Renowned South Surrey painter reflects on journey

South Surrey artist Robert Genn reflects on a lifetime of sharing his artwork to the community and beyond. - Alex Browne photo
South Surrey artist Robert Genn reflects on a lifetime of sharing his artwork to the community and beyond.
— image credit: Alex Browne photo

For Robert Genn, every painting is part of a much larger picture.

Not too long ago, his unflinching gaze took in the patterns and shapes and colours of his mountains and rivers and lush valleys plein air, interpreting them just as he saw them, in masterful incisive line and quickly-delineated areas of light, shade and pigment, on larger canvases or in smaller "sketches."

Now, the canvases are all small, more easy to balance in a crook of his arm on the recliner-chair he refers to, wryly, as his "horizontal easel."

With his daughter, Sara, working on her own canvases nearby in Genn's South Surrey studio – and faithful airedale Dorothy lying contentedly at his feet – the internationally known artist concentrates on reproducing views from his mind's eye, landscapes drawn from a personal memory bank of the magnificence of nature.

He has spent years approaching such views, by car, plane, by boat or on foot – across Canada, and all around the globe. And it's clear from every brushstroke that he has never lost his lifelong sense of wonder at them.

Late last year, Genn, 77, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Since then, the painter's awareness of his own mortality has been just as unflinching, just as individual – and just as matter-of-fact – as his artistic gaze.

"With the type of cancer I've got, it's pretty much set that you have six months to a year," he says. "It's been about six months so far – and I'm not one of the one-in-20 people that has an easy time with it.

"I've been coping with that understanding and I've been keeping on painting, which is actually something I have trouble getting stopped."

Even so, he tires easily, and there is ever-present pain and other problems that he can't minimize; regular doses of chemotherapy and what he calls "going into the shot barn – that knocks hell out of you for a couple of days."

"So I decided to stop doing that and go for an oral pill, but that knocks you into a cocked hat."

He acknowledges he is "aided and abetted" by a "particularly tender and supportive family who bring me paint, and bring me this and that."

"There are times when I'm depressed, times when I'm bugged. I actually get tired of cheering up people who come in here with a long face."

Genn admits his relatively upbeat philosophical approach to his predicament "has to do with my attitude about life."

"It's a far easier, less impactful thing than a birth," he observes, although he considers the winding down of his life akin to a birth in terms of "the things we want to move onward with – educating and helping young people, rather than simply slipping away."

A big part of that continues to be the twice-weekly series of subscription email "letters" of ideas and inspiration for artists, in which his own entries have lately been augmented by pieces by Sara and reprints of columns.

In 14 years of writing the letters, he says, he's come to realize how much the world has changed from when he was first invited to give a talk to the Port Moody Art Association back in the late '60s, doing a "demo" for a handful of people.

"I didn't even know what a demo was," he chuckles.

When he first started establishing an online presence, with the help and guidance of Sara, he was amazed that his musings – not just advice and encouragement, but also reflections on what it means to be an artist – picked up 7,000-10,000 subscribers in the first week, and within six weeks recorded between 100,000 and 200,000 views.

"We've changed from a rather limited local phenomenon to a universal wide-ranging phenomenon. It doesn't matter who you are or what you paint, you're part of a great thing. It isn't just about being part of the Italian Renaissance – it's a universal need and phenomenon."

The basic message he has to offer to artists hasn't changed – keep painting, keep creating, keep growing.

"You've got to get up in the morning and fight your devils; try to do better today than you did yesterday. If you let that end, you're going to be disappointed.

"The biggest thing is the appreciation of the magnificent universe we have around us. Being a painter, particularly, is beyond belief as a way of honouring that. Painting – particularly painting on location – is almost like prayer. It's defined who I am and what I am."

Genn wryly reflects that his early career as a commercial artist, "designing labels for soup cans," lasted barely a week.

"I don't remember now whether I handed in my notice or whether I was fired."

When he decided he would live as an artist or not at all, opportunities materialized that allowed him to make a living doing what he loved – and he hasn't looked back.

Whatever else people have to do with their lives, they must take time to pursue their artistic selves, he says.

"Travel, take workshops, see the world – honour the world. The joy is that life goes on and a new generation comes in to take over."

Genn reflects that having some finite limit on life should come as no surprise; we all face an ending at some point, and even the healthiest of us could be knocked down by a truck tomorrow.

"I feel I've still got something to contribute – having that taken away from you is saddening," he admits. "But I'm not really afraid of it. I'm not afraid of the 'gods' – either Eastern or Western.

"I would have preferred to stay on the planet a little longer, but I have been here for 77 years.

"And I could be fooled, and be around for a little while longer yet."


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