Genny Rees appeared upon the watercolor scene of Washington in the early 1980s. Her story is one of the merging of her latent talent with a close friendship that came together to cause her artistic abilities to bloom, much like the florals she loves so much to paint.
Genny was born on September 10th, 1927 in the little town of Winona, Missouri, home to three hundred and fifty people. She was born into an immediate family of six brothers and sisters, as well as six half -brothers and half-sisters. Her Father died when she was fourteen. Genny, her mother and sister moved to Oregon, but her mother quickly became homesick for Missouri. So Genny and her mother moved to St. Louis where she attended high school. After graduation, Genny and her mother moved to Seattle to join her sister who wanted them to move in with her.
Genny met her future husband, Donald, in Seattle. They were married for almost sixty years. After they got married they moved from Seattle to Mercer Island in 1951. They lived there ever since, apart from two years in New York where her husband tried out working for a different company. Upon returning to Mercer Island, Donald, resumed working as a Boeing engineer, and a watchmaker in his spare time. Genny spent her time as a stay-at-home Mom to their five children.
Genny had a cousin, Charles Wesley Copeland, with whom she had grown up in that little town in Missouri. He became a talented and famous illustrator in New York. She had always admired his work, and remembered that he could always draw anything. “I think I had him in the back of my mind all these years,” she says.
Finding time to paint while raising five children was hard. Genny fit drawing and painting in whenever she could. As a Girl Scout leader while her daughters were involved in scouting, she was able to bring her creativity to enhance the arts and crafts activities for the girls. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the artistic talent in her bloomed, almost overnight.
In 1982, she joined the Mercer Island Visual Arts League (MIVAL) which is a large group on Mercer Island that hosts a big arts and crafts show every year. In 1989, she joined the Eastside Association of Fine Arts (EAFA), and in 1993 she was voted into Women Painters of Washington. By 1985, she was a signature member of the Northwest Watercolor Society, which is quite a distinction since it requires being accepted into two national shows. Their shows are now international shows.
What was behind this blossoming of her art?
Genny had always been interested in painting and drawing. In the early ‘80s she started actively exploring her artistic gifts, first trying oil painting, and then experimenting with watercolor. She took a weekend watercolor workshop on Mercer Island with Jerry Becker and loved it. “We did little paintings,” she remembers. Then she started taking classes at the Community Center on Mercer Island, and at Bellevue Community College. She took several workshops and avidly observed the demos available at MIVAL meetings. She discovered that she thoroughly enjoyed watercolor. “Then,” she says, “I sold my first painting at a church art show and that sort of made me come alive. But I think it’s always been in me to paint.”
The other factor that has stimulated her emergence as an accomplished artist has been her long-time friendship with fellow watercolor artist, Nancy Axell. They knew of each other since they both lived on Mercer Island, but did not formally meet until 1982, when Nancy’s daughter, who lived in Alaska, needed her watch repaired. Genny’s husband fixed it, and Nancy brought him a pair of Mukluks that her daughter had made to thank him. That was when Genny and Nancy formally met. They shared a common interest in that Genny’s oldest daughter also lived in Alaska. Since then, they have been painting partners, artist friends, and colleagues in the same organizations. They have been able to support each other throughout their artistic careers and have watched each other grow as artists. Nancy says, “I’ve watched Genny’s work get better and better over the years, as she has won all kinds of awards, and rightfully so. It’s been a joy to witness her growth.”
Genny says, “We’ve been friends for so long and it’s meant a lot to me. We’ve done a lot of things together. We support each other with our art, and have belonged to the same organizations: MIVAL, Women Painters of Washington, and the Northwest Watercolor Society. We’ve both been active on the boards. (Genny was president of MIVAL in 1989 and Women Painters of Washington in 1995.) As friends, we could always talk about the same things. She knew what I was doing. I knew what she was doing. We took workshops together and enjoyed watching each other paint.”
Besides her cousin and Nancy, there have been three major influences in Genny’s artistic journey. When she started taking classes at the Community Center on Mercer Island, she studied under a woman named Marjette Schillie. She also took classes from Jess Cauthorn who was a highly respected teacher and, she says, “taught us everything he knew.” Finally, there was Ann Brecken who still teaches around Seattle. “She was, and still is, a great inspiration to me.”
Struggles and Joys
Besides trying to find time to paint while raising her family, a significant challenge for Genny has been how vulnerable it makes her feel when submitting her paintings to art shows. “Putting my work out there in art shows to let other people see and critique is daunting,” she says. “I’ve kind of gotten used to that. I just put it out there and whatever happens happens. Sometimes you get in and sometimes you don’t. There are so many good artists out there.”
When speaking of the joys of being an artist, Genny says, “I’m happy that people appreciate my work. My paintings seem to bring people so much pleasure and that is a wonderful feeling.”
Genny shared how she received a letter from a woman who had cancer and was dying. Genny had given her a small painting. The last thing she did was write a letter to Genny. Her husband sent it. In it she shared how much she had appreciated the painting. “That really made me feel good,” Genny said.
Genny has also enjoyed meeting other artists. “I don’t think there is any artist that I’ve met that I don’t like. They’re all great. They’re all friends, and it feels as if I’ve known them all my life,” she says.
“Just being able to have a piece of white paper and apply beautiful colors to it is exhilarating. When I paint my florals they just come to life. I love all of them.”
The white of the paper doesn’t intimidate Genny. She typically works from photographs, and takes a long time to draw it all out since she’s very detailed. She loves the interplay of color, the light and the shadows. Sometimes she has to rework her painting, but even then, Genny enjoys the whole process: “It’s just a joy to paint. I’m never as happy as when I’m working on a painting,” she says.
Her gift as a watercolor painter has been widely recognized. When asked when she realized that she was a good artist, Genny deflects: “I don’t know. I never think I’m good enough and I’m always trying to improve. I guess maybe I’m good. I don’t know. It’s just something that I love to do.
Lessons and Legacy
What lessons does Genny have for young artists, especially for moms in the midst of raising children?
“Observe everything and learn everything you can,” she says. “Read books. I’ve learned a lot from books. I don’t take as many workshops as some people do, so get a lot of information from my books and videos and from demos at art meetings. I would just urge aspiring artists to paint or draw every day if they can. I try to paint every day. And just enjoy it. Just do it,” she says.
For the past twenty-plus years, Genny has been the facilitator for an “Open Studio” at the Mercer Island Community Center, meeting every Monday from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. “It is a great opportunity to get to know other artists and to help each other or just work on their own art in an open, non-judgmental environment. If you can, see if there is something like this in your community where you can work on what you want at your own pace, get feed-back (if you want it), and not worry about meeting deadlines or being graded,” says Genny.
“My philosophy,” says Genny, “is that people should do what they love to do as well as they can and enjoy doing it along the way.” Joseph Campbell once said, ‘Follow your bliss.’ And that is what I try do as I paint my watercolors,” she says.
When asked about her legacy Genny says, “Well, I haven’t thought too much about it. I’m sure my kids have thought about it. I have lots of paintings and they’re going to have to figure out what to do with them when I’m gone. I just hope my paintings inspire my children and grand children, and bring them joy,” she says.
Genny’s patrons, collectors and fellow artists will no doubt say that her great legacy is the hundreds of bright florals that sparkle on the white watercolor paper brought to life by a masterful hand. But one could argue that Genny’s life is a lesson that one’s devotion to one’s children and one’s artistic calling do not have to stand in opposition, but can flourish together and in the same person.
Come see Genny’s beautiful paintings as well as the artwork of four other Vintage Watercolorists of Washington at Sunnyshore Studio:
Saturdays, March 10th, 17th and 24th, 10am-5pm
Reception: March 10th, 3:00-5:00pm
Sunnyshore Studio is on Camano Island
2803 S.E Camano Drive, Camano Island, WA 98282