wonder of the place, and then there’s the charm of the details. It’s a choice between a wide-angle and a close-up lens, between spirit and specificity.

What is the meaning of a place? Is it power, majesty, mystery, tranquility? Is it the light — or is it some unknowable thing? Why do we delight in unspoiled places? Is it possible that we simply impress ourselves with the effort we make to get to such places? Is it necessary to ask these sorts of questions?


“Through the Vapours Rising,
Watercourse, Yoho”
acrylic on canvas
by Robert Genn

While we artists may not have all the answers, we are in the business of looking for them. Out and about in the making of our art, we become a part of nature. “To be alone with nature is to be one with nature,” my late friend, the painter Peter Ewart, used to say. Then he would look wistfully at the sky and say, “I can’t complain.”

I’m thinking that being alive in this thundering cathedral is about as close to the divine spirit as I’m going to get. I’m thinking all of this is a cosmic privilege that some of us have been gracefully granted. And making this little item that I dare to call my art is the highest attempt at praise and prayer that slugs like me are likely to emit in this lifetime.


“Yoho Falls” 1916
oil painting
by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Best regards,


PS: “I don’t dig beneath the surface for things that don’t appear before my own eyes.” (John Singer Sargent)

Esoterica: Sargent claimed never to paint “scenes.” He painted what was in front of him, without asking for meaning or significance — the corner of a tent, the remains of a campfire, other painters painting. Anything that challenged his virtuosity or aroused his interest. Everything was there to be worked out, studied, scraped off, repainted, until he hit the desired effect. And just to make it look easy, he finished with a flourish. Over several days in 1916 he laboured on a large oil of Yoho Falls in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. He grumbled only about the incessant roar of the falls and the discomfort of snow falling on his bottom during morning ablutions.

This letter was originally published as “Spirit and specificity” on June 13, 2006.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The big artist… keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools.” (Thomas Eakins)




  1. This is why I’ve underlined endlessly Robert’s book, and why little papers stick out everywhere, marking brilliant after brilliant insight written with a lyricism and beauty found only in the greatest literary works. I wish I could have met him in person, because he lives in my heart.

    • Nancy Lund Paul on

      Hi Nancy Oppenheimer: could not resist replying to your comment…I belong to an Art Socieity and it is a wonderful club, well run and we do make some money to donate to places that are required for us, to enhance our club or to give to a wonderful art student some funds for furture art school, like “Emily Carr” Art College …. Anyhow Robert Genn had attended our art club many times to do a demo or a critique. He even critiqued one of my paintings. He was such a nice man and an excellent artist, plus he was a very clever person. I still feel so badly that he passed away as do many artists and his admirerers and those that collected his wonderful art work. I do have the books that he wrote, inclusing an old old one that someone found and gave to me. You were right Nancy he had written many lyrics and his books are wonderful. If you love him, I recommend that you check for one of his books….. regards, Nancy Lund Paul…

  2. Sarah, It is beautiful to see your father following in Sargent’s footsteps. If they could have met I imagine they would have had some interesting conversations about life and art. Yet when we listen closely they are still speaking to us through their paintings. What a timeless gift! David

  3. Interesting subject for that is what we do as artists, study a scene and determine just what to put on the paper or canvas. Just enough or not enough, whatever we decide it has to capture the audience and transport them into the world you’ve depicted with your paint!

  4. Chatterbox falls is my idea of heaven, too although I was only there for an hour or too. I can imagine being there for several days, and immersing myself in painting it as a way to connect with it more deeply.

  5. Jamuna Snitkin on

    the Chatter Box Falls painting absolutely took my breath away. What might happen in front of the painting itself!!

  6. Yes, great writing, as so many say, but Sara (and Robert, wherever you are), my god what paintings are included….beyond merely wonderful!!

  7. This post almost made me cry. Robert’s words and work were truly full of Spirit. He was meant to live a life that inspired others -to live their own life of exploration. I am so thankful his adventurous spirit also embraced people, as he obviously did. I am happy to think of his new venue of learning and becoming, and whatever work he is up to now. His influence is a long-lasting gift to myself and others.
    If I never see Chatterbox Falls, I have his creation by his poetic description, as well as this painting of it…simply beautiful!

  8. Diana Childs on

    I think, Ilse, that you are absolutely right. It is a higher source. It is the trees, the water, the mountains and the sheer beauty of what we do and what we can encounter that spurns us on as artists. I guess it’s all about beauty.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
11 x 14

Featured Artist

I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.