Timeless and timely


Dear Artist,

Near where I live there passes an ancient pathway called the Semiahmoo Trail. It was first used by native peoples — the Semiahmoos — then by gold seekers, and later — not much more than a hundred years ago — by the first settlers in our area. Much of it has now been overtaken by urban sprawl. Some sections have been designated a heritage trail, bike path or nature walk. In some places it calls for a strong heart — small posts mark kilometers and encourage citizens to use it to increase their heartbeat.


oil painting by Emily Carr (1871-1945)

Over the past weeks I’ve been attempting to cover the whole route — plotted from old maps over the new. The parts through primal forest and open bog-land are rich in pioneer sentiment and timeless nature. Occasionally there are the remains of old buildings, bridge pilings, ancient culverts. But mostly the route is pavement and traffic. There are at least fifty stop signs and a half-dozen traffic lights. I pass by the buzz of shopping-center culture. Motorists self-serving regular and premium. Pasty-faced women taking a smoke-break from Bingo. Book-laden lovers, arm in arm, bursting from high-school. I’ve got the idea of recording the route as it is these days, this year.


“Wind in the Treetops”
oil painting by Emily Carr

If, as Marshall McLuhan noted, “Art is a rear vision mirror,” does one stick to the timeless, the traditional and spiritual qualities of the path, or should one record the place for what it is? What is the artistic value of an ’86 Toyota? Are the passing jogger’s fashions relevant? Flags in windows? Ethnic yard-sale treasures? What about the multicultural denizens who step from their dwellings and into the shaky peace of 2003?

This, my pathway, is all pathways. Artists have a history of paths. Artists also have choices — they can be record keepers, they can honour, depict, select, edit, emphasize, delete or monumentalize their paths. They can choose to see and they can choose not to see. I’m giving a lot of thought to what I’m collecting on my path. I’m thinking of 2103.


“Deep Woods”
oil painting by Emily Carr

Best regards,


PS: “Yet this will go onward the same,

Though Dynasties die.

Yonder a maid and her wight,

Come whispering by.” (Thomas Hardy, 1915, In Time of the Breaking of Nations)

Esoterica: An exercise in image and album: Assemble and photocopy maps of your path. Number your images (photos, drawings, paintings). Key your images to your maps with arrows to show the direction of view. Write up related observations.

This letter was originally published as “Timeless and timely” on April 15, 2003.


Download 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.

“You will have to experiment and try things out for yourself and you will not be sure of what you are doing. That’s all right, you are feeling your way into the thing.” (Emily Carr)



  1. I love this post. Gives you inspiration to contemplate those who have gone before us. I would like to walk the trail just to see what Robert saw. Sara, did he ever do any paintings from the trail? I would love to see them if he did. Did Robert ever record the route? Emily Carr was such a visionary too, recording some of the isolated places in British Columbia. I like to create visual art in the hopes some of it will linger for posterity. Thank you so much for keeping up the Letters, I always make time to read them and have enjoyed them all.

  2. Judy Evenson on

    Wonderful essay – thoughtful, full of description as well as the questions we all ask ourselves as artists – thank you for posting this.

  3. “Artists can choose to see or choose not to see” is a quote that resonates with me.

    Some days I can assemble and document my processes while other days it doesn’t happen easily, other than a passing thought. I find when I discipline myself by regulating habits ie. get up early, exercise, eat well and create art daily, I am able to map out my day with accomplished effort. I’ve just never thought of it till now! Thanks Sara!

  4. thank you for bringing the art of Emily Carr out for more to see. I live in her hometown of Victoria, BC and it’s only been in the last 10 or so years, that she’s gotten the recognition she deserves. She was a writer, too, that lived and wrote about her incredibly eclectic life of travels by caravan with many animals, including a pet monkey, in several wonderful books.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop


https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Vaughn_Over-the-River-and-Through-the-Woods-wpcf_300x225.jpgOver the River and Through the Woods,
oil on canvas,
30 x 40 inches, 2016

Featured Artist

My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.