Stages of the quest


Dear Artist,

“Everyone has a quest,” a friend once said when visiting the studio. “An artist’s quest is in her work.” I was pulling a number 50 super soft piano bright along the edge of a soaked grey cloud, beguiled for the millionth time by the twinkling and mysterious possibilities of painting. “Without the quest, there’s no epiphany,” I replied. The pursuit of truth, innovation, beauty, surprise, connection — to communicate, propel, report, witness, comfort — these are the timeless commands of art. By renouncing known routes to engage the ache for the ever-truer, the artist begins:


James Hart, Haida master carver
Reconciliation Pole, UBC
Photo: UBC/Paul Joseph

Rise to the call.

Commit to the expedition.

Let go of what you already know how to do.

Be willing to build new skills.

Accept the process as your teacher.

Survive the tests.

Recognize your blossoming, personal systems.

Collect tools along the way.

Be open to making changes.

Master your techniques with practice.

Strengthen courage and quality.

Understand that it’s not a quitter’s journey.

Go forward.

Before sharing her expertise on the mechanics of creativity, American essayist Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a memoir about her search for meaning. She structured her story’s quest upon the idea that metaphysical forces are at work along a road of discovery, and we need only step onto the path and pay attention to the clues and teachers that await us. “You didn’t get the quest you wanted,” wrote Lev Grossman in The Magician King, “you got the one you could do.”


The Reconciliation Pole is raised facing the site of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre due to open in the 2017/2018 school year.



PS: “Not all those who wander are lost.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

Esoterica: This past weekend, Haida master carver James Hart and his team’s 17-metre Reconciliation Pole was raised by traditional method on the campus of the University of British Columbia. Carved from the bole of an 800-year-old red cedar on the northern coast of British Columbia, the pole honours the victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system which, beginning in the 19th Century, sought to erase the traditions, languages and culture of Canada’s First Nations people. The Reconciliation Pole is designed in three parts and tells the story of the time before, during and after the residential school system. It includes 60,000 copper nails, hammered into the pole by survivors, family members and schoolchildren, with each nail representing an indigenous child who died from abuse at school. The pole’s carvings also include children wearing uniforms and numbers, a family, animals, a Shaman, the residential schoolhouse that Hart’s grandfather attended, a whale and Thunderbird, a canoe and longboat and an eagle, each symbolizing a part of the history. When reflecting on the two-year project, James Hart said that as he uncovered details it became increasingly difficult emotionally, but upon completion he felt grateful that the work invited education, discussion and a point of connection. “I’ve got to pay attention to this in a truthful manner;” he said. “The way our children were treated in residential schools was a horrific time for us. We are still getting over that. But we have a good grip on what has taken place, how it affected us and what we are doing to heal ourselves and move forward. The hope is we move together with Canada and have some say on what is going on in this country.” Canada’s last residential school was closed in 1996.


Copper nails are hammered into the schoolhouse.

“You can’t, if you can’t feel it, if it never
Rises from the soul, and sways
The heart of every single hearer,
With deepest power, in simple ways.
You’ll sit forever, gluing things together,
Cooking up a stew from other’s scraps,
Blowing on a miserable fire,
Made from your heap of dying ash.
Let apes and children praise your art,
If their admiration’s to your taste,
But you’ll never speak from heart to heart,
Unless it rises up from your heart’s space.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

ubctotemcloseupDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Great art must be a living thing or it is not art at all.” (Bill Reid, master carver, 1920-1998)



  1. I thought that your father wrote this. Your voice is so like his this time. What an extraordinary piece. Thank you

  2. I listened to a CBC interview with James Hart leading up to the ceremony. I could feel the emotion of the day in his voice. Right up to just moments before they began moving the Reconciliation Pole into place , he continued to work on it with his tools….. and I couldn’t help but wonder how difficult it was for him to let it go out to the world ….. giving so much of his spirit and heart that has gone into this project ….

  3. Not to minimize the impact of the pole’s commemoration and awful treatment of those children and families, but the number who died came to around 6,000, not the 60,000 you suggest. Still a dreadful number…

    • Thank-you, Michèle.
      In Leah Sandal’s April 4th, 2017 interview with artist James Hart for Canadian Art Magazine, there has been a correction made at the bottom of the article regarding the number of copper nails hammered into the Reconciliation Pole, which we felt important to include:
      “The original article erroneously stated that some 6,000 copper nails were hammered into the Reconciliation Pole, with that number reflecting the government’s estimate of the number of children who died in Canada’s Indian residential schools. In fact, some 60,000 copper nails have been hammered into the Reconciliation Pole, with that number reflecting the number of residential-school dead estimated by other sources. We deeply regret the error.” (“A Conversation With The Artist Behind UBC’s Reconciliation Pole,” Canadian Art, April 6, 2017)
      Thank-you to all for your wonderful comments and insights.

  4. Thank you for your work and dedication.
    So often I am feeling like a lone eagle soaring, waiting for the passion and connection of creation to arise, to settle in mind and become. Your messages hit home. ALways i come away with hope, the feeling of art ‘family’ and purpose.

  5. I greatly admire the wisdom in your words, “Without the quest, there’s no epiphany.” Puts me in mind of the words of Thomas à Kempis – “Without the Way there is no going, without the Truth there is no knowing, without the Life there is no living.”
    Excellent letter, Sara. Please keep them coming.

  6. I, too, had to check if this was a past post, written by Robert, or penned by you, Sara. You definitely have your own voice, but his can be heard through you. That sounds like a contradiction, but you manage to make it possible. This was an excellent piece of writing.

  7. Sara, your Esoterica piece was amazing. Thank-you so much. What a wonderful piece. I forwarded it to many many of my friends and they will forward it to theirs. Not much more to be said. What a tragedy, what shame, what sorrow. Like other catastrophes, it will not soon be forgotten nor will it ever be fully reconciled. But for us in Canada to be conscious is a start. I just heard back from a cousin in tiny town Wolseley, Saskatchewan and that is what she and her class are discussing right now. She was grateful for your input. Again, thank-you for raising consciousness.


  8. Forever grateful for these posts. Like others I thought at first I was reading your dad’s words. Thank you for continuing to share your insights and his. You are both such gifts to the world and help me understand what it means to be an artist. Thank you.

  9. I can’t imagine how challenging–and meaningful–it must have been to begin co-writing The Painter’s Keys with your dad, dear Sara. I’ve been reading here for over a decade, loving the deep connection with another artist’s mind. Your dad took up all topics–from sqeezing paints to art dealers to the insecurities we artist’s entertain in our daily work. That, and he was a profound writer and thinker. What a tall order to step into those family shoes. But you haven’t, not exactly. You’ve found (are ever finding) your own shoes. Case in point this letter on the quest as key to all artist’s seeking sustained creativity. Brava!

  10. Thank you for sharing this powerful piece which quickly touched the emotional and mystical
    aspects of exploring visual arts.
    Sharing the ground where huge feet have trod before and draws us onwards to find within us what is there to share and sharpen without barriers of age, location or stage of accomplishment.
    I know I will re-read this piece many times in the coming days as I work through a feeling of belonging and need of reassurance. That steady work equals steady improvement and each step a closer one to a new articulation. Bless you.

  11. So comforting to finally see some progress on the pain that was caused by residential schools. We are all accepting and moving forward to acknowledge and heal these wounds from the past.

  12. Your words are ringing so very true with me and my family right now. The word “quest” caught my eye and as I read about James and the Reconciliation Post, my family quest is is also looming to a close. For the past twelve years my cousin and I have been looking for the remains of my uncle, a pilot with the American Volunteer Group in Burma. In 1941 he was killed in a training accident, buried in a local cemetery, never to return home. But the truth of the time prevailed, and we recently discovered his remains were moved in 1948 and placed in an “Unknown Soldier” grave in Hawaii. A year ago his remains were disinterred for DNA identification. In Jan., 2017 he was positively identified! Now, we are planning his homecoming much to our tears of disbelief after a long quest. We have learned so many things along the way and met many wonderful people. Long lost family has been located because of the needed DNA, and now they are all coming to his funeral. John Dean Armstrong, AVG, Flying Tiger will be buried in Kansas in June. Thank you Sara for your reminders of the spirit of the quest…in art as in life, learning the truth of the past gives hope for the future.

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Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.


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