The story in art

Dear Artist, At the end of the remarkable film, Life of Pi, we are given the choice of two stories. One story is believable and quite predictable, the other implausible and wonderful. It’s easy to choose the wonderful, implausible version. We need good stories. “And so it is with God,” says Pi. When story gets into a work of art, the work is enriched. Too much story — well, that’s another matter. Here are three ways of looking at story in art — illustrating them, with notes, at the bottom of this letter. Story within the art: We all know of classical paintings loaded with allegory and historical events. Early European painting is largely a depiction of the Christian story and its various characters. There is still a genre here. Take a look at the 20th century painting by Arnold Friberg, Alma Baptizing at The Waters of Mormon. Taken from the story in Mosia 18, Book of Mormon, Alma was a prophet who baptized 204 believers in one day at either a lake in Guatemala or at a spot on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Not sure which. Back-story: One can’t look at the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh without replaying the story we all know — “How you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set them free. They did not listen, they did not know how,” etc. (Don McLean) Then there are the fights with Gauguin, the magnificent letters to his brother, Theo, the ear-off event, the asylum at St. Remy, the field of crows, the stack of paintings nobody wanted, the early death. “Perhaps they’ll listen now.” (ibid.) You bet they do. Non-story: In the struggle to find new meaning in the twentieth century, painters began to make paintings that told no story. Mark Rothko insisted his paintings meant nothing. Others, like Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, felt the main stuff was process and action. For these artists, telling a story would have trivialized the art. Peggy Guggenheim swooned. No story, or a story so obscure it might never be fathomed, was the best story of all. Best regards, Robert PS: “Stories — individual stories, family stories, national stories–are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.” (Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi) Esoterica: The next time you’re painting, ask yourself how much story plays a part in your work. Are you trying to speak, sing, inform, protest, depress, honour, lead, monumentalize, mystify, convert, entertain, tease, uplift, amuse, eulogize or cause people to think? Or is your story a tribute to your process and your way of working — mannerisms that softly or harshly speak your name to yourself and others? Knowing your work’s story (or non-story) helps define not only your work, but you. Knowing your story is like finding yourself in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Seriously, we’re all in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. “If you’ve heard this story before,” said Groucho Marx, “don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.”   Story time

Alma Baptizing at the Waters of Mormon. This magnificent painting by the American Arnold Friberg (1913-2010) was a commission for the LDS church. Variously attributed to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and the eastern shores of Lake Erie, the Mormons have never actually decided where this happened. Could be Yosemite except for the palms.


Another beauty by Arnold Friberg, perhaps his most famous. The Prayer at Valley Forge. Friberg was noted for his religious and patriotic paintings. According to historical sources there is no evidence that Washington prayed before the battle of Valley Forge.


Vincent Van Gogh. (1853-1890) The photo was taken when Vincent was 18 and working for Goupil & Cie gallery in The Hague. The self-portrait from the Musee d’Orsay was painted in 1889. Likeness?


The Starry Night. (1889) ‘I have a tremendous need for, shall I say the word -– for religion –- so I go outside at night to paint the stars.’ Vincent painted it indoors, during the day.


‘Untitled’ Clyfford Still (1904-1980) American Expressionist. In keeping with the artist’s wishes, the Still Museum in Denver Colorado, was not to show anyone else’s work, not loan or sell anything, and have no auditorium or restaurant.


‘Number 8’ (1949) Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) Abstract expressionist popularly known for ‘drip painting.’ ‘When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.’ Pollock died in an alcohol related car accident.

                Distinction between ‘zoe’ & ‘bios’ by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA  

“The Distraction of Inspiration”
pastel painting, 31 x 23 inches
by Mary Aslin

In Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, (which I learned about from you in the Twice-Weekly Letters) divides storytellers from non-storytellers by the words zoe and bios. She says that the choreographer George Balanchine was pure zoe: his ballets were about life force alone, with a less definable structure. Another choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was exactly the opposite: his dances were about the story, pure bios. She makes this distinction in her book to help artists understand how they are wired, some wired more to life-force ( zoe ) and others more to telling a story ( bios ), or, if you like both, understand you are going to have your creative impulses warring with each other.   There are 3 comments for Distinction between ‘zoe’ & ‘bios’ by Mary Aslin
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Mar 18, 2013

why warring? a story painting or work without life force is just a cute (or horrid) decoration. I like to combine the two.

From: Marianne Hornbuckle, Santa Fe, NM — Mar 19, 2013
From: Mary Aslin — Mar 19, 2013
  Transformational Presence Global Summit
(The Netherlands)
by Vanessa Jane Smith, Spain  

Vanessa Smith

My work as an artist/coach was taken to new heights as I was challenged to make visible the invisible at this conference. The story of energy! Usually I blend words with images, but in this encounter of this incredible creative collective of coaches, I found my co-creating on totally new levels. In this picture I feel in such flow as I experienced an exercise with participants first and then attempted to capture the essence of a huge story, of the workings and power of the mandala… words got left behind as a universe appeared and I found myself painting everything and one thing all at once… with just a tiny sentence slipped in there… I couldn’t resist!   A lifetime of stories by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA  

“Marjorie’s Suitcase”
oil painting
by Eleanor Blair

After graduating from an art school in New York City in 1969, I had a real aversion to art with a story. Realism was dismissed as ‘facile’ and ‘illustrative’ and when I moved to Florida and started painting landscapes, I felt a little bit guilty telling even this one minimal and repetitive story: “I looked, and here is what I saw…” Now, thousands of paintings later, I read my own life story in my work, places I’ve been, objects that have had meaning for me. What I really enjoy, though, are the stories that other people discover in my paintings, that I didn’t even know were there. There are 3 comments for A lifetime of stories by Eleanor Blair
From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — Mar 18, 2013

Eleanor Blair, I was in art school at that time, too, and remember well the prevailing air of condescension toward representational art, as opposed to abstracts. Your painting, “Marjorie’s Suitcase” tells a story, but it also fuels the viewer’s imagination, and I expect that anyone would relate to it. I love it!

From: Susan Holland — Mar 18, 2013

Wonderful suitcase!!! Great painting! Yes!!!

From: Janice Moser — Mar 18, 2013

I love this painting.i feel the anticipation of the holiday,they are a young couple ,possibly on thier honeymoon.She is sweet and innocent and he feels worldly and protective. Every viewer will find their own story in this beautiful piece.

  Paintings take on new lives by Leslie Anderson, Sedgwick and Portland, ME, USA  

“Hay Day Teeny”
original painting
by Leslie Anderson

Following a winter of life drawing, people suddenly started popping into my summer landscapes. The figures were always mysterious, and seemed to evoke a story — but what? The wonderful fine-arts journal Still Point Arts Quarterly published a portfolio of these paintings, and I started receiving via email short stories triggered by the paintings from a writer in Australia. “How cool is that?” I thought, and wondered, why not a book of short stories by Maine writers, since I am a Maine painter. So the equally wonderful Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance ran a short-story contest and more than 50 Maine scribblers responded. The winning stories will appear alongside the paintings in a book published by Shanti Arts Publishing (publisher of the Still Point Quarterly). The images are still up on Shanti’s web site. It gives me goose-bumps to think that these little paintings will have entirely new lives off the canvas, and will tell stories I never intended. There is 1 comment for Paintings take on new lives by Leslie Anderson
From: Eleanor Blair — Mar 18, 2013

What a wonderful idea!

  Narrative art doesn’t sell? by Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC, Canada  

“Half-Broke Horses”
oil painting, 16 x 24 inches
by Mike Jorden

I find the idea of story in art irresistible — many of the painters whose work I have admired over the years,have been illustrators or storytellers. Arnold Friberg is one of them, and I am glad you had something good to say about his art, a bit soppy perhaps but beautifully executed. The first gallery I approached after taking up art seriously declined my work saying, “Narrative art never sells well.” I have concluded this may be true for that gallery but it will not change my direction.   There is 1 comment for Narrative art doesn’t sell? by Mike Jorden
From: Janet M — Apr 21, 2013

I love the feeling of motion in this painting, it’s fabulous!

  Lemonade out of lemons by Joyce Washor, Riverdale, NY, USA  

“Bubble glass and flowers”
oil painting
by Joyce Washor

I’m not always sure whether to include “my story” in my artist statement, mostly because I don’t want to start off with a negative, so this is an interesting article to think about. So here’s my story: When I was going through a midlife crisis I left my textile career and decided to paint full time. Then I got hit with a rotator cuff injury and couldn’t lift my painting arm. Through a serendipitous event I discovered painting small. Now my arm is healed and I’m in love with small paintings. I even wrote a book, Big Art, Small Canvas, and use the paintings in two iBooks, Watercolor Harmony and Oil Painting Harmony.) Lemonade out of lemons! There are 2 comments for Lemonade out of lemons by Joyce Washor
From: Janet — Mar 18, 2013

Gorgeous painting … big or small!

From: Janice moser — Mar 20, 2013

It sounds like a real success story to me. I paint very large and find it incredible challenge to translate that feeling on to a small canvas. sometimes life circumstances dictate our path. good for you finding a new way around a difficult situation. your painting is beautiful, and so I think the name Big art small Canvas is perfect.

  A time of no new stories by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

oil painting
by Peter Brown

All pictorial art contains metaphorical content. This is particularly easy to see in allegorical painting, but also in most any naturalistic rendering of identifiable objects, places, or people. A painting of a red barn in a sun draped pasture has symbolic metaphorical impact, as does a vase of roses, or a lone buffalo at sunset. We can call this metaphorical content a “story,” but should we not then critique the quality of that story as told? Is the story told in a surprising way or with a peculiar elegance? Is it a story that we have never seen before, or is it a rather tired theme depicted in a conventional way? Great metaphors, whether traditional or fresh, can lead to memorable art, a story well told. The “Back-story” you mention is biographical data about an artist’s life and times, which at best can add poignant footnotes to one’s experience and understanding of a painting, but does really not add to or subtract from the art itself. If this were so, every artist, past or present, who lived a dramatic or tragic life would be a great artist. Biography makes for great press releases, great novels and terrific narratives, but does not really add one brushstroke to that painting hanging on the wall. The Abstract Expressionists, the “Non-story” grouping you mention, still packed their work with metaphorical significance. Mark Rothko may have said his work meant nothing, but his work still says something. What the Abstract Expressionists removed from their art was narrative, the conventional form of storytelling. Here is a biographical footnote that may shed some light on Abstract Expressionists. These artists had lived through the great horror of World War II, and into the Cold War. It was a time when a single plane with a single bomb could wipe out millions of lives, and a time when lots of these bombs could destroy the human species. It was a time when it seemed almost possible that there would be no more stories. They had no use for red barns or vases of flowers. Instead, they gave us images that depicted a world without a narrative, and that is still quite a story. There are 2 comments for A time of no new stories by Peter Brown
From: lcstudio — Mar 20, 2013

yes it is and it speaks to many

From: Anonymous — Mar 22, 2013

Well said Peter.

  The evolution of the story by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

“Monkey rides a spotted pony”
oil painting
by Robin Shillcock

Life of Pi was a stunning movie, at times even moving. In contrast, Arnold Friberg’s paintings are brimming with a one-dimensional kind of heroism that reminds of the Nickelodeon movies from the first decades of the 20th century. Those movies have far more interest, because they were the foundation on which the billion-dollar movie industry was built, while Friberg’s paintings are simply extremely boring, unimaginative depictions of a lot of nonsense. I have always been fascinated by the illusionistic possibilities of art. Therefore, work by Jack the Dripper and other abstract expressionists; in fact almost all abstract tendencies in art also had me shrugging and moving on to something more interesting. I guess you can categorize artists in two distinct groups: on the one hand those that are mainly interested and inspired by their own metabolism and evacuation system, and on the other hand those artists who gaze in wonder at the world around them. In abstraction, as I see it, there’s no story, although some would claim that you look at the blobs and slashes and make up your own story. But then I find clouds more inspiring, or leak marks on an old ceiling in a Saint John’s backpacker’s hostel. In the second category there’s often a story; it could be that of impressionism, of trying to grasp the way the world appears in paint, or the story of imagination, where the artist tries to show us a sliver of her or his life, present or past. I suppose I tend to swerve from one to the other, especially when trying to recreate snippets of my childhood and adolescence in India, Australia, Guatemala and Mexico, moments that still stir up the dust in my memory. I see my paintings as small stories that make up the still “untold story” of my life; in it I have shared grand moments with birds and animals, and with my work I attempt to share with others what inspired me. I find a fascinating depth of feeling in the work of Andrew Wyeth, whose work often deals with the stories of his life, encounters that caught him off edge, sometimes painful recreations of changing, passing, sometimes simply a celebration of the beauty of life in its best moments. The ideologies of art in much of the 20th century did their best to push out representational art, but like Lenin and Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the Red Khmer, their moment of power came and abated, making room for the beautiful and enduring tradition of art as it has inspired artists and people for at least a thousand years. There is 1 comment for The evolution of the story by Robin Shillcock
From: Janet Summers Greece — Mar 19, 2013

Bravo! and it will continue…for as long as this world keeps turning.

  You can run, but you can’t hide by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA  

“Sleep Reading”
by Warren Criswell

Yes, we are story animals. There’s a story in every image we paint, even though we don’t always know what the story is or even that there is one. About 12 years ago, after years of doing narrative paintings, I tried to swear off. I had seen an exhibition of Chardin’s still lifes in New York, and was reading Husserl’s writings on phenomenology and was sick of storytelling. I decided to paint nothing but existential paintings, translating the “things themselves” into paint! The still lifes I painted were just things that ambushed me around the house, usually in my bathroom or in the kitchen. There was no theme, just the abstract, chance arrangement of inanimate objects defined by light and shadow. I was inspired by the sheer physical presence of these objects, not by what they were or what they signified, and by the challenge of translating that presence into paint. But when I showed these things, people said they were my most intimate self-portraits! You can run but you can’t hide. Also, most importantly, viewers bring their own stories to our images. Recently, my wife shot a photo of me with her phone while I was reading in bed — or thought I was but was actually asleep — in order to prove to me that I actually did go to sleep while reading, a thing I always denied. But something about the composition and lighting of the picture appealed to me, so I did a painting and a linocut based on it. I called it “Sleep Reading.” My gallery later relayed to me the story of one of the people who bought the print. This guy had once gone to bed with a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He was shocked to find that when he woke up the next morning he had read only a few pages, because he had dreamed the entire story! (Or, his own version of it). So he had to have this print, since it perfectly illustrated his own experience. This is why I don’t like to “explain” my paintings. I’m always afraid my own story will rob the viewer of his or hers and take away whatever power the work might have had for them. Kind of like Aron Copeland explaining that he had no idea that Appalachian Spring, the composition he wrote for Martha Graham, would have anything to do with Appalachia. There are 3 comments for You can run, but you can’t hide by Warren Criswell
From: Michael McDevitt — Mar 18, 2013

Well written prose like yours ambushes me occasionally…

From: Darrell Baschak — Mar 19, 2013

Your linocut calls Dore to mind, less the earbuds! Great piece and wonderful words Warren.

From: Warren Criswell — Mar 19, 2013

  Sales go up by leaving out the stories by Ken Jackson, London, ON, Canada  

“At The Studio Window”
fine art print
by Ken Jackson

As a lifetime painter who has made a living from art, in the beginning the story I attached to a work was foremost. After all, it was all about the emotional and artistic steps that lead to the final image in the studio. Galleries were just not working out, and 50 % I found were dishonest, and I started to look to the shows all over Ontario. So I started doing about 14 shows per year, some lasting up to 14 days. Sales were good. Then I had a conversation with a good friend who had a problem about the stories that I had on the walls next to my work. Now I painted 4 paintings, personally attached to her. She attacked my need to present my story, over the potential client’s story viewing my work. My initial response was all about ego. After a few days of thinking about this idea, I went into my next show without the stories next to the work. My sales went up by 15%. I am not brain dead, so that set one of the many changes I have made dealing directly with the public. I have found out that my personal stories attached to the image are important to a few, but not all. Their personal story is what is important to them, and if my story gets in the way of their own story or memory attached to the image, they disconnect with the painting. If you want sales, then respect the client’s interpretation of your painting. Your story of this wonderful painting is secondary and will be accepted by the buyer, but only after they have convinced themselves of their own personal attachment to your work. There are 4 comments for Sales go up by leaving out the stories by Ken Jackson
From: Mike Barr — Mar 18, 2013

Ken makes a very good point here and experience will tell the truth of it. A few years back I had a painting in a gallery that depicted a young girl with a sun hat on walking down a beach path. The beach path was one I photographed years before interstate and the girl was from a beach closer to where I live. The painting was quaint. Amazingly I was in the gallery when the work was purchased. The new owners had a chat to me with the story that they had lost their little girl a few years ago and she often walked on the path that I had painted. It had an attachment to them that wouldn’t have even dreamed about. The viewers vision of a work is all important despite our own intent. Let works speak for themselves.

From: Susan Holland — Mar 18, 2013

Yes, Mike Barr, and yes, Ken Jackson. Twice I’ve had paintings sell to people who say “this looks so much like so-and-so” I have to buy it. Don’t dare tell them it was only the guy at the candy store!

From: Jim Oberst — Mar 19, 2013

These comments leave me in a quandary. I’ve always included a “story” or descriptive details (when, where, what) along with my paintings that I post online, because often when I talk with potential clients they enjoy hearing about the painting. Also, I need to include keywords or tags, which are often place-related, so my artwork will be found by internet searchers. But after reading Ken’s comment, I certainly see the other side – that the client has a story to see in my paintings. What to do… ?

From: Mike Barr — Mar 19, 2013

Jim, I do as you do with online work, but I think general comments are fine. The real problem can be when we attached emotive back stories to works and personal attachments. One of the first questions people ask about a painting is “where’s that?” so I reckon it always good to answer that one! Your marine work is great by the way.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The story in art

From: Marilyn Harding — Mar 14, 2013
From: Faith — Mar 15, 2013

Rome is indeed marvellous, but “any felt truth” has to include the shadows i.e. knowledge that much of the beauty and elegance of historical art owes its existence to evil. Not just the allegories in the paintings, but the faces of high and mighty who – anxious to be redeemed when the time came – paid large sums of money to be depicted. The church was a political power, dispensing judgment and punishment in the glory days of Rome, and redemption if you paid enough for it. The common folk feared reprisals if they didn’t conform. There was a continuous power struggle. All that is in those paintings that now hang there so elegantly, not to mention the objets d’art of gold, silver and precious stones come by through theft, murder etc.. The subject matter was certainly appropriate for decorating religious building – after all, the nabobs financed it all, so why shouldn’t they be the heroes and heroines (and their enemies and the humble the evil characters?)? It is simply amazing how much wealth and beauty the “Church of Rome” amassed through the centuries and of course it is wonderful to look at it. We can be thankful that the power and greed of the religious and poitical establishments left such a spectacular legacy. But a dark shadow hangs over the past. The art and architecture celebrates the rich and powerful who had blood on their hands. Most Italians, though proud of their heritage, have no time for sheer wonderment. They leave the sentimentality to the tourists. To resonate with the letter today requires a leap of faith… Everyone loves a good story, but is not usually happy if the last pages of their book have been ripped out and the end remains a mystery. If a modern painting is not explicit about what it is about, and the title gives no clues, then we can make a story up. We do that all the time, not just when looking at paintings. But I think it’s part of the sport of modern painting, just as looking at the faces on those religious works demands some kind of response. Real or abstract, most painting requires the cooperation of the viewer. Until it is brought to life by being appreciated (or condemned) it is merely colours and shapes/objects on a prepared surface). Those splodges on modern paintings might just be splodges, accidental sweeps of the brush or some other tool, or deliberate constructions, protests, statements etc.. If we are not told, we find our own solutions. I’m reminded of a friend who painted the Pyramids of Gizeh from a photo (she had never been to Egypt). In the photo there was an empty space of sky between the sphinx and the next pyramid. That really bothered my friend so she simply painted another pyramid to fill in the space. That was fine till a friend looked at it who had been to Gizeh. “What’s that pyramid doing there?” she wanted to know. “There is no pyramid on that spot.” “Well, there should be”, was my friend’s reaction. I can’t look at that painting without thinking of that story….

From: Lalitha — Mar 15, 2013

I am a self taught artist, never been to a single teacher (my biggest regret) due to my circumstances and all I have learnt is through reading and more reading.I am always drawn towards telling a story through my art. Most of my works sold only because the buyer related to the story conveyed and not because they were great works. Recently I was turned down by a local gallery because my work lacked technique. The same work got sold in a private exhibition because the buyer appreciated the story and did not know about any techniques that made the art. Honestly, I feel that by concentrating on the story aspect I am not able to learn more of techniques, I am almost trivializing my art. The process is as important as the story, balancing of both is the need of the hour for me, thank you for this post.

From: Darla — Mar 15, 2013

Story is an aspect of painting or photography, just like line or value. If some art movements choose to minimize it, well, so be it. It’s up to the artist to choose whether she will deliberately put in story elements, and a lot depends on the market you are trying to reach. Too much story, every single element depicted, can make a painting trite or boring-the story becomes more important than the painting. One exception to this is illustration, because the picture is meant to be secondary to the story and enhance it. I like to include some story elements, and leave it up to the viewer to “fill in the blanks”. The viewer’s imagination is a very powerful thing, and by leaving room for that, you can increase the impact of your painting.

From: Ron Unruh — Mar 15, 2013

Robert, what a provocative assessment of the evolution of painting philosophy and motivation. Thank you. I instinctively see story in my subjects and in fact, even though by realist renderings are obvious, I write a story synopsis that expresses what I as the artist have seen, and I place that on the back of a finished painting.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Mar 15, 2013

This is a wonderful topic and deserves more than one letter. I think that if there is no story, people will make one up. I grew up as an involuntarily transient, and when I returned to a place, I learned all sorts of stories about why I left, none true. People are desperate for explanations and will provide them if none are given. There is plenty of story in Rothko’s work, even if there are no obvious protagonists. Lately I have been painting “relationships” using small Native American Sculptures. Friends are responding to them with a sense of recognition.

From: jeanette m.s. zaimes, m.d. — Mar 15, 2013

I was very taken with your letter as it pushed me to answer the questions I have not been able to. What is the story I am trying to tell? I’m fascinated by color and light and shadows. Nature puts it all in front of us. As a psychiatrist I am saying, ‘really look at what truth (light) reveals’, as a Christian I am saying, ‘God created nature, all of it, and in the allegory of light and shadows and colors lies all of good and evil and in between. And the Light reveals all. As an artist I am saying that the play of light through scenes is fascinating in what it reveals, the joy of intense light and color, and what it doesn’t reveal…that which we must struggle to come to terms with artistically, technically and emotionally. Thank you for your very stimulating article. You asked the question I couldn’t form and the answers rushed at me as if awaiting only their release. Jeanie Zaimes

From: Jim Carpenter — Mar 15, 2013

To be able to look at a piece of art and not make up a story about it is pretty challenging. Even a white canvas, unpainted, will have me telling a story of some kind about “the painting that isn’t.” I find art more engaging if it leaves some room for the viewer to be able to participate in the telling of their own story. I want my paintings to invite story in the viewer rather than dictate story to them. It makes finding a title for a painting tough at times!

From: Pat P. — Mar 15, 2013

Stories are very important to me in my painting practice, not illustrating already existing stories, but evolving paintings that enable viewers to provide their own stories. For me, it works best to begin making marks on the canvas, then see what those initial marks remind me of; a dream, a memory, some action or interaction between people.

From: Mary Aslin — Mar 15, 2013
From: Carol Reynolds — Mar 15, 2013

In my landscape and seascape paintings the story is primarily simply the beauty found in creation. If I add people and/or animals, then more of a story may be told. In several of my still life paintings, I deliberately try to tell a story with various props representing and symbolizing a “hidden” or not so hidden meaning. At times I might explain the symbolism; other times I let the viewers use their imagination to grasp the story represented in my work. “Less is more” is usually the best procedure when it comes to endeavoring to explain your painting; the viewer and collector needs to find meaning in your work to satisfy his own soul and to speak to him personally.

From: Tatjana M-P — Mar 15, 2013

I like Jim’s post. I agree that every canvas is a story. Even the non-story examples that Bob gave, have a story behind them consisting of the artist’s life experiences, and of stories triggered in the viewers minds. I am happiest with many “paintings that aren’t” waiting for their turn on the easel.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Mar 15, 2013

Before technology, stories were told or drawn, sculpted or crafted. We have so many story telling vehicles now. Is art now liberated or orphaned? Is it a child or master? Can we make it be what we want, or will it determine what it will become? Nobody can mess with a Bengal Tiger so that’s what we all want to be on a castaway raft. But what about all the zebras and orangutans of the world, and not mention the meerkats?

From: Fred Affleck — Mar 15, 2013

One cannot neglect to mention the part story paintings played in the proliferation of Christianity during the Middle Ages and beyond. For the ignorant and illiterate, the paintings were perhaps the only paintings they saw, and were indeed wonderful and miraculous. While they were not often able to understand the Latin texts or sermons, they were awestruck and learned visually the stories that turned them into believers.

From: Richard Doan — Mar 15, 2013
From: John DeCuir — Mar 15, 2013
From: Susan Marx — Mar 15, 2013
From: Marie — Mar 15, 2013

A new pope who is humble, takes the bus, loves the poor, doesn’t bother with all the robes and riches–is a good story, but it doesn’t go far in women’s rights and the potential of women within the organization, can’t fix the internal corruption, who doesn’t speak out vigorously during his own country’s dirty war, gives little inclusion to gays and lesbians, and is part of the universal coverup of child abuse is from nowhere. We’ll see. “A pope is a man whose ring is kissed and whose feet are tied.”

From: John Fitzsimmons — Mar 15, 2013

Robert: I once heard that the definition of poetry is “that which can not be translated”. Seems to me that is a good goal for any art. In other words the story can not be completed in another form.

From: Faith — Mar 15, 2013

Marie: I am a humanist and I’m bound to correct you on one or two points. Before I do so I should point out that a good story is a good story wherever it occurs and whatever evil or good it portraits (start with fairytales if you want a taste of good conquering evil!).Firstly, it is impossible to judge what this Bishop of Rome will do with his pontificate on the basis of demonstrative humility on his first day in the position. It’s how he has comported himself all his working life and there is no reason to think he is putting on an act (if he is, he chould be on the big screen). Secondly, his choices so far have been aimed against the demonstration of wealth and vanity that are evidently rife among the high and mighty in the RC church and are financed by believers of all stations in life. this is not to say that all those cardinals wanted to wear those silly red hats and tailor-made robes, with rings on their fingers (and bells on their toes?)but they do! Thirdly, no one person can fix evil or injustice, but it is possible for one person to set an example especially within an institution that claims to have a membership of every 8th person on this globe. Where there’s life, there’s hope. I only have to read about this new pope rejecting the customary red shoes (Gucci perhaps?) and wearing his own black ones for that first inaugural ceremony to realise how meaningless, superficial traditions have achieved importance, at least in the Vatican. There is a very good adage that fits many situations: If you don’t try, you have already failed. In a public position such as the pope has taken on, that will certainly be part of his way of doing things. We do not know if he can change things for the better. As long as there people willing to give power or leave it to despots and criminals, or to profit from it, anyone trying to preach good by demonstratively rejecting evil – which so often emanates from vanity, the ability to manipulate (charm?) people and a feeling of omnipotence (and you don’t have to be pope to do that) should be given a chance and not rejected out of hand. It might be worth remembering that at least 25% of the abuse of children and women (and occasionally men) takes place in the home. It is also true that people in responsible positions (including bishops, priests, school directors, hospital staff and even parents) have historically turned a blind eye to abuse and still continue to do so.

From: Robert Sesco — Mar 16, 2013

It is likely that I have many miles to put on my brushes before I can call myself an ‘artist’, because unlike so many I do not ask myself questions prior to beginning a work. I do not ask, “What would you like to communicate today?”, or “What story would you like to tell today?”, or “What say we create a painting ‘without’ a story today?”, or “Do I have anything relevant to SAY today?” So many artists with whom I’m familiar profess to ‘communicate’ with others, but I confess to a gnawing feeling of inadequacy, a cavity inside me where meaningful intent does not presently live. I sometimes wish I had a social agenda which guided my work to chide or expose or guide; perhaps an innate madness would be better to guide my hand than the contentment which causes me to mix my paints and to make my ‘happy accidents’, a phrase thoughtfully used by a teaching artist to allay the fears and resistances of his students. Perhaps I need to work several sets of brushes down to stiff nubs before it is revealed to me the conversation I am supposed to be having. One artist won’t hang his own paintings in his own home because he considers his art a communication with others and he doesn’t like talking to himself! I am still in love with many of my paintings, and I enjoy their short time within my home. Some I paint to live here permanently. If I am speaking with my paintings, I am deaf to what they are saying. I love the stories of Rockwell. I applaud the newly discovered dismissal of meaning Rothko declared. Recently I have been exposed to concepts relating to the origins of cognition, and I believe that art is as wonderful in its own way without the abstraction of linquistics as our enjoyment and contentment while staring into a campfire or peering deeply into the Milky Way.

From: Robert Sesco — Mar 16, 2013

I also meant to comment on how glad I am to find others who view some of our generally recognized ‘greatest’ works of mankind with the balance of the knowledge of what toll that work entailed. I can rarely view the ‘grandeur’ of the antebellum mansions of the American South without saying to myself, “ANYone could have done this with the forced labor of slavery.” The pyramids have stood for centuries as one of several Manmade Wonders of the World, and yet I do not think of the glories of Egypt but instead think, “I could have also have done that if I were considered a God by my people, and if I had enough military victories to bring an enormous supply of slaves to work my projects against their will.” Have you ever seen the opulence of some churches? I have, and it is startling. Is this art communicating a tribute to God, or would God want that art to be sold to make a huge impact on the lives of the poor? (Not that I have an insight into the mind of God, much less my own) For now, then, I will continue to create paintings that seem to me to be beautiful, in hopes that I am able to communicate this beauty for others experience. Perhaps that is my story, but it feels more like a poem.

From: Andrea — Mar 16, 2013

Talk about stories. Seeing we are on to the RC church, the official story is that birth control, except by ineffective means, is against God’s will. And yet over 90% of Catholic American women of childbearing age are using it. If the new pope is so interested in poverty, then surely he might see fit to relieve some of it by permitting contraception in Latin America and Africa where large numbers of children destabilize families and set the stage for more and more poverty. It seems the church would like the poverty to continue so the priests have something to anguish about. American Catholic women are speaking. Are the red-beanie guys listening?

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Mar 16, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Mar 16, 2013

I recently had a knowledgable friend ask me, “Do you think you’ve found your voice as a painter?” Well, no … the story may not necessarily be in the work itself but in us. If we found our “voice” after a decade or two and said everything there was to say we would never pick up a brush again. It is a never ending struggle to communicate, to master a medium that eludes the most skilled. Trying to make sense of this world at times is truly baffling … but we still try through our art.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt- Toronto ,Ontario — Mar 16, 2013

A painting that has a story behind poses a challenge to the viewer and will generate more interest in the painting. Also, the colors used to indicate mood or atmosphere in the painting will enhance the story behind the painting.

From: Alberto Alda — Mar 16, 2013

Don’t forget the “Conversation piece.” Originally it was an informal group portrait, especially from the 18th century. Groups were engaged in genteel conversation or some activity, thus one might wonder what they were talking about: family business, hunt club business, love, friendships, etc. These paintings offered bundles of story and were therefore talked about by others.

From: Dekker Schmidt — Mar 16, 2013

Paintings or other art should always cause people to think. Pretty pictures are not enough any more.

From: Robert Sesco — Mar 17, 2013

I’m not sure how the analogy/metaphor that “seriously, we’re all in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger” applies to knowing ‘your’ story or the story of a particular painting, because in the movie the Bengal Tiger represented one aspect of the total makeup of Pi, that aspect which was able to kill another, and other life forms, to survive. it was an aspect that was repugnant and horrible to him, yet it lived within him. Perhaps this is simply a weak analogy that you have chosen to use, because even though each person may have some interior aspects that lie hidden, not each of these will be the wild animal that operates from instinct willing to kill as part of its nature. Artists, in my opinion, represent a part of the human community who, instead of manifesting the rightfully repressed destructive survival instinct of their evolutionary distant past, generally express a more spiritual, civilized, creative play with beauty, empathy, and communication. In this respect, I believe it would be closer to the mark to say that we are all in a lifeboat with a canary in a cage with no door.

From: Allan P. James — Mar 17, 2013

Some tigers are pussycats

From: Carole Smale — Mar 17, 2013
From: Mike Barr — Mar 17, 2013

I’ve often thought that the word ‘story’ is too much of a word for most art. Unless a painting is crammed with stuff it cannot tell a whole story, just part of it. Much the same way that artists use the word ‘drama’. I’ve heard on a number of occasions where a splash of red adds drama to a work, when it reality it adds a point of interest. Drama’s and stories are for books. Feeling, atmosphere, joy and such like are for paintings. Stories are about people, a landscape devoid of human activity or signs of human activity cannot tell a story.

From: Kathryn — Mar 18, 2013
From: Sudhir Bania — Mar 18, 2013

Quite short but very insightful article. The wordle given in the ‘esoterica’ is very useful for the artist-in-process like me who, just enjoys to paint on weekends, to develop myself and start to define my works and gradually evolve.

From: Jim Jackson — Mar 18, 2013

I have recently been exploring and trying to understand what the stories are in my own work. For me, it is a challenge to maintain the delicate balance between not painting trite overly romanticized subjects, and letting someone in on some situation or subject they might have not ordinarily been aware of. Trying to avoid syrupy subjects and still tell a story is more difficult than it seems. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

From: Christa Rossner — Mar 18, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Mar 18, 2013
From: J. Bruce WilcJox — Mar 18, 2013

The way this letter turned out religious responses regarding Christianity and a new pope ignored the other story so prominent over the last few weeks. You know- Susan Sandburg being interviewed on 60 minutes. Lean in- ladies! Condoleeza Rice, Leslie Stahll and a woman from the Obama administration being interviewed on CBS This Morning. You need to stop thinking everybody has to be nice and be more worried about taking your career seriously. The woman who made it to CFO of Lehman Bros just before it imploded- interviewed Friday night on Rock Center- then bailed and now is saying that if you want to pursue a career-great- but if you want a wonderful family- well- that’s ok too! I don’t personally agree with her- but oh well. And the statistics- over the last 30 years more women than men have graduated from college… but if you look at who’s running the Fortune 500 companies- only 4 percent are female! So I get that women have taken over education and much of healthcare- both empathic employment structures- and many are pursuing creative careers- but really- only 4 percent of CEOs at the top in business are women? And politics- more women than ever before in the US government- but still way too few? You change it by joining it- not by avoiding it. Having a nice family is not a career choice. Living longer means we have to have both family options and career options. And holding onto gender stereotyped perceptions of reality- both female and male- get us nowhere. So if you’re bored with me- you don’t want to face the truth. The only reason I’m pointing it all out is because I got bored with the heterosexist culture I grew up in- oh- 40 years ago- and with the female bull 20 years ago. And 15 years ago- the governor that kept me biting my tongue just blew up and ever since-my tongue’s been so much better.

From: M. L. Ljubliano — Mar 18, 2013

Everyone has a story, their story, and it’s worth hearing, and learning from.

From: Guido Lucchesi — Mar 18, 2013

Stories are stories, even if they’re hooey. I’m talkin’ ’bout Mormons here.

From: Jack Busch — Mar 18, 2013

The main thing in telling a story is to to give some information, present a problem, and then keep the viewer/reader waiting as long as possible for the answer to be divulged. This is why it’s good to make the story a little less than obvious. An obvious story in a painting turns it into kitch. Nothing like a touch of mystery.

From: Craftellis — Mar 18, 2013

Talking about Mormons, because the historical stories are so far fetched, the average Mormon must endure a fair amount of intellectual dishonesty to stay within the organization, regardless of the reported good the outfit does. Which might just be one of the reasons why Mitt Romney was defeated.

From: Mike Barr — Mar 18, 2013
From: Jenny Phillips — Mar 19, 2013

Hi Robert; As I teenage I was enchanted with a movie that centered around a painting. The scene was that of an English countryside. Eventually the viewer entered the painting and walked down the rambling pathway. I have always doodled or painted but when i married in 1968 I began to paint seriously and also to my delight, made sales. One of my clients brought back a painting. She was disappointed because I had not included the story about the painting. When she was in my gallery viewing my work, she bought this particular painting because of the story. She wanted the story typed out and affixed to the back dust cover. She wanted to relate this story to her guests. Ever since then all my paintings, prints and pen & inks have their own story. I know this isn’t the same kind of story as you are talking about but today people want to be emmotionally connected to the art work otherwise it is like wallpaper. Just an image with no life or soul. I deeply admire your work and that of Quiller. Although I have been painting professionally for over forty-five years I feel I am not satisfied one hundred percent with my artistic skills. I aspire to be more like some of the great artists I so admire but I have also learned that I am not them, I am unique and have my own purpose and skills. Hubby hasn’t updated the website with my latest work as he has been very busy but you can see my renderings and read my stories at Carry on the good work you do Robert. I live in a rural community and am fairly isolated from other artists. You help me feel connected. Thanks Jenny Phillips

From: Charlotte Schuld — Mar 19, 2013

One day in my elementary art class I learned one of my most important lessons on meaning in art. The painting unit we were on was paired up with a social studies unit on “the farm”. I had posted many photos of farm buildings, equipment, and animals for the kids to see and work from. The kids were primed with information from both of us teachers and ready to paint their farm scene. 40 minutes into the painting session as I made the rounds I came across one boy’s painting that dumbfounded me. It was a solid red surface. When I asked him to tell me about his picture he stated “This is my picture of a farm. There’s a cow eating some hay and a bunch of chickens, but you can’t see them because they’re on the other side of this big barn.” I was so stunned at his interpretation! As a result I mounted every students’ painting on a larger white backing and had them each tell me their story which I hand printed all around the four sides of the painting. I hung the red painting in the most advantageous place for viewers to read. I can’t tell you what great chuckles that painting and it’s story got. I hope his parents framed it! I never doubted the interpretation from another student again.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 19, 2013

My work always has story whether subliminal or obvious or even unintentional. I also believe the likes of Rothko, Pollack and Still’s et al, have story in their works though they testify there is none. To create is to say something about either the process of art or the life of the artist regardless of the paintings visual content. I think it impossible to create a work of art without revealing some inner truth, idea or subtext about the creator. Everyone who makes a mark on paper or canvas or whatever, makes a statement about themselves however obscure the meaning to the viewer. Even works where there is obvious scorn for art say something about the artist who made it. A child making mudpies is speaking through his inadequacies, his unconscious mind and his desire to be heard and seen. Artists through history like to think they are being revolutionary in making obscure or obtuse creations hoping to set the art world abuzz and make a name for themselves, but if you look back and see their works in context with the times, they are speaking volumes. Those with no voice are not remembered.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 19, 2013

p.s. One added thing. I also believe that an artist isn’t obligated to tell or inform anyone about the meaning behind his/her work. I have found when I don’t tell anyone the meaning, they assign their own meaning, which becomes more personal to them.

From: anon sorry — Mar 19, 2013

Oh, Bruce, I’m glad your tongue’s been so much better! You make me laugh out loud!! Boring? Hope things keep getting better for you….

From: Janet Summers-Tembeli — Mar 19, 2013

Every picture tells a story. Paintings are like pages in a book of the artists life, a journal of their loves, passions and truths, lovingly recorded. When an artist creates a series of paintings each one is a chapter in something that has so deeply inspired them That one painting can’t tell the whole story. That is how it is for me. I believe that even abstract works express And tell their own story, even if we all can’t read them. The elements of a painting are not always what they might seem. Symbols used in painting are well known and much has been written about deciphering them but I believe the artist’s Deepest feelings always remain a mystery. Like the Mona Lisa’s smile, the enigma for me is not why she is smiling Like she is but what was Leonardo thinking and feeling. It is this enigma along with beauty that keeps one engaged with looking at a painting. A good work of art is one that You never tire of looking at and a great one is one that you continue to discover new nuances every time you view it. The story keeps unfolding, your first impression might change but you are still drawn to the beauty and the enigma. It has been said that details and portions of a work should be left undone to create a space for the viewer to finish, To create interest, but some stories need to be told in full if for no other reason than to satisfy the artist’s desire to see The mystery of their story.

From: Valerie Kent — Mar 19, 2013

I painted a bouquet which was in a show. A woman came in and admired it greatly and had decided to buy it. Bad story: To enhance the work I told the story of painting it for my mother which is why it was called Mother’s Day. She looked at me in horror before walking off. “I always hated my mother.” She said.

From: Sandy Bonney — Mar 20, 2013

It took three years to tell this story. I took the photos of my mother’s hands about a week before she died. She was an artist herself, excelling in the very difficult medium of china painting. In the last year of her life she usually had a band-aid on her middle finger because of a nail that kept splitting. It wasn’t until this spring that I was able to finish the piece.

From: Carole Smale — Mar 20, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Mar 20, 2013

Gosh- I made somebody laugh??? (Finally.) I forgot that other story- the interview of Gloria Steinem by Charlie Rose on PBS… (Did I get her name right?) He asked her how the feminist movement was going and she said- paraphrased- that well- it looked like it was going along fine and then something called the religious right rose up- and then became the moral majority- and we still don’t have an equal rights amendment! Why? Because there is still a large group of both men AND WOMEN who are holding on to religious-based gender limitations and gender roles. Sad. Really. More women on CBS This Morning- this morning- about leaning out of the workplace. Out of careers and back into homeville. At least until they get beyond child-raising- and then they’ll be stuck- with no center- trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And always note- I use my name because I WANT you to know who said what I said…

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Mar 20, 2013

By the way Guido- I was born and raised a Mormon… Somebody’s sure to say- oh that’s why he’s such a….

From: Claire Hall — Mar 21, 2013
     Featured Workshop: Doug Mays
031913_robert-genn Doug Mays workshops Held in Southern France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Horseshoe Valley Road

acrylic painting by Marlene Bulas, Orillia, ON, Canada

  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, 2013.

“Eternally Loyal”
oil painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Lesley White

That includes Lesley White of Prince George, BC, Canada, who wrote, “A young singer/songwriter from Ontario, Canada, Naomi Bristow, saw and was inspired by one of my paintings to write her first song. She developed the lyrics (story) around the image. It closely resembled my own inspiration. Not unlike the Don McLean/Van Gogh connection, therein lies the magic of the eternal universal circle and the privilege of being a part of it. And also Sigmund Brunn of Innsbruck, Austria, who wrote, “The best stories are the gossip about the artist and his work.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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