Monday, July 29, 2013

Sheaves of Wheat - The Harvest

 Today is July 29, the 123rd anniversary of the date of Vincent's death.

For those of you who may not know the story of the final days of Vincent's life, I cannot encourage you enough to check out Van Gogh, The Life (see reading list at right), which offers a comprehensive look at all of the theories of Vincent's "suicide," as well as a fascinating epilogue on the events that played out immediately and in the years after his passing.

The painting which you see at above (Ici Repose, Vincent) is my truly final painting for the Vincent Project project.

This is a depiction of the gravesite in Arles where Vincent and his brother Theo were laid to rest.  You can see by the dates that Theo died not long after his older brother, and, in death as in life, they remain closely connected for eternity.

I did the painting using only black, white, and grey hues; I chose these colors because, with Vincent's death, a little bit of color went out of the world forever.

I have spent the last few weeks focusing my artistic thoughts and efforts on two things:

I thought a lot about what doing the Vincent Project has meant to me, and I have started an entirely new series of completely NON derivative paintings - expressing my own ideas and thoughts in a new and (hopefully) unique way.  If you are curious about what I am doing, I am going to post those paintings in a new blog:

In a way, this feels very much (for me) like a graduation from a school led by my kindly old professor Van Gogh.  Now that doesn't mean that I am done learning about art or Vincent or living a creative life - quite the opposite - it means that I am ready to stop learning how to be an artist and start just being one.  I am very grateful to Vincent for that.

Let me take you back a few weeks to the time when I had just finished the 52 paintings that I had required of myself for the project.   There was a mad dash to finish everything on time, and just after I had completed the last painting, my husband took me to Dallas, where he was attending a conference.

Like all weekends I have ever spent in Dallas, it was miserably hot, and the city itself felt like nothing more than a continuous and interwoven strip of overcrowded and smog filled freeway.

There were cool islands, like our hotel (the new Aloft hotel in Downtown - absolutely awesome!)  or several lovely little restaurants, and, of course, a visit to the downtown Asel art supply (which was surprisingly not as good (at least for me)) as the one in Austin.

But mainly, it was a lot of freeway driving directed by rather idiotic gps instructions from the dashboard of my car.

Then I got to go to the museums.

My first stop was the Meadows Museum, which is located on the shaded and very lovely SMU campus.  This was a sober and academic museum experience, and the collection is focused primarily on Spanish Art.  I was there specifically to see paintings by Picasso and Velazquez.  I very much liked the Velazquez, but the Picasso was (in the words of American Idol Judge Randy..) just allright for me, dawg.

But any day in a museum is always better than being on the Central Expressway, so I kept on exploring.

I wound my way through the galleries of somber courtiers and ladies buried under yards and yards of heavy silks, then climbed the staircase at the center of the building to the very top floor, where I found the special exhibition presented by the Meadows.  This exhibit was an extremely comprehensive look at the works of Martin Rico, a Spanish post impressionist en plein air painter who was living and working primarily in Italy, France and Spain during the same era (roughly) as Van Gogh.  His European landscapes (particularly those of Venice) were sublimely atmospheric and Rico was an absolute master of water.

What was truly impressive to me, however, were the hundreds of Rico's sketchbooks that the Meadows had on display.  Filled with meticulous pen and pencil drawings, these sketchbooks were a fascinating glimpse into the artist's eyes and life as he explored a very lovely period in European history.    The dozens of leather bound little sketch books showed that not only could Rico draw extremely well, he was also a champion of precise composition and nuanced detail.

But at the end of the day, I was getting a little bored.  Pretty landscape after pretty landscape.  Multiple klatches of saucy vixens laundering clothes in the river.  A whole museum full of stiff court paintings, with only just a few cubist and modern works thrown in to relieve the monotony.

The Meadows was a fine museum and a worthwhile experience, but it was more like diving into a plate of nutritious vegetables when what I wanted was a taco.

The next day, I went to the Dallas Museum of Art.  This was an impressive space filled with just the type of exhibits that you would expect, displayed in the way that you would expect them to be, in a major city museum.  Stifling a yawn, I thought to myself, "here we go again..."

That is, until I got upstairs.  I knew that there was a Van Gogh at the museum (I tried to get you a link, I can't get it to work... sorry!)  because I had looked it up on their website prior to our trip.   Vincent's painting (one of two in the Dallas museum) is his beautiful double square landscape entitled "Sheaves of Wheat" from July 1890.  This piece was one of 12 similar landscapes that Vincent completed in the the 2 months just prior to his death.   According to the museum website, the argument could be made that these dozen paintings were a series that Vincent was developing; I think that this theory serves to back up the idea that the Dutchman's death was not a suicide.

Like most of the great works hung in museums, Vincent's painting was not the first thing to see when stepping off of the elevator.  Once on the correct floor, I wound my way through a few galleries until I came upon what looked like the entrance to a nice European country house.  I stepped inside to an entryway filled with a most interesting display of decorative iron hinges, door knockers, and other objects set against a small room made up of clean whitewashed walls and inviting arched doorways.

I learned that this section of the museum had been donated by a couple (Wendy and Emory Reeves), who basically replicated their vacation home, including furnishings, knick knacks, and artwork right in the heart of the Dallas museum, so all could enjoy their lifetime of collecting and curating.  It was an extremely interesting glimpse into how fun it would be to be super rich and able to buy amazing art instead of just looking at it.  That said, this level of art really should not be in private homes or offices or (worse!) storage.  I appreciate that this couple made such a generous and interesting gift be their legacy.

Anyway, that first passage led to a light filled and welcoming reception room that was beautifully decorated with comfortable looking benches, warm rugs, and invitingly displayed art work.  I felt as if I had just stepped into the glossy pages of a high end decorating magazine.  My eyes started scanning the room, which looked and felt nothing like any museum I had ever seen before.  In addition to a tall exterior window and accompanying paintings on the two story wall opposite the entrance, there were roped off staircases flanking either side of the room.  Everywhere I looked there were pretty paintings hung over expensive but quite comfortable looking furnishings.  It looked just like the house of a very wealthy friend or relative: relaxed, informal, and luxe.

Then I turned to see the view behind me and finally, my eyes took it in.  Vincent's Sheaves of Wheat.  I knew what I was looking for before I saw it; in fact, I was hunting for it, but when I saw it - the vision of it - the contact with my eyes literally took my breath away.

Vincent had painted that beautiful image.  Vincent had stood almost in the same position that I was standing in.  Vincent had orchestrated his brushes in a symphony of light, and color, and warmth.  The wheat that Vincent painted fed me and lifted me, and suddenly, I just burst into tears.

As the salty flow dripped down my cheeks, I stood there in the museum and cried.  I thought about what a dear friend and teacher Vincent had been to me during this past year.  I thought about how hard his life was, and how much he had enriched mine.  I wept for the beauty of his brushstrokes, the fine restraint and unabashed fervor that he had balanced to perfection in the painting.

People walked by looking at me like I was crazy.  I wasn't sobbing and dripping snot like I could have been; I was just standing there in silence while my mascara puddled onto my chin.  I didn't care if people thought I was nuts.  Vincent was certifiable, but Vincent made THAT, and I was right there in front of it!  I felt like he was standing exactly beside me, thinking about something he could have added or tweaked.  I thought he was going to ask me to hand him a brush... and I thought he might even ask me my opinion!

And although it sounds a little off the deep end as I am rereading this, it really wasn't crazy at all.  I had read and learned and thought so much about Vincent during this past year, that I felt like I really knew him and understood him in that moment.  I didn't feel at all like I was alone, even though I was standing there all by myself.

And isn't that connection, that communication through his painting, that recognition by another person of what it was that he was trying to convey when he painted, what Vincent wanted most of all?

Vincent and me in Dallas.
It was, honestly, one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.  It was certainly the most moving artistic moment of my life.

After some amount of time - I have no idea how long - as I kept on staring at the painting, words started coming into my head:  Prussian Blue, Naples Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Deep.  Ultramarine Light, Thalo Green, Yellow Ochre.  Of course, the colors weren't those exactly, but I knew, in my very soul, that those were the roots of the colors he had used.  And I didn't have to look it up, or confirm anything.  I just knew.

And in that moment, that very moment - where I instinctively understood how Vincent had used the colors, I felt myself at last to be an artist.  Vincent and I had had a year long talk about art, and painting, and history, and the human condition, and finally, and confidently, I completely understood  what it was that he had been trying to tell me.

It was just like Dorothy with the glass slippers - I had always had the solution, I just had to believe it myself.

Thank you, Vincent.  Thank you.

Before starting this project, I was just another unsure and unconfident adult, longing to express herself, who ended up doing anything and everything that wasn't art.

But, like Vincent, who also tried everything he could think of before the art took over, the creativity kept on "leaking" out of me.

I would sign a card with caricatures of myself, my husband, the children and our dogs.  I would sew ridiculously over the top halloween costumes, and "help" my children a little too much with their school art assignments.  When we moved, I opened a box in my attic marked "art stuff" and was stunned at the number of drawings, sketches, pastels, paintings, weavings, an other "art" that I had thrown into the box over the years.

I never thought of myself as an artist.  I thought I was OK at drawing, but that wasn't really art.

I thought everyone (and I mean everyone) could do art at at least the level I could, and most could do it a lot better.  I thought art was just an indulgence, a hobby, busy work to pass the time.

I thought that all the needlepoint kits, and sewing projects, jewelry making, doodles, and decorating jags were just things that middle class women in America were expected to do.  I never saw these past times as truly artistic, unique, or in any way making any kind of significant contribution - to the world or anybody else.

But I was wrong.  I wasn't making a contribution to the world, I was making one to myself!  I couldn't help but making art, and making the art was what was keeping me whole.

I think that Vincent and I have that in common.

I know now that all these creative projects were expressions that needed to get out.  Making art wasn't a hobby, it was a necessity to my own self actualization as a complete human being.

PBS ran a show a few months ago on Neanderthals.  In it, they said that one of the differences between the Neanderthals and Modern Humans was the human ability to create symbols, evidenced by the cave paintings that were left behind (there is some evidence that those paintings may have in fact been Neanderthal works...).

In the program, the narrator stressed that making symbols, or art, is a fundamental human need, and all cultures around the earth engage in this activity.  Symbol making is not a hobby, or a past time or an indulgence.

Symbol making is part of the human experience.  Without our culture, without art, would we be anything more than just highly intelligent animals?  Art does not have to serve any purpose other than the expression of the artist.  Great art takes it a step further by serving as a communication between the artist and the observer.

The symbol serves as language to bind us together as a family, tribe, community, culture, the world.

Even if Vincent has been gone for 123 years, he is not gone for me at all.  He lives on for me, for you, for all the generations to come as long as his work is preserved and enjoyed.

The Vincent project changed my life.  I don't know if it made me a great painter, or artist, or person, but it fundamentally shifted the way I think about who I am and what I am here to do.

Thank you, Vincent.  Thank you.

And thank YOU for reading along and sharing this journey with me.  The blog gave me a level of accountability and commitment that kept me going, even when I seriously wanted to quit.  I literally could not have done it without all of you.

And thanks to Bryan, the Art Demi God, my patron, supporter and confidant.  I hope that you know how much your encouragement has meant to me.

Catherine Hicks
The Artist.  Really.

Please look for me on the new blog, and feel free to follow along.

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