Yesterday, I went around for a visit with my friend Gerry Petersen. He has just received word from his doctor that he has terminal, inoperable lung cancer. Concerned as anyone would be, he’s also philosophic about it — he smoked cigarettes for forty years. Gerry and I share the hobby of stamp collecting. We have often worked together to buy the items we wanted. Over the last 15 years Gerry has built up one beautiful fat old album — Worldwide up to 1893. It’s been pretty hard to complete pages for stuff that old, but he’s done remarkably well. I offered to buy the album from him and continue its unfinished business. It was a sad parting for Gerry, but he knew his collection would be in good hands.
Also this weekend I started and finished a 24″ x 30″ — Silent Village. It’s a subject I’ve returned to over and over — a decaying Haida village, its laughing children long departed, its gray and moldering totems overtaken by the encroaching forest. Like Gerry’s album, it too was a matter of filling in some negative areas — its vacancies and faults stood out and became clear as I went along. An unsatisfactory “V” motif to start with, it was modified to an “N” at half time. It also needed a strong horizontal element so this had to be figured out. I used the standard “curiosity” system where the work tells me what it needs. There’s a pattern to be had — it’s a matter of finding it. In times of panic, patches of arbitrary colour (space fillers) are put in until a better one can be found. In order to illustrate what I’m talking about I’ve asked Andrew to put up a few pictures at the end of this letter.
Gerry and I have been to places like this silent village. From the old tug “Swell” we went ashore on the Queen Charlotte Islands and stood among ghosts. Moss, lichen, and the eternal forest were the dominant forces — overtaking and enfolding the hand of man. Gerry and I considered the fragility of it all, and how minor we are in the great scheme of things. Wondering if we would ever return to these places, we were, by chance, able to go again in another boat at another time. There was more decay. There was more life. The trouble with dying is that you don’t get to see how things turn out. The trouble with dying is that there’s too much unfinished business.
PS: “Each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle.” (Marcus Aurelius)
Esoterica: Each time we publish illustrations of works in progress we get hundreds, even thousands of letters asking about my methodology. I’m a guy who feels that in life and art there’s no one right way. Everyone finds and develops their own processes — this is one of the reasons it’s all so much fun. But for the record, I painted Silent Village on a pinkish-toned acrylic ground and glazed several times with Phthalo blue. I didn’t do much preliminary drawing. Looking over at my palette I see that it was Ultra blue, Phthalo blue, Yellow ochre, Cad yellow light, Cad red light, Burnt sienna, Jenkins green, Mars black and Titanium white. The brand I use is Golden.
Silent Village by Robert Genn
Not yet, not yet
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA
I just got finished saying about 5-6 days ago to a friend that I wasn’t afraid of death itself (I’ve had cancer, accidents, etc) because I’ve confronted it several times already and I’m at home with the “event” of it. What I’m not reconciled to is not getting everything done/finished that I want to. So when I read your words it was like déjà vu and the old disruptive and disorienting experience of time out of whack. After enough of those experiences one begins questioning the concept of time and our linear view of things. It’s got me a little worried that there is a cosmic heads up event taking shape. I’ve got so much on the boards right now that is half done, half baked, half thought through. Can’t go now. Not yet, not yet.
by Sandy Franklin
I hope that your friend Gerry is getting the best advice and treatment possible for his lung cancer. Despite a diagnosis that his cancer is “inoperable” there may be treatments that can put him into remission, or at the least prolong his life. My sister in law was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer six years ago and underwent both chemo and radiation, and is still with us. My husband was diagnosed 16 months ago with stage 3B lung cancer and underwent similar treatment. Both were considered inoperable. While the treatments result in uncomfortable side effects and require courage and fortitude, they are well worth it to ensure that the love and influence of these wonderful people stay around as long as possible. I hope that your friend is not assuming that his diagnosis is an automatic death sentence and is exploring all possible avenues, including second or third opinions! My husband’s positive attitude, sense of humor, and willingness to fight this horrible disease have been inestimable.
(RG note) Thank-you so much to everyone who wrote offering alternate medicine and other recommended treatments. Thanks also to everyone who sent along stories of friends, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and others going through similar trials. I’m passing every one of these thoughtful emails along to Gerry. Thank you also to those who wrote to offer or tell me about their stamp collections.
Fire of urgency
by Todd Plough, Napoli, NY, USA
Some do anguish about unfinished things. We must ask ourselves, did we prioritize those things which we lament? If not, that is where the sadness comes from. If we have through our lives and actions glorified the things that make humankind kind, then we have succeeded in memorializing what matters in this human experience. Often painting students will say, “I don’t know what to paint.” I tell them, paint the things that fill your heart’s toy-box. That with which you most dearly remember from this life if you had to be suddenly pulled from it. What we believe and know in our hearts is all we get to take with us. When we can wake up and can embrace our mortality it puts a fire of urgency under us.
More unfinished business
by Dorey Schmidt, Wimberley, TX, USA
Who knew when I signed up for your letter that I would find a mentor, a coach, a contemporary and the best geriatric psychologist I have ever encountered. I also find painting pointers, travel advisories, and lately, challenges and comforting parallels in the aging process. My good friend, a theater director, has battled ovarian cancer for three years, and is back on chemo. As for me, who knows how long my coronary by-pass is going to hold (seven years now). And who will carry on with my stamp collection? Or catalog my writing? Or even read it, for that matter? It’s not the dying that’s bothersome — it’s the unfinished business.
Hands too sad
by Carolyn Smith, Brentwood Bay, BC, Canada
Have you ever been paralyzed to do your art because of an impending death? My husband is dying from cancer and is very ill. He never smoked. He drank occasionally, rode his bike to work, is a good and kind husband and father of four boys. I feel frozen in time. My brushes and paints suspended in the air. I think of all the unfinished art work I have waiting to do. All the unfinished things my husband and I were to do in retirement. It is like my hands are too sad to create my happiness in the world of my art.
Emotion changes your perspective
by Karen Sloan, Haliburton, ON, Canada
I am sorry about your friend since my mother passed away last June from the very same thing, inoperable lung cancer. My paintings have definitely changed since this happened, which is probably inevitable with artists as we feel the changes in our lives, and I feel, interpret these changes in an unconscious way on the canvas. For me, I went from painting flowers, from my own perspective as a floral designer, to painting rooms with empty chairs that are missing the person that is supposed to be there, but of course will not be. I don’t think I understood why until I read your letter.
Too much caring
by Suzanne Morris, Edmond, OK, USA
My ex-husband and the father of my grown children is dying of cancer. It is effecting me so much. I can feel my children’s pain. His wife kept him alive way too long cause she is a nurse and can’t let him go. (The cancer is a rare connective tissue that recurred in his lungs last summer and she got some exotic chemo and got rid of it. Now the cancer is everywhere and he is suffering beyond words. What good is it to hang around if you can’t get there to see what happens next?) It is better to go out when Mother Nature hands one a ticket like lung cancer while the getting out is easier and the pain can still be managed.
by Terri West, Orlando, FL, USA
“There was more life” seems to be the ticket. Life does not end… it changes. We are sad because we become accustomed to people, places, etc… the way they are (or were) at any given point in time. Consider the possibility that when we all die (pass on to a different existence) we might get to see our purpose in the great scheme of life and also get to see in a much bigger way how things turn out.
Wisdom of the Charlottes’ traveler
by Red Dog
I, too, have been to the Queen Charlotte Islands. A friend that I met on the ferry over from Prince Rupert B.C. walked with me for 80 miles on the east beach walk. We spent 8 days together walking along the ocean front and then each night setting up camp. Each day ended with a large fire and stories of her home country of Germany and mine of the USA. We got to know each other and to experience the country. Wild cows from abandoned farms crossed our trail. Twisted parts from boats that had met their end in some forgotten storm decorated the beach. Ghostly grey Native villages became our backdrop. Bottles and containers with Japanese and Chinese writing on them told of a container ship dropping cargo at sea. I don’t think the trouble with dying is not seeing how things turn out, or unfinished business. It’s that we think our lives have some big significance to this world because we are also looking out from behind our eyes. There are so many forgotten storms that have rocked this planet — that dropped debris on a small island’s beaches. It makes our existence trivial. Try to get more enjoyment out of the travel, rather than the actual destination. Destinations are sometimes the beginning of the end! Most days everything matters. One day nothing will matter. Don’t waste today’s sunshine on the chance of a better sunrise!
Magic of the Queen Charlotte Islands
by Alfred Muma, Powell River, BC, Canada
I highly recommend any artist to make a trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands as they are a truly amazingly beautiful and wild place full of memories. The weather changes every 15 minutes or so it seems. The compositions of the land and seascapes change like a live motion picture. If one is to truly capture the Charlottes then one needs to live there for a time as just visiting can not give one the full story of this powerful place. And the people who live there, well they tell their own stories. I know, I lived there for many years and it will remain until I die, my artistic spiritual home.
About Carmichael Passage: Painted in 1989 just after taking artist and friend, Michael Dobson, on a painting trip to South Moresby Island. We were in my zodiac on Carmichael Passage in the dark when the northern lights gave us an incredible display.
Power of place
by Janet Morgan
One of the first adventures I had with my now husband, the painter Greg Frux, was to kayak in the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was an astounding trip, and the presence of ghosts, of the palpable memory of grief, was very powerful. The night after we visited ruins of the village of Ninstints I was overcome with violent weeping. I didn’t really realize why until much later. We did a lot of drawing and painting during the trip, and the work I did afterwards was “The God of Death on the Queen Charlottes.” I believe it tells the story. The day we flew back to Vancouver we went to see the work of Emily Carr. Her paintings took us right back into that deep rich thick forest full of ravens and eagles. It is a beautiful and powerful place. Tonight we are packing for our artist in residence next month in Death Valley National Park, an extremely different terrain, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself into that power of place again.
Art spirit needs a rest
by Jane Coulombe, Northridge, CA, USA
I have been running a marathon this morning: making breakfast and cleaning up; reading the daily newspaper; doing the laundry (some left to wrinkle in the dryer); entering my “most significant thoughts” in my journal; eating lunch; sorting and filing (trashing) mail; answering e-mails; setting out my palette for a new painting this afternoon (with any luck at all), and generally making a total turmoil of the morning. How better to drive out the art spirit than to fill the day with much too much daily living. I often think that men don’t have these conflicts with “domestic” activities that women seem to have thrust on themselves, but I know there are hundreds of obstacles in the lives of all artists. Tomorrow I’ll start over, and just take the day off and spend it with a friend who doesn’t paint. My art spirit needs a rest.
The earth takes back to itself
by Patty Grau, Redondo Beach, CA, USA
It’s actually wonderful to see how the earth takes itself back from the destruction rendered upon it. I lived in Hawaii for several years and I watched in awe and slight fear the jungle creep up, on, over and eventually completely envelope a rusting VW van that was crashed into a ravine.
And then there’s the other side of the issue. We always go looking for “us” — what’s left of us — in remote locale (like divers seem to always seek out sunken ships). I can’t help but wonder what that VW must look like now… I’m sure it’s still there… just made more interesting, like those totem poles, still holding their own against the forest.
Will have given it our best
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA
One can seek to be satisfied with the end of things if we live our lives purposefully. Dying is only a transition into another realm, one which we all ponder with silent personal reverence. As I close in on 60, a good friend and I often talk of how we would like to end this first stage of being. We both agree that when that time comes upon us, we would like to be in mid stroke as we finish a passage in our new book. Or maybe we slump over our guitars as we strum and sing a final tune. Or maybe we transition as we endeavor to learn something new, forever challenging ourselves to learn and re-invent our selves to use up every essence of our spirit as we constantly yearn to learn. My personal belief is that if more of us were focused upon learning something new and accepting the challenge of mastering it, then at the moment our next transition ascends upon us, we will have given it our best, nothing unfinished, just another transition in the making.
A Woman Left Lonely
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Gwyn Jones who wrote, “I’m grateful for anything that stops me in my tracks and for a moment empties my fragile, limited mind of all preconceptions and prejudices.”
And also Aleta Pippin who wrote, “If we are truly alive and anticipating each day, there will always be unfinished business. And what a great way to leave our bodies, anticipating that next bit of unfinished business.”
And also Ted who wrote, “Your writing is akin to being back in Art College for the art history courses.”