Interview: Sara Genn

Sara Genn is a Canadian-born artist living in New York City. She exhibits in Canada and the US, with collectors in North America, Asia, Europe and Australia. She graduated with a BFA from Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario in 1994. Genn has been showing her work professionally since the age of 18 and sold out her first solo exhibition at the age of 19. 

Sara Genn is best known for her sensitive use of colour and patterning in soft-edge abstractions. She often references the landscape, personal objects or textile using soaking, staining and impasto techniques in an effort to shift our perception of the traditions of painting and craft. Her work exhibits a mastery of colour concepts and a deliberate, hand-made record of an internal world. Genn has painted on location in Italy, France, the Canadian Rockies, California, New York, Hawaii, Australia and in the Arctic and counts her plein-air practice as an integral informant to her work as an abstractionist. 

Genn’s paintings have been featured on American billboards for Nissan Infiniti, The Toronto Arts Council, in film and television and in Canadian House and Home, NYLON Japan, Town and Country, W, Domino, American Art Collector, New York Magazine, LONY, and Tatler, as well as in the Rizzoli publication New York Parties; Private Views and for the Faberge Big Egg Hunt. Sara Genn is also a composer and independent recording artist, certified Gold in France and publishes a twice-weekly letter on art that carries over fifty thousand direct subscribers. 


“Obos” is a Japanese term for a pile of rocks on top of one another. The obos merely says, “I was here.” A balanced, obvious rock pile, the obos is the creation of human hands. Also, if it is knocked down or desecrated, it is easily rebuilt. It serves as a symbolic sanctuary, a place of refuge and contemplation, a hideout, a shrine, a place of new direction. 

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi and its principles -- asymmetry, asperity (the roughness or irregularity of things,) simplicity, austerity and intimacy nudge toward the striving for balance, rhythm, harmony and defiant softness. It’s an aesthetic that guides all of my work. 

"Never let go of the fiery sadness called desire." (Matsuo Basho)

You mention on your website that the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi and its principal and aesthetic guides your work. What about this idea are you most drawn to? 

My mother is Japanese, and though she was born and grew up in Canada, her personal style and ethos held a uniqueness and elegance that permeated so much of our childhood. Wabi-sabi found me on my last visit to Japan, in 2010. I noticed that the things I'd been so ardently trying to convey in my work were oozing from everyday objects, daily rituals and the environments of Japan, especially in the dream-like, rainy forest zones around the town of Hakone, near Mt. Fuji, where I went with my family and a couple of my stylish aunties. 

These principles of asperity (irregularity,) and design austerity can also be found in the West Coast art of the First Nations people of British Columbia. Growing up in Western Canada, there's a visual language that describes a vastness, a quietness, and magic, always within nature, and often includes a totem -- a temporal object carved from a ancient tree that eventually wears away in the wind and sand -- a marker of spiritual belonging and signifier of welcome and clan. Painting my own kind of talisman, one that may mimic a work of textile and blur the line between art and craft and constructed as a "perfect imperfection" -- is a way of connecting to the intuitive and internal without sacrificing beauty, which is so important in Japanese aesthetics. It's an acknowledgment of what wabi-sabi nurtures: that alive things, including art, are not meant to be finished or perfect, and that many things are their most beautiful when they reveal their transience. 

What else are you inspired by? 

Colour and what it can do for people, explored in the language of abstraction, using deceptively simple visual cues and iconography. It's a decadent and trusting way to connect in art. By decadent, I mean like how time is decadent. One of my favourite parts of this language is "paucity" -- like the spaces in a poem or music. Abstraction is the poetry (as opposed to prose,) of painting. I'm inspired by these spaces -- they are at times, the most beautiful part of communication.  

You also write and perform your own music. Does that affect your paintings at all? How so? 

Up until recently, artists have been corralled to stay within one discipline for the purpose of marketing, which anyone who is creative knows is unnatural. After a childhood studying classical music (since the age of 3,) I wondered how music might make its way back into my life after art school, where I'd spent all of my energies focussed on the visual. It wasn't until I relocated to New York and noticed the anonymity and creative freedom that can come from moving to a new place that I began to write and record music. For me, it was no longer possible to not make music. The two - music and painting - have been astonishing partners. Painting is a solo act, prepared in a controlled environment where all the terrifying events happen in private. Music is a collaborative, performative thing. While a painting will wait patiently to be acknowledged in a static environment (its strength,) music commands an attentive, time-constrained listener (it's charm.) The two connect as loner control-freak and life-altering collision. As time passes, I realize my paintings and songwriting don't differ so much in vibe. They share vulnerabilities and the objects they produce, be it a painting or recording, remain merely records of a transient act. In both, I'm trying to provide something for myself and others. 

What do you love most about your creative process?

I see my process as all hours and all things -- not separated or compartmentalized into the studio and other. The process is a kind of long leisurely daydream punctuated by spurts of steep, practical learning. Trying to figure out how best to make ideas into things requires a chronic, increasingly radicalized focus. I can be happy in my studio for days without leaving. When I become interested in something, I become very interested. I live where I work because I like my work within eyeshot and earshot when I need it, and I don't like to change hats or my pants. I live with my husband, who seems to enjoy the blurred life. My moments of highest expression are within the humming zone of production -- working systems until they're mine until I have physically what I've imagined and can see the possibilities of what else can be made from there. It's the happiest time, and it's broken up only with the quotidians of breathing, eating, loving and such. 

You sold out your first solo exhibition at the age of 19. Do you have any advice for young artists just starting out?  

I got my foot in the door because a local art dealer, an artist herself, was starting a gallery and was looking for artists. She came to my studio while I was home from art school and looked over what I was working on. She didn't take anything but told me she'd come back at the end of the summer. That was my cue to put my head down. When she returned, she took a few small ones, which gave me a chance. Since then, my work has changed as I've grown and I've found that there's always room for improvement in quality and vision. You've got to stay current with your truth. My advice to beginning artists of any age is to work as much as possible and to make work that feels personal and unique. Use archival materials and develop techniques that are yours. Remember always that the commodification of your work is a small portion of who you are as an artist. Creative people mustn't forget this, because it's not easy sticking to what's calling you, not answering to another's brief and working to get better and better, for a lifetime, without any guarantee of acknowledgment or a consistent livelihood. Try to make your payday happen at the easel in the form of satisfaction; emotionally, spiritually, creatively -- this accumulates into a lifetime of mostly happy days.