Swift justice


Dear Artist,

The first rule of storytelling is that something must die in order for something else to be born. In your art story, this means that if you want your work to grow, you’ll need to kill something. The good news is that you probably have something to sacrifice lying around your studio — a studio barnacle you once deemed too good to slash but that’s not quite ready for the dance floor. As the sole, designated arbiter of quality control, you are beginning the rest of your life.

Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976; oil on canvas, in three parts, each 14 x 12 inches

Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976
oil on canvas in three parts, each 14 x 12 inches
by Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Here’s an idea: Line up, hang, pin and lean your archive in a row for a private crit, suspending prejudices around the work’s age, period, context, level of completion, provenance or hours invested. Gather everything you consider a painting. Now, find a comfortable place to sit and take in the selection as a whole. Even if your nines and tens have left the building, this is a sobering snapshot of where you are and how far you’ve come.

Head of a Man, 1960 oil on canvas by Francis Bacon

Head of a Man, 1960
oil on canvas
by Francis Bacon

Next, like a tough-loving friend, pull the weakest work. For this exercise, do not enlist a helper and do your pulling in one, focused session. Use what you know about where you’re going to detach yourself from beloved areas or winning strokes. “You have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing,” wrote art coaching writer Austin Kleon. Commit to the whole painting and be willing to take the pains necessary to make it better. If it helps, I’ll give you this private mantra to repeat with each execution: “I am the maker.”

Now that you’ve tasted swift justice, what else can be retired? “Thank it for its service,” wrote Marie Kondo in the The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. Like your sock drawer, what’s left is the cream of your collection — and the creative space to level up.

Self-Portrait, 1975 oil on canvas by Francis Bacon

Self-Portrait, 1975
oil on canvas
by Francis Bacon



PS: “Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.” (Austin Kleon)

Esoterica: I’m writing to you from an airplane flying from California to Texas. Before boarding, I bought a new pen and slid it into my bag as I’d seen my dad do many times when en route to his own shows. “I think of it as a quiet message to myself,” he once told me at the airport in Calgary. “A pen is a talisman of connection — a kind of good luck omen.” After twenty-eight years, the privilege to show my work continues to trigger a sense of peak creative expression and also a temporary, emotional dislodging from the comforting plodding of my studio. As a part of the circle, its challenges, satisfactions and connectivity are a gift and invitation to grow that can only be experienced by leaving “home.”

“Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.” (Austin Kleon)

Francis Bacon in his studio, 7 Reece Mews, London Carlos Freire photo

Francis Bacon in his studio, 7 Reece Mews, London
Carlos Freire photo

Sara Genn: New Alphabet continues until October 17, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston. 

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

“When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better.” (Austin Kleon)



  1. First, all the best Sara with your show and congratulations! There is a magic in the process of gather work for a show that is then seen by new eyes – including your own. I love the step-by-step process you outline for reviewing and killing work. Killing older works has never been one of my strengths. Fortunately, there is never a lot left to cull or I would be pushed out the door by paintings. But I am going to give this approach a try and hopefully I do better than I do with thinning out my bookshelves!

  2. Sara I love the way I can hear echoes of your dad’s voice in your writing. You both are/were such gifted, evocative writers! Thank you so much for continuing these wonderful letters, and best of luck with your show in Texas!

  3. Yes! I have just done this process with about ten of my paintings. I had two piles. One to paint over or improve/finish. The other to take off the stretchers and stretch new canvas. I was a strict critic.
    The ripping of canvas is very satisfying!

  4. Digging into piles, pulling down long lost pieces on shelves, I am having the time of my life. First, a confession: I ripped up some paintings done in long-ago workshops to great satisfaction. No more temptation to “improve” a poor piece. Instead, back to the drawing board, literally, and then back to large work. Sara, you inspire me every time a column come s along! Your Dad was fantastic, but you honor and spread his work.

  5. Sara, I appreciate your emails as I have appreciated your father’s, for many years. Congratulations on your solo show in Houston! I wanted to extend an invitation for you to pop into the Watercolor Art Society-Houston’s (WAS-H) gallery just up the street from the Dimmitt gallery at 1601 West Alabama. Our organization is 50+ years old and ours was the first building in the US built exclusively for exhibition and education of watermedia artists, built in 2006. Many of our member-artists have truly appreciated your emails over the years. You and your dad have made a difference to so many of us.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/monique-jarry-art-salome_big-wpcf_149x300.jpgSalome’s salvation
mixed media
60 x 122 cm

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Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.