The witness program


Dear Artist,

A guru once told me about an idea she called, “compassionate witness.” “When we bear witness,” she said, “we lovingly give our attention to another.” She told me the greatest gift I could give my friends was understanding — to let them know I saw their struggles and their triumphs and I recognized the effort they put in to achieve their dreams. She also said that when I allowed another to be my witness, I gave myself the freedom to be known.

Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016 ink and acrylic on canvas 84 x 96 inches By Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)

Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016
ink and acrylic on canvas
84 x 96 inches
By Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)

In art, we work in solitude, but we’re not alone. Painting, while a solo act that most often happens in a private space, begins and ends as a silent conversation with an imaginary other. The potential exists for painting to be an intimate communication and, as an act of love, requires a beloved. While we may be working in solitude, we do not grow and become artists without the compassionate understanding of our witnesses.

In witnessing others, we have the chance to expand the scope of our communication and ideas. You could say that these letters are a form of this, while still preserving the autonomy and independent discoveries we most treasure. Here are a few ideas:

Choose an artist among your peers to quietly observe. Do not interfere with her independent process.

Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part 2, 2012 ink and acrylic on canvas 180 x 144 inches by Julie Mehretu

Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part 2, 2012
ink and acrylic on canvas
180 x 144 inches
by Julie Mehretu

Accept the idea there could be someone quietly observing you.

Think of your art-making as a small part of a larger hive of creative activity.

Understand how our dreams are not dissimilar.

Know when your life in art requires unaccompanied exploration, but also realize you are not alone.



PS: “My actions are my only true belongings.” (Thích Nhất Hạnh)

Julie Mehretu at work, 2017.

Julie Mehretu at work, 2017.

Esoterica: A rumour cites a sign on the New Jersey Turnpike: “Welcome to New York — Please try to make it somewhere else.” From my 5th-floor walk-up in the West Village, I could feel the collective energy of all the lone wolves striving for their dreams — a few million of them — creating a palpable thrust. And while never truly alone, New Yorkers bestow upon one another the wide berth of privacy — from a downward glance to silently holding space for a solo weeping subway rider, her broken dam just another private moment in a public seat. Tears flow easily against the backdrop of New York’s communal abrasions, with everyone united in the dreamer’s crusade. Now, here in California, the wandering valley and desert moonscape are universes of solitude, and I can still feel the collective energy of lone wolves. In art, we strive together.

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.

“In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength”. (Buddha)



  1. And a guru once told me that in answer to my question “was the pursuit of art a selfish act?” And she reflected a ment then raised her eyes to mine and said “Art IS your gift and that’s what iis yours but now it’s yours to give it to others and that’s what you do .” she herself Was a concert violinist who had retreated to an ashram and became a swami . she used to wake us in early morning playing Bach or Vivaldi and/or something beautiful at 4:30 in the dark …. it was heaven . I never worried about my question again.

    • How beautiful, it touches my heart. So many times over my 90 years I have awakened in the night to sketch, write down a verse or an outline to a delicious feeling of loving thought that awakened me to share with others. We are never alone, and I always keep a pen and paper handy so I will remember when my delightful day begins.

    • Selma F. Blackburn on

      Indeed. We are all in this together, and it is our decision to share our gifts or withhold. Treasures multiply when we allow others to open themselves to us, just as we open ourselves through our art and our other behavior. Thank you again, Sara. Your wisdom resonates.

  2. Dear Sara,

    I don’t know what to say about this one. It did not seem to be Robert right at the beginning. I guess I’m too stupid to understand the deeper meanings. I’m an 80 something artist who has been painting since a child. I don’t know about the witnessing thing. Maybe I don’t understand the New Yorker thing. I’m just hanging in there and expressing what I need to say because I’m not a verbal person. I love your letters, but this one just didn’t speak to me at all.

  3. Sara, what a gift your post is this morning. I write a newsletter that comes out every second Friday (this is the second Friday) for serious fans and collectors of my work called “A Bush With Life” and it is the second part of what your guru told you that rings soundly through my foggy morning brain – “when I allowed another to be my witness, I gave myself the freedom to be known.” This is truly what happens with the newsletter, my social media posts and visitors to my small gallery or a show elsewhere… people get to know me (and I them) and the work has an audience of witnesses with many profound interactions. I have never thought about the experience of sharing in this way before… the almost sacredness of the process. I have felt it in the exchanges but had no words to actually think about it or articulate the exchange.

    Thank you for this Sara! And all the best of today to everyone.

  4. For the past year, I have contemplated this act of creating with “belonging” to society. Working in a basement studio at home, or my studio in Arte Art Gallery and Framers, the work drives me forward, and feedback from other artists and strangers often startles me: This sacredness touches deep, and often beyond my consciousness. Classical music accompanies me in dreams, and the beauty of living flows onto the paper or canvas as life unrolls. Stepping upon the sacred path of creation each day reveals miracles.

  5. Fortunate indeed is the one who receives the gift of a compassionate witness. My college experience taught me a lot about being on the receiving end of less than compassionate witnessing, especially since my work did not fit into the realm of the politically correct. I was pursuing the creation of religious art in a secular university at that time. Sometimes we go through periods where there are no beloveds to witness the work. The scars and injuries of that part of my journey nearly made me decide to give up art altogether. I finally found my way back to creating again. When I taught in my one graduate teaching experience, and in all subsequent interactions with artists, I make it a priority to find and point each creative to what is positive in their work and to encourage them along the path of their truest inclinations. Sarah, your letter on the idea of “compassionate witness” should be drilled into the heads of every art teacher and be the introduction to every critique session.

    • Sherrie I too had a bad experience of my art college tutors who only ever wanted me to do something different from the work I wanted to do and if I persisted in following my heart they were negative in their criticism. Fortunately my fellow students were a lovely positive bunch who gave me plenty of support. I’ve had far better tuition and guidance since on courses and workshops with great artists who generously give of their time, encouragement and inspiration. Sadly – not every one is strong enough to withstand negative criticism or unsolicited ‘constructive criticism’. Two artists whose work I loved gave up painting completely when hurt by negative remarks. Of course we can all learn, right through our lives, but we learn in different ways and at different speeds and some of us learn by praise and encouragement rather than being told what’s ‘wrong’ with something we’ve created. I love what you say about finding something positive in the work and encouraging them ‘along the path of their truest inclinations.’ Yes!

    • Raymond Mosier on

      I have never had an experience that was such that I considered giving up on art. I have always had those compassionate witness. I believe there are lots of them in this solitary creative game. My most influential mentor once told me when we were discussing this very subject that, no matter how truly bad something was, you could always say or point out something of merit. I have done that and seen that more time than I could count.

  6. Hi, Sara!

    I feel like this goes right to the heart of what making art is all about, and you expressed it with such sensitivity. Early on, I realized the need to identify a solid motive for painting. My most treasured experiences were making something for a specific person. To bring action to motivation when painting for shows, my personal mantra became, “I’m making this for someone, I just don’t know who it is yet.” I read and loved every one of Robert’s letters as he wrote them, but your perspective has its own strengths, and is even more philosophical at times. I love the idea of making art as part of a larger network of creators. I’m so thankful for your continued sharing through the newsletter.

    • I just experienced the first paragraph of this letter. How profound it is to share with a
      Dear friend and fellow artist. Art & life seem entertained and enrich our existence,
      And therefore we witness.
      Beautiful thoughts ! Thank you!

  7. Dear Sara, your letters do share the struggles and triumphs of artists witnessing to the collective of creatives …and I love that.
    Art whether in solitude, or among hives of activity, remind us that it is a lifelong work and perhaps even everlasting.
    Thank you and keep making your beautiful art!

  8. You have kept Robert’s newsletters going so well and as always they seem to reflect the thoughts and feelings of a collective whole. This one again sits right where I am at the moment and I am more and more convinced that, even for the most strident individualists, we are all much more connected than we realise. I think it is important to express ourselves in our art as honestly and according to our own particular individual insights as best we can but there is always an audience out there that completes the picture.
    Thanks Sara – still love reading these letters
    Helen Gordon

  9. For the past two weekends locally I have joined artists in holiday shows. I’m there to support their art making and hear their dreams. As I am an obsessive observer I decided yers ago to do watercolor portrait sketches for $20 in twenty minutes. Yes, I gift friends to get this started. Perhaps this act of performance art is much more than I realized. Seeing the struggle and ongoing problem solving, our witnesses can risk being more creative.

  10. This beautiful letter really touched me, Sarah. I feel alone with my art most of the time but can now imagine my collective witnesses in the “beehive.” My tears thank you.

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Join painter/author Ellie Harold in sunny Mexico for a week of immersion in a facilitated discovery of your deepest and most essential artist self. If you’re feeling blocked, thwarted or simply longing for a more meaningful expression, the retreat is a unique opportunity to focus on your life/art purpose, discover new directions and explore next steps. You’ll enjoy your own room in the charming Casa de la Noche in San Miguel’s Historic Centro district, painting and writing (with materials provided), guided reflections and focused discussion with plenty of time to explore the color and culture of this vibrant art city. Created with the needs of mature women in mind, this retreat focuses on process rather than product and is for both experienced and novice art-makers. Limited to 12. Register by November 30 to receive Early Bird free shuttle. One Discounted Spot Now Open! Click here for a full description, photos and testimonials from past participants. Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.


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