This has been a rough October emotionally. I felt guilty about my decision not to volunteer this year for the art program at my son's school. Was it because last year was clouded by the feeling that every decision I made in that regard was wrong and that no matter what choice I made it would still be wrong?
One thing I noticed last year when helping to teach art to children is that we often skip past the dark or controversial parts of an artists life or that we minimize them. It was my instinct too. I was afraid that shining a light on those very faults that often drove or created a great artist would be a turn off for the kids. But the problem with that is that it makes things so bland. My efforts to be PC turned things boring. My efforts to follow directions and do what I was told, failed. My efforts to make things interesting made them fussy and too expensive without any real value. My efforts to be efficient made things too small. My efforts to be innovative, well it turns out my ideas had already been done. My efforts to make people smile made them mad at me. I cried a lot!
I tried to think of the way my parents had encouraged me and my sisters to appreciate art. We went to museums, and visited the places our favorite artists lived when we could. We listened to music and had treats inspired by them. But I couldn't do that. I had to bring it to the school. My attempts ended in frustration. My son wasn't happy. I felt like I was pissing people off at every turn. For every encouraging voice there were a dozen more telling me I should do it another way. Is this how van Gogh felt?
By the end of the school year I had begun to hate something that I had started out loving. This is not how it's supposed to be I thought to myself over and over. This is not how my son's life is supposed to be. And yet, I somehow just couldn't say no and I kept doing something that seemed to do more harm to my family than good. Is this how teachers feel every day I wondered? If so, I don't want to be a teacher. So I vowed that I wouldn't put our family through it again this year. I vowed that I would take the time to just "be" with Wyatt and to spend the energy I thought I was using to help others by helping him.
And yet, he was disappointed when he learned I wouldn't be volunteering this year. "Why not?" He asked me innocently. I didn't know how to answer him. Especially when I looked at the calendar and realized that the first two artists on theagenda were dear favorites. Vincent van Gogh being my favorite artist since childhood. How could I explain to my child that it was just too painful? That I was afraid my presence at his school would hurt him. That I didn't want to experience the pain of last year again, and didn't want to revisit the pain that I imagine Vincent van Gogh's felt his entire life.
Before sitting down to write this I purposely did not do a bunch of scholarly research. I am not a scholar and I wanted my impressions of van Gogh at this stage of my life to be pure and tinged only by my love and imperfect memories. These are my impressions based on old research and my childhood fascination with him.
As a child and teenager I loved the song Starry Starry Night by Don McLean. If you ever want to make me cry, just play it. My impressions of van Gogh starts there. He is a misfit. But he is not gesturing and wild. He is a serious looking young man walking down the street in a sensible coat. He walks by me and does not make eye contact but I know he sees me because that's just the kind of person he is. Everybody knows that. He looks smart. I think he's beautiful. I feel a little embarrassed when I see him because I read his letters to his brother. Touchingly humble, hopeful, tragic, loving,sometimes evocative, sometimes mundane letters. His early life included a regular family visit to a grave that bore his own name. Did this ritual imprint on him at an early age that life is short? His world, his paintings began in browns and greys and icy blues and ended in virideans, chrome yellows, and aquamarine.
If he had stopped to talk to me would I have turned from him? Would I have turned away like I sometimes do now when I see someone coming towards Wyatt and me that looks like trouble? Would the visions seething beneath the surface of the interesting and calm exterior frighten me? Would I see the soot and the pain and the madness or would I see his high cheek bones, his thoughtful expression the burning intensity of his eyes loving a flower with every brush stroke?
Would I have embraced him like I have the giant print of his painting Roses from the Annenberg collection? I framed it myself and have lugged it around with me from place to place for about 20 years. So many times I have searched for and found a face to talk to within it's petals, comfort in this green vase of white roses that almost seems to be sliding off the table. And so many times I have whispered to it, "I will catch you."
But would I have? I keep looking at the paintings he did in Auvers at the end of his life. The church looms over a woman walking away from us, the door to the town hall is open but has a thick chain in front of it and Bastille Day ticking obstructs it's face. I can't find any answer here for my son or for myself. Only more questions, a reaffirmation of my regard for Monsieur van Gogh and a desire not to quit. I wish so badly that he could have lived long enough to see the love the world has for his work today.