Artist, dreamer, humourist, friend. Born on May 15, 1936, in Victoria; died on May 27, 2014, in Surrey, B.C., of pancreatic cancer, aged 78.
When Robert was three years old he did a drawing of a duck, and so began a life of observation, and appreciation of the natural world. He spent a boyhood collecting – mushrooms, photographs, rotting wood, stamps, old cars, bird specimens – for drawing.
As a young man, he took road trips with his Brownie camera and plein-air easel, through B.C.'s Goldstream Provincial Park, Mount Douglas and into the Okanagan Valley, before driving to Los Angeles in his 1929 Hupmobile Coupe to study industrial design at the Art Center School.
At the end of his studies, Robert returned to Vancouver and dabbled in advertising before committing to a life of fine art. He rented a studio on Pender Street and sequestered himself there to develop as a painter. He had made the decision to avoid auto-industry design teams: "My muse needed me to be my own team – to design alone."
He did build a team, however, with his 1964 marriage to Carol Shimozawa. They built a studio beside their waterfront home above the Nicomekl estuary at Crescent Beach in Surrey, and raised three children, David, James, and Sara – all now artists. For the next 50 years, Robert devoted himself to his family and his art, nurturing friendships with dealers, collectors and other artists in Canada and around the world.
In recent years, he took trips into the Canadian Rockies, painting the locations of John Singer Sargent and Group of Seven co-founder J. E. H. MacDonald. Yoho National Park is little changed since MacDonald's forays of the late 1920s, and on one visit Robert found a comfortable rock for sitting, where he began painting lichen-covered boulders and snow-patched peaks. He noticed an ancient smudge of yellow ochre on a nearby rock. Later, with the help of an art historian friend who was also head of the Lake O'Hara Trails Club, Robert compared an 8x10-inch panel of MacDonald's with his own work, and determined they had favoured the same seat and view. The next summer, at that same place, trail club members unearthed MacDonald's billy can and turpentine stash.
In his 70s, Robert pioneered what he called heli-painting, venturing with other artists into the Purcell Mountains, near Banff, to be dropped by helicopter onto remote plateaus where hidden tarns and waterfalls could be captured.
His work seemed to grow more spiritual and enchanted with each decade. He delighted in the opportunities for counterpoint in landscape work – sky pockets among deep forests, light-zips over an island's horizon. He journeyed by vintage tug along the waterways of the Pacific Coast, chased the eroding First Nations villages, fished with his lifelong buddies and bargained with seaplane pilots, stealing solitude at lonely islets to paint and write.
One afternoon in 1998, while sojourning with his family in southern Spain, Robert wrote an e-mail letter to artists – words of encouragement and a stream of consciousness riff on creative life. His letter grew into a blog, and soon he was sending a twice-weekly e-mail letter to thousands of artists worldwide. He wrote these until his death, and they continue to reach an ever-growing community. Along with his paintings, Robert's writing on art embodies his tenderness, humour and the triumph of the creative spirit.
Sara Genn is Robert's daughter.