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Robert is gone. I thought I’d post the letter I, and thousands of other artists received, since it so beautifully conveys the generosity with which Robert graced the world. I never knew him personally, but his being in the world made a big difference to my life. This letter is from his daughter, Sara:
May 30, 2014
 
Dear Sarah,
On Tuesday morning, at 10:20am, Dad passed away. He was at home, surrounded by his family. My brother Dave’s Airedale, Stanley, lay on the floor nearby. This day was also my, and my twin brother James’s, birthday.
A few evenings earlier, Dad and I were sitting up together, discussing a favourite piece of music. “Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has the ability to take you from placidity to power in one sonic breath. It is music of dignity and strength, with primitive, energetic passages, evoking absolute beauty from the simplest of phrases. It brings up something that has everything to do with significance — squeezing joy and motif that you just can’t drop — it stays with you.”
I tapped along on his laptop as he riffed a stream of consciousness, his sense of wonder twinkling, then sparkling, his voice growing ever softer, his hand squeezing mine when we paused. “The thing about art is that life is in no danger of being meaningless,” he whispered. I remembered, again, the wonder of nearing the summit plateau at Lake McArthur, rounding a corner to the West Coast Trail’s packed, silvery strand and, moment by moment, the unveiling of the magic hour on the Bois d’Amour in Pont Aven, Brittany. A few more steps, a couple of breaths to our destination: a silent sharing in the marvel.
I thanked him for the millionth time. We all thanked him as he slipped away. “Thank-you, Daddy, thank-you.”
And what about your twice-weekly letters? This ardent epistolary friendship, this living commitment, a connection and conviction to the imagination and creative heartbeat, and to lifemanship? Dad wrote to you last October, after receiving his diagnosis, and since then we’ve solidified our intention. He wrote:
“From the get-go we have been aware of the value of these twice-weekly letters to artists and others. Sara has helped me with many of them. We’ve shared our artistic journey together and have often talked about this day. One of the ideas we’re tossing around is that she start off by writing once a week. The other letter would be a favourite previous one of mine. If we ran all my previous letters once a week, they would last for 27 years! Finding ourselves at new chapters in our adventure, we sincerely hope we can continue to be of service to you.”
And so, I’ll write to you. And you’ll get Dad’s letters, too. It will be my honour to do so, and will continue to be with the deepest gratitude to you, his friend in art.
Sincerely,
Sara
PS: “Over the days of this journey, a kind of energetic serenity has set in. Something happens with the mixture of space and time. I feel a sense of story. Others have told me you can feel it in your brush, and I do now. A family of mergansers swims close by — the young are almost ready to fly south. Perhaps you have felt it too — it has something to do with purity.” (Robert Genn, on the Mackenzie River, 2000)
Esoterica: Dad’s dream has been to reach artists of all stripes — individuals with a common joy, journeying in this life-enhancing, inexplicable affair of the heart. He wrote, “We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities — to get more joy and understanding from their own unique processes.” With this dream in mind, please forward this letter, or letter of your choice, to someone you think might find it of value. If one, or many, chooses to subscribe, we will exponentially widen — as a diverse and generous community of worldwide artists. “To float like a cloud you have to go to the trouble of becoming one.” (Robert Genn)
“Art is something else. Art is fluid, transmutable, open-ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” (Robert Genn)

“We live our short spans in the vortex of a miracle, and while we may not be the center of that vortex, it is magic to be anywhere in there.” (Robert Genn)

“Love me truly!
Remember my constancy.
With all my heart
and all my mind
I am with you
even when far away.” (Anonymous text, Carmina Burana)

Subscribe, for free, to the Robert & Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letter.

Further musings on Cézanne

January 29, 2014

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Cezanne still life with a ginger jar

Generations of artists have been moved by the work of Paul Cézanne. What is it about these seemingly unassuming paintings which, in the words of Rilke, ‘struck like a flaming arrow’?  He goes on to say that Cézanne, ‘remained in the innermost center of his work for 40 years’.

What is it to ‘remain in the innermost center’ of one’s work; is it perhaps this quality which speaks to many modern painters in our distracted and fragmented times? I know this idea hits me a certain way, as an admonishment and an inspiration both.

I don’t think it is just the freshness and purity of his still-lifes and landscapes that has made him such a (distant) mentor for so many. Knowing something about his life- the early struggle to acknowledge art as his path and  commit to it, and the truly cruel repudiation he received at the hands of critics-  you feel the dogged courage it must have taken to keep painting anyway. And as importantly, to stay true to himself in his work.

In the mid through late 1870s, he was associated with the Impressionists, and was represented in most of their early exhibitions. But he gradually withdrew, finding their emphasis on surface light and the fleeting moments of nature too superficial compared to the direction he felt pulled in. He wanted depth. His approach to nature was to look for the enduring and solid. Even his still lifes reflect a timeless presence.
Additionally, conflicts with some of those associated with Impressionism in Paris could have contributed to his distancing himself from the movement.

Looking at one of Cézanne’s still-lifes, you see numerous imperfections which add up to a lively, beautifully balanced whole. There are some potentially disturbing deviations, where ovals on bowls and pitchers are askew. Some analysts claim these were deliberately done in order to achieve balance in the composition, others disagree. I’m undecided, Cézanne could draw beautifully and I’m sure he had mastered the laws of perspective. Perhaps it is that he was less concerned about getting everything Right. And that the constant interplay of various visual distortions create the underlying tension in the paintings which makes them, as well as harmonious, also exciting and alive.

When artists copy Cézanne, it isn’t the personal quirks, but, I feel, rather an attempt to emulate the truth this work radiates. It is ‘clean’ in the sense of having very little ego overlaid onto it.

Certainly Cézanne was aware of himself as a painter, perhaps even as a key figure in heralding a new modern age in painting. He wasn’t without ambition, but when he was engaged in the work it was an all-encompassing communion between him and his subject.
I sense that reverence and concentration and it moves me.

There is a direct observation of form, yet also something entirely his own. In ‘Conversations with Cézanne’ by Emil Bernard, the young painter observed Cézanne at work, and reveals that over the years Cézanne had developed a complicated technique of working from dark to light, through layers of rhythmic brush strokes, and that through this ‘modulation’ forms were built up directly out of colour.  As spontaneous as some of his work looks, it was the product of a well thought out technique; and he worked with a clear intended direction.

In an earlier post, I said that I thought his still lifes were probably accomplished in a few sittings. They looks so fresh and directly painted. Well, the old man has something to say about this:

I’ve stayed faithful to that object- I copied that there, do you see? There are months of work in that. Laughing, crying, teeth gnashing. We were talking about portraits. People think that a sugar bowl doesn’t have a face, a soul. But it changes daily. You have to know how to look at them. Those fellows over there, the glass and plates- they’re having a conversation. They are constantly confiding in each other.’ (as told to Joachim Gasquet, quoted from ‘Cézanne’, Hajo Düchting)

Back in the 80s, I was already feeling uneasy about my purpose as an artist; and authors like Suzi Gablik were beginning to articulate just where Modernism had gone wrong. At that time, there were few alternatives to the traditional art channels like galleries, museums, concert halls, theatres.

There were edgy art happenings popping up in the fringes; some centring on the damage we were doing to the environment, some focusing more on social causes. Then Gablik came out with ‘The Re Enchantment of Art’, once again, way before her time in sensing what was to come. This book documented artists working with ecological and social themes, and seriously questioning their purpose as artists.

‘Conversations at the End of time’ followed, in the 90s I believe. This was a very disturbing book about art having lost its purpose. There were a few light points, but generally the interviews with artists, critics, gallery and museum curators, documented where art was at the end of the 20th century- in a serious meaning crisis.

In these past 30 years, many artists including myself have been questioning how being in the studio making things is relevant in our times. In a past article, (I still can’t find the source, but the gist stayed with me), Gablik declares that artists can no longer make art in complete disregard for the planet.

And finally, this quietly posed question- once seeming irrelevant to so many in the art fields- is supremely relevant to everyone. With so much breaking down in the society, from the environment to the healthcare, educational, and financial systems, we are asking ourselves how we can use our art to contribute to solutions. Anyone who has worked honestly with their gift knows art’s healing and transformative power. And now, finally,  significant numbers of us are bringing these to bear on the broken world we find ourselves in.

All the small, previously invisible projects and initiatives, are starting to connect. Finally, finally! there is critical mass and something completely new is happening in the arts. All of us who have felt out of place in the commercially co-opted art world and have sensed that there is so much more we can be and do, are getting vindication. Not only that, there is a new sense of purpose in creating.

And the dreadful isolation is over, because in these new times, creating is connecting.

I’ve fallen, by grace,  into a community of like-minded people and will introduce you to them, their ideas and lives through this medium. But I have formed another blog to map these new meanderings and musings. For the moment artcalling is more focused on art process and certain questions about the role of the arts and artists now. And tendingtime is a more personal diary of the journey, meant to start and continue conversations with others in an in between place in their lives and art.

I’ve been working on a book for the past years on and off. It is about why art is important and what its worth is outside of an economic one. Lots of the posts in this blog have been exploring this topic (see, for example the categories art and the market or art and healing).

The deeper I go into it, the more I see that it is not an isolated issue, that the changes needed and indeed happening in the arts are changes happening in every sector and will shake this whole society to its roots.

That is why it feels on topic to talk about an amazing TV program I saw here in Holland this week. Here is a link if you are Dutch. It was called ‘Transitions’ and addressed the present crisis and the creative initiatives happening at grass roots level to come out of it. Actually the projects in the program were not about ‘coming out of a crisis’ but creating a new way of living in society.

The main focus was on Jan Rotmans, professor of Transition studies in Rotterdam. He says that in Holland there are maybe 10,000 creative people who are thinking and acting in a completely new way,, outside the existing paradigm. They are the tippers (ie causing the society to tip into a new way of being),  and the thinkers so far outside of the box that the box doesn’t even exist.

Rotmans says we are in a crisis that is different from any before, that this sort of crisis happens once every 100-150 years, and

it isn’t that we’re living in an era of change, but in a change of eras.

Briefly, this is a deep  and far reaching systems crisis- we are in a transition period between a consumer society and a sharing society.

The program focused on 5 different projects each in a different sector- healthcare, energy, urban design, building, and mobility.  For example, the neighbourhood care project (Buurtzorg) now in every city in Holland and soon to be picked up by the US, Sweden, and Japan. Jos de Blok’s simple idea is to put the responsibility for care and the organisation of care  back into the hands of the professionals who do it,and cut out managers and middle managers. It is based on small local groups of nurses and social workers who hire and fire, manage their schedules, and pay system etc. This saves money and  improves care. And it works.

Another project brings people who want transport together with those who are offering it – a new kind of carpooling, but via internet. Poeple make a profile, there is a feedback system, the payment goes via the site. (Toogethr.nl  – founder Martin Voorzanger) Voorzanger says,

the trend is toward trust not only being a condition for a sharing economy, but the new currency as well.

If people increasingly barter, trade, rent- they take their consuming into their own hands instead of buying from big companies. then this will be the real economy and we’ll stop measuring in terms of economic growth.

The new values emerging in all these initiatives are trust, connection, community building, self sufficiency, sustainability.

So yes, it is crisis, and at the same time it is an incredible opportunity to build new ways of relating to each other, using energy, living in neighborhoods, taking care of each other, and getting what we need in terms of objects and services.

The arts too have a role to play in this transition-  as tools to assist and catalyse transformation in times of change.

So I’ll be writing more about this topic in future posts, and hopefully one day gather it all together in a book to give hope and inspiration to everyone whose heart has been touched by music, painting or other arts. And whose heart, like mine,  is breaking when they see how marginalised and commercialized the arts have become in this soulless society we’ve all created together.

We are capable of better, I know it.

Grouped by colour

Grouped by colour

An artist friend whose blog I follow was interested in other’s methods of reconstituting dried up watercolours. (Do check out Richard’s blog, he paints wonderful watercolours and writes intelligently and inspiringly.)

Years ago I went through my watercolour supply and separated out perhaps a hundred dollars worth of tubes of dried paint. I then cut apart each tube and with a knife or wooden stick, scooped the sometimes sticky pigment out into the stackable plastic pots pictured, I added a bit of water, then I labelled each one. It was  very messy and took a long time but it was a worthwhile and profitable job.

I use them just  like I use my travelling watercolour box with the little squares of colour, just moisten the brush apply it to the dried watercolour and brush the paint on to the paper normally.

I had a good time with the labels. I wanted the pots to look like they were found in some old drugstore or antique shop. I took some paper I’d treated with coffee to age it, then drew the red lines and lettered the names of the colours with a very small (Mitchell 5 Italic) calligraphy pen.

Stackable containers

Stackable containers

To start at the beginning of this extended book review of Between Grace and Fear by W. Cleveland and P Shifferd follow this link. To see previous post, scroll down page.

The last posts dealt with devaluing of the arts and marginalising of artists; what artists need to change in order to do something about the situation; and what it is that artists contribute to positive societal change.

In this concluding post I’ll talk about community arts – this topic was actually the strongest binding factor throughout the interviews in the book. It is here that the socially engaged arts are most visible, and acknowledged as being of great value. And perhaps it is also where the arts are most needed.

Repeatedly as a theme in the interviews, it was stressed that the artist can no longer be seen as an isolated individual with no relationship to- and no responsibility to the surrounding community. In community projects across the globe, artists are working with conflicting cultures, underprivileged groups, and war torn villages. Creating a safe and inspiring space for individuals to express themselves through dance, painting, theatre, song, story-  the artists are helping a community bring forth its creative impulse so it can make its needs and dreams more tangible.

This is different from artists going in to ‘educate’ a community about art. In Holland I often see an attitude toward participatory arts which is oriented first around the artist- a sense of the artist going in to show people what culture is. An exception to this is the HEIM2012 community performance project done by some friends of mine at Moving Arts (Dutch language site).

Whereas in the UK and USA the emphasis is on discovering with the community what the need is, and bringing in one’s creative skills to help those people heal, vitalise and enable themselves. By giving people means to tell their stories and to give them form through the arts,  the arts are helping people move from being passive to being empowered.

Listening and responsiveness need to be at the core of connected art. For an artist to really make a difference over the long term, strategies need to be created with and by people deeply involved in the situation.

‘Committed art activism provides a context for others to take action’.

Between Grace and Fear is a courageous and ambitious book. It is one of several pioneering efforts happening now which will help put art back in the middle of life. The people interviewed  are from diverse backgrounds and disciplines and are each inspiring. I found it at times more of a study book than a relaxing read, but that is because it is so densely packed with ideas and information. It is a wonderful resource for new directions in art and new perspectives about what art is and what artists are here for.

Cleveland ends the book with a bang! Chapter 31 is called ‘Bridges, translations and Change: The arts as infrastructure in a changing world’. It is an amazing and inspiring list of recommendations, actions, and ideas for integrating the arts into all our systems and daily life where they can do their much needed healing and transformative work. I’ll excerpt that some other time.

continued from previous post,  Organisations need to change but so do artists

For the first post in this extended book review click here.

How arts and artists can and do contribute significantly to positive change

The idea that the artist’s only job is to make things to hang on a wall or put on a pedestal is rapidly becoming old news.

Contrary to the thought that artists are grown ups who make vast amounts of money (or starve in garrets) by playing around making art ‘that my 3 year old could do’, artists through their training in creative process and experience develop important skills.  And these areas of expertise are actually vital to remedying the problems our society is in.

Intellect, logic, and rational thinking have led to the imbalance and breakdown of many of our systems.
In his book,  A whole new mind, Daniel Pink argues that a quiet revolution is now taking place where the right-brained skills of pattern recognition, empathy, design, meaning, play, etc  will be the tools used to build a more humane and sustainable future. Artists and other creative thinkers are in demand from corporations, government agencies, healthcare, education, to help them think outside the usual parameters of their systems, and in so doing, help renew and vitalise them.

Why artists?
Artists continually ask, ‘What could we change here? Why not try this? ‘

The artist’s core expertise is to improve on the previous state.

The creative process starts when a question or problem is posed, it progresses when the artist sets out for a basically unknown goal, making mistakes and correcting course until a solution is reached. In these explorations they hit on new insights and solutions which couldn’t have been found within the situation that produced them. Also, because artists operate outside organisations and professions, they are free of the preconceptions which so often limit creative thinking in those places.  This is why artists working, for example, with people with dementia, often get surprising results (lucid moments, deep contacts), with individuals whom the professionals have given up on.

Because the nature of the arts is to speak to the hearts of people, and to go past prejudices and conceptions, they are effective in bridge building between cultures and conflicting nations. They speak to the parts we have in common as humans and bypass debate and argument. So they bring people together in a common space with universal language of song, colour, play, and story.

When artists  run  projects in prisons, school rooms, or hospitals, these places and the people in them are left more vitalised than before the artists came. Arts enliven society and enable people to access their own creative abilities to begin to solve their own problems.

So the arts are vital to building healthy communities and healing damaged ones.  I’ll expand on the community building aspect of the arts in the next and last post about the book.

continued from previous post,     The arts have a crucial role to play   Part 1    Between Grace and Fear

Recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has been strengthened significantly by the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the book.

Expanding the definition of ‘artist’

Art schools are preparing artists for a world that no longer exists- ie the independent artist living exclusively from her work.

1% of artists in the Netherlands are able to survive financially from their work.

1%.

Not only schools, but artists need to think more broadly about how professional arts training can be applied. There is a new definition of ‘artist’ emerging exemplified mainly though not exclusively by many 20-40 year olds working now- the hybrid artist worker who combines many skills in order to enable others to source their own creativity.

Young artists are gravitating toward an art that matters- a more socially engaged application of their creative skills. Jonathan Harris is my favourite example of this. His TED talks on emotions and the web is also worth seeing.

In a recent round table I attended on arts and dementia care, my colleague healthcare artists also commented how being an artist isn’t enough these days. To do our work within the healthcare system we need more skills, those of : diplomat, administrator, group leader, organiser, etc.

In this new way of thinking about artists, artists are appreciated as professionals of the creative process who can bring these skills into other disciplines to help energise and renew them.

In a larger context, as professionals of culture, artists are meaning creators. Through their stories, dance, music, painting, theatre etc. , they create new and hopeful narratives to help people move forward positively in times of change. I’ll leave it here for now, but for concrete examples of projects read the book.  Or see my blog posts on Lily Yeh or Milenko Matanovic.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again.
Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries?
Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict.
Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ The art academies I‘m familiar with are oriented to producing star artists, and the students have that goal too. They are learning about competing and entrepreneurship. What should art education look like in our changing times?

MM In the Seattle area, where I live and work, this isn’t the case. The design schools at which I give occasional talks are all about community and sustainability.

I think the age of egomaniac artists, just like the age of political tyrants, is winding to a close. Collaborative practices will gradually become the norm, and schools will teach collaboration.

Collaboration’s purpose is to relate to each other in such a way that typically irritating differences can be transformed into valuable gifts.

To turn differences into gifts requires strength and flexibility. It involves the confidence to express ideas and the humility to adjust them to those of others’. This requires us to stand in one’s center while falling into the unknown-a demanding circus act.

I feel the hands and bodies are getting neglected in art training. Kids in the United States spend eight or nine hours a day staring at screens – computer, phones, TV – that ultimately function as a buffer through which life is perceived. This creates a more virtual brain circuitry, and the delusion of the familiar, meaning that if I read about something I’ve done my part about the issue.

Art is not about information, it is about meaning, about taking intuitions and information and making internal sense of them.

This is hard and courageous work, and demands that our whole beings are involved. Artistic work should produce three results: a new artwork honoring a new insight, a new artist who uses the process of creation to ‘incarnate’ this new insight into her enriched being, and a community renewed by the artwork. This, in essence, is the purpose of any creative act and hands must be an integral part of the work – something different happens in the brain when the hands, heart, and brain work together.

I feel myself to be less the artist leading a project and more the chef at a community feast: the ingredients are brought to the table by many participants and someone needs to figure out the recipe, one that won’t poison people, one that will be tasty and nutritious. It comes down to synthesizing the gifts of a lot of people.

Continued in Interview part 2

Hands-on and happy

July 22, 2012

I’ve had some time this summer to play with materials and do a small wall painting I’d been planning.

After painting all those flowers on harpsichords, I thought our home deserved a little bit of that decorative cheer. More on that further down.

First, though, here is a sheepy button I found at a textile fair: the little feet dangle free on tiny ropes.

Happy sheep button

Actually, I couldn’t resist making him wearable, so I made a brooch:

Needle-felted hill with embroidered heather, and a needle felted cloud on a wool felt blue sky

I like to think of someone smiling as they put this on and discover the flower on the back

Next I decided to tackle two ugly oil stains on a favorite pair of workpants. Ok they are work pants, but still.
I’d bought a scarf for 50 cents at a rummage sale and cut out some designs from it. I sewed them on, wrong side up, which made the colours more muted and matched the faded trousers better.

Cutting up the scarf

Patched

Happy black drawstrings

And finally, there was a small, neglected bit of wall just inside our back door, outside the bathroom (WC for our UK readers).  I’d been wanting to jazz it up for a long while.

Unjazzed

Voila, a piece of summer garden to welcome

Sweet pea detail

This was done with tempera on wall paint, which worked like watercolours.  I was ok with it when I stopped trying to get the deep rich colours of tempera on beautifully prepared sound board wood.

The work, by the way, was back-breaking, it took about 8 sittings, painting over parts several times where I didn’t like the curves.

I’ll choose a wall where I can stand and sit normally next time.

For photos of a mural I did years ago, on a slightly different scale, see below and click here .

Starting the waterfall for Jeroen’s Jungle