The art of becoming


Dear Artist,

In ceramics, there is always the kiln. Half-baked and half-made, the objects enter the kiln in slips of brown and grey. Later, after the Gods of Fire have had their way, they emerge ultramarine, ruby, golden. They appear as a miracle, seemingly unbidden, like some sort of magic or alchemy. “There is nothing in a caterpillar,” said Buckminster Fuller, “that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

Entry of a Nicomekl Creek, Canada Day, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 11 x 14 inches by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Entry of a Nicomekl Creek, Canada Day, 2010
Acrylic on canvas
11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

Most art goes through such a transformation. Even a symphony lies flat on the plainest of pages until it is sent out onto the air by an orchestra. On the other hand, unless we plan for it, a lot of visual art doesn’t benefit from this sort of process. The painter, in one sitting or ten, may merely unfold a vision without the crucible of becoming. Creative failure and visual boredom are the frequent result. For visual artists, directing the torch of our imagination is our main art. Art happens when alchemy is found. One, two and multi-step systems modify reality and create what has come to be called “style.” Art without style is yesterday’s laundry. Here’s how to direct (or redirect) the torch:

You need to see your art as a state of becoming. Vigilance and attentive observation during work-in-progress provides the opportunity. The process takes place with individual works, and over a lifetime of trial and error. We are the clever inventors of ourselves. Opportunities include nuances, conscious and unconscious mannerisms, evidence of unexplainable magic, flinty zips and happenstance gradations, strokes, splodges, slubs, bumps, bubbles and colour changelings. They may be gentle or violent. They may be planned or accidental. They may be lines or they may be patterns. They can be fat or lean, thick or thin. You need to look out for elements that change in front of your eyes, things that become something other than that which they just were. The artist lives by awaiting these events; and they are expected. “Becoming,” said Paul Klee, “is superior to being.”

1926 Austin 7 ‘Chummy’ with Dorothy and Stanley ready to go. Canada Day, 2009

1926 Austin 7 ‘Chummy’ with Dorothy and Stanley ready to go.
Canada Day, 2009

Best regards,


PS: “The labor of the alchemists, who were called artists in their day, is a befitting comparison for a deliberate change of style.” (William Butler Yeats)

Esoterica: Last summer I was out and about painting in my ’26 Austin “Chummy.” On the way home I had the dogs in the back seat and a half-finished painting blew out from beside me. Still wet, I saw it miraculously land face up. My joy was immediately diminished when somebody’s motor home ran over it. Going back to get it, I realized my ordinary sketch now had cubist tendencies. After replacing a smashed stretcher, I decided to keep it more or less as it was.

This letter was originally published as “The art of becoming” on February 16, 2010.

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“I see painting as an evocative magic, and there must always be a random factor in magic, one which must be constantly changed and renewed.” (William S. Burroughs)



    • Thank you for this! I will share it with my pastel group, where we are all interested in becoming–more of ourselves and better artists. I always appreciate reading your posts and I am always rewarded with the gift of a new way of looking at things.

  1. Barry Salaberry on

    “The aim of art is to represent
    not the outward
    appearance of things,
    but their
    inward significance.”

  2. Here’s to plein air painting and all the unplanned events that come with just being out there. They often ruin the best of efforts but can also produce positive unexpected results. That when I feel that I have exceeded my own expectations. Love it!

  3. I have a 36×36 painting I’ve been working on for two months that I wish I could just put into a kiln, then take out… and VOILA!!! a masterpiece!! Oh the struggles to reach satisfaction, all Robert’s Rules are right, and good words to put all over the studio. However, I’m considering putting my struggle piece on the road hoping a dump truck might fix it. Your dad was the best, thank you always for keeping his spirit and good thoughts with us each week, along with yours as well, Sara. THANK YOU!!

  4. I love the notion of the torch. While in the absolute darkness, the torch can light the way immediately in front of you. Beyond that…who knows. In the studio, I may see a little ways ahead but beyond the “now” waits the kingdom of the unknown, waiting to be called into being.

  5. Robert made the words of Bucky and Paul come to life, in the way that he finished his paintings. They had the blocks of base colour in ordered progression and always had potential, but then when he was ready he would intersect the blocks with lines, points of light or bits of colour that would make the works come to life. He often told me the bits of broken colour were not really there but they served a purpose; with them he was able to have you follow his brush work around the painting until you had experienced the whole piece. Every time I see a piece of Robert’s that I have not seen before, it lifts my spirits and gives me energy because it is like having a conversation with an old friend.

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No Featured Workshop Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm

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I am a painter. I am delighted to be a painter.


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