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Robert Genn at "Shale-splitters" on the Opabin Pass, Yoho National Park. Photo by Stan Munn.
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"To Awaken in Such a Place"
Robert Genn, "To Awaken in Such a Place," acrylic on canvas, 36" x 40". Photo Courtesy Canada House Gallery, Banff.
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Robert Genn, "Late Surprise," acrylic on canvas, 36" x 40", Photo Courtesy Canada House Gallery, Banff.
ROBERT GENN - Homage
Influenced by classic Canadian painters, this BC-based artist brings his own eye to a striking landscape.
By Brian Brennan
A chance sighting of a famous Canadian painter left an indelible impression on Robert Genn as a child, and seems to have foreshadowed his long career as a landscape artist. In 1940, at age four, he was riding through Victoria's Beacon Hill Park in the back of his grandfather's Hupmobile coupe when he spied a woman in her late 60s sitting outdoors on a folding chair, painting a bridge. "Look, Papa, an artist," exclaimed the boy. "Her name is Emily Carr," confided his grandfather in hushed tones. "Some people think she's crazy."
Though he never again saw the artist he still affectionately calls "that crazy woman," Genn subsequently came to know and admire Carr through her paintings. "I'm glad I caught sight of her once," he says today in a telephone interview from his home in Surrey, BC. "She's had a major influence on my work."
Lawren Harris was another famous Canadian painter who influenced Genn's work. They met casually as neighbours in Vancouver's Point Grey district in 1961, when the 25-year-old Genn was trying to establish himself as an artist after studying industrial design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. He ran into Harris while out walking near his home, and told the artist he was having difficulty painting skies. "Turn your picture upside down," advised the Group of Seven leader. "Paint down from the trees to the clouds at the bottom of the picture to get the perspective right."
"It was very valuable advice," Genn acknowledged afterwards. "Painting upside-down helps you to control the gradation, and work up into the trees in a more abstract manner."
Genn has long known he was destined to become a professional artist. He received early encouragement from his parents, and rendered his first drawings and paintings on the off-cut paper and cardboard his father brought home from the Victoria factory where he worked as a sign painter. At age 12, he entered a local hobby show and sold his first painting - a watercolour of a hummingbird and its nest. When his father started his own sign-painting business in the 1940s, Robert took advantage of the opportunity to learn silk-screen process printing.
Though he attended university in Victoria and Vancouver for seven years, taking various courses that appealed to him, including psychology, sociology, and history, Genn never earned a degree in anything. Mostly, he just doodled in the margins of his notebooks. He didn't graduate from the Los Angeles Art Center School, though he learned about designing automobiles. "I think I've got some form of attention deficit disorder," he says now, half-jokingly.
Genn had no lack of focus when it came to painting. He held his first solo exhibition while studying in Los Angeles, and painted almost non-stop for six months when he returned to British Columbia and established a small studio on Vancouver's Pender Street. He supported himself as a freelance advertising artist while refining his craft, and filled his studio with watercolours and oils of Vancouver gardens, flowers, and remembered scenes from the coast. Eventually, he chose 24 of his best paintings from different genres and burned the rest. "That was really the seed that got me into the galleries," he says.
By the time he was in his late 20s, this largely self-taught artist had convinced himself he could succeed as a full-time painter. A Vancouver gallery, The Art Emporium, had sold a few of his landscapes, and more sales seemed imminent. "I believed in the system," says Genn. "I knew there were artists out there who not only survived, but thrived. This business about artists being poverty-stricken was a bunch of BS." The keys to success, he decided, were professionalism and productivity. "To be a successful apple vendor you must always have apples in your cart."
In 1964, when he was 28, Genn married Carol Shimozawa, a Vancouver-based CP Air flight attendant he had been dating for two years. "I was tired of getting postcards from faraway places," he wrote in his 1981 memoir, In Praise of Painting. They settled initially in Amsterdam, and spent the next 18 months travelling around Europe in a used Volkswagen bus that they bought for $500. Genn took photographs and painted along the way. He eventually covered their trip expenses by selling a dozen paintings to tourists at a hotel in Spain. They returned to Canada by freighter and spent 15 days travelling in the VW from Halifax to Victoria, where they spent Christmas with Genn's family. They subsequently converted the bus into a mobile studio with a desk and permanent easel that Genn could use for travelling around Canada in search of inspiration and subject matter.
Before moving to their present home in Surrey, Robert and Carol lived south of Vancouver in the coastal town of White Rock, which offered an abundance of attractive outdoor subjects for a developing landscape artist. They raised three children, and all of them inherited Robert's love of creativity. "We don't have any doctors or lawyers here," he says proudly.
Son Dave Genn, born in 1969, plays guitar with the Vancouver rock group, 54-40. Son James, 35, writes and directs films and television series, and his twin sister Sarah is a musician and painter who has travelled the length of the Mackenzie River on painting expeditions with her father. She has also painted with Genn in the Grand Canyon, along the West Coast Trail, and, this past spring, in the mountains of Yoho National Park. They followed in the footsteps of Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald, who painted in the Lake O'Hara region of Yoho between 1924 and 1930. Before heading out, Genn said it would be like "dying and going to heaven" because "you're putting your bottom on the same rock that this important Canadian artist sat on."
Some of Genn's acrylic sketches from the recent Lake O'Hara trip are scheduled to be included in a solo exhibition,Mountain Work, at Banff's Canada House Gallery between October 18 and November 2, 2007. "The show was very carefully timed to share the bounty of work that would domino from his trip," says curator Barbara Pelham. "It's an absolute honour to work with Bob and share his work with the world."
The Banff show was also timed to coincide with the release of a new hardcover book by Genn, titled Love Letters to Art. Combined with reproductions of paintings he has done on location in various parts of the world, the book includes 120 of the more than 600 newsletters Genn has been writing twice weekly since 1999 for his website, www.painterskeys.com The website began as a way of communicating with the people who had read and enjoyed his 1997 handbook, The Painter's Keys: A Seminar with Robert Genn. It now reaches 50,000 online subscribers with its reflections on the painting life and an extensive resource of art quotations.
In 2005, Genn used the website to lead an international fight against a Chinese online company, arch-world.com, that had lifted thousands of high-resolution images of paintings without permission from gallery and dealer sites around the world, and put them on sale at prices as low as $15. Genn, whose paintings sell for as much $30,000, found 120 of his images on the Chinese site. When the Canadian government and the Chinese embassy in Ottawa failed to help him, he mobilized his online subscribers to bombard the offenders with e-mails calling on them to cease and desist. "It seemed to work," says Genn. "We got 800 Canadian artists taken off that site. One by one, they fell like leaves."
Currently, Genn is in the process of recording some of his website letters onto a CD with background music provided by daughter Sarah on vocals accompanied by a New York bassist named Keith Whitty. "There's no economic motive in it whatsoever. It's just been a fun thing to do." At age 71, Genn is still prolific in the studio, producing enough acrylic paintings on canvas to keep busy at least ten of the 20 Canadian galleries that handle his work. "They're the ones in the front seat taking the bugs in their teeth," he says. "I run them like a mutual fund. When one is pulling on the oars, the other one may be slacking off. You might not even hear from one for a year. But it all still works out. There's enough cash flow to keep on working."