You’re Special


Dear Artist,

I’m wandering in a magic farm called “Serendipity,” a place of fragrant gardens, hencoops, sheepfolds, shady arbors, scarecrows and a hee-hawing donkey. There’s fifty painters scattered in nooks and crannies, and I’m looking over shoulders. As I see it, everybody’s trying to make something a bit unique. This is not a body of workmen following a blueprint and constructing a unified monument. Everybody’s doing his or her own thing. Everybody here is a specialist.


Daughters of the American Revolution
oil painting, 1932, by Grant Wood (1891-1942)

That’s what makes us an interesting bunch. There’s community, yes, but there’s also a field of solitudes. I hesitate to make a comment or a suggestion. I know the joy of working a problem through on my own terms. The satisfaction I’ve had making minor discoveries of style and manner. The pride and excitement of self-guidance and the bravura of cooking without a recipe. For this life there’s no true handbook. I’m thinking of the wise bag-lady in “The Dreamway,” who said, “In the wide dreamscape, very few are truly extraordinary, but at close range you are one of the few.” One by one I see everyone at close range. One by one I’m even more convinced. Extraordinary. Everybody here is a specialist.


“Plaid Sweater,” oil painting on Masonite, 1931, by Grant Wood, The University of Iowa, Museum of Art

Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? That’s a fashion-driven reaction to the norms of what’s currently to be expected on half-sheets, sketchbooks, or stretched canvasses. Whether a pro or first-time-out it’s more to do with the brush on the support, the art-mind interaction, private struggle, private joy. At the end of the day, the artists fold away their paraphernalia and glance sideways at their efforts spread casually on the grass. Some want to cover up, even destroy — others hang out in modest expose. The permutations and combinations of color and brush, paper and marker, location and personality have created an infinite variety. Every one’s done differently. Everybody here is a specialist.

Best regards,

Grant Wood_WomanwithPlants

“Woman with Plants” (the artist’s mother) oil on upsom board, 1929, by Grant Wood


PS: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” (Martha Graham)

Esoterica: Sometimes I think we suffer from the tyranny of comparison. Contests, competitions, thrive on it. Who cares? “Since you are like no other being ever created, you are incomparable.” (Brenda Ueland)


This letter was originally published as “You’re special” on June 26, 2001.



  1. A man named Douglas Steere uses a phrase: “holy particularity” which I appreciate.
    I write and also paint, and many times I think: “oh, someone else has already nailed this scene or idea.” Then I think: But they didn’t see it with my eyes… What if Luke and John had said to themselves… “Well, Matthew and Mark have already recorded this story…. what do they need with my take on the gospel?” I am thankful all the time for your encouragement.

  2. I draw from a model with a varied and changing group of people and I feel the same way. We are able to commune with each other while working individually. All of us solve the puzzle in different ways.

    • Lovely letter. I just printed it to share with my next watercolor class for beginners. I encourage everyone to go in their own direction and that we all see and express ourselves differently … not better or worse. “You’re special” says it perfectly.

      • Great thought! Lovely idea to share with my students at the beginning of the class. Six years old to 82 years old, beginners or returnees — all are Special! Very thankful for all the newsletters. They inspire me. Thank You. Happy thanksgiving!

  3. I purchased Robert’s book -a compilation of his letters- and it is, without a doubt, the greatest art book I own. The wisdom of this letter is the same wisdom that permeates all of his letters. Robert is like the northstar, guiding and inspiring the sisterhood and brotherhood of artists. Thank you Robert. I think of you every evening as I lookinto the night sky, and there you are, the brightest star.
    “When we give love we give it secondhand; we get to feel it first.”

    • I need to print this out and post it in my studio! Always the gentle reminder. Thanks so much for keeping Robert with us and for sharing your own wisdom and thoughts. Always an uplift. I love the choice of the Grant Wood paintings. A perfect accompaniment to this letter….

  4. Martha Graham’s quote hangs in my studio as inspiration to those who suffer moments of hesitation (including myself) and also to the naysayers who say it’s all been done before. Comparisons shmarisons!

  5. In the painting, “Woman with Plants”, the potted plant is a “mother-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant”,
    Sansevieria trifasciata. I’m wondering why artist Grant Wood chose that specific plant to depict
    being gently held, lovingly cared for and coddled by his beloved mother?

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop


Featured Artist


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.