I’ve been thinking a lot about reinvention lately.
It seems to be what especially we women do with ourselves, or at least, what I’ve done with myself, what with leaving a career to have children and all. And I can sometimes get discouraged about that. But, I just finished reading a wonderful book- “Range” by David Epstein, and I’ve been reminded that I’m in good company. And, as related by the book, by happy coincidence, that company happens to include Vincent Van Gogh.
Of all people.
Because Van Gogh just happens to be a major focus of the workshop that I’m involved in planning for September of 2020, which you can read more about here. Now, pretty much everybody knows Van Gogh as an extraordinary artist, an artist whose paintings have sold for more than any other works of art in history. His sunflowers and irises and stars are ubiquitous these days, printed on everything from coffee mugs to bedspreads to tea towels (I just saw a Starry Night license plate, for heavens’ sake). Most people also know that he wasn’t exactly a raging success during his lifetime. But what people may not realize about him was how very, very circuitous his path to becoming a painter actually was.
He began life in the Netherlands in the year 1853 in a remote part of the country in a town called Zundert. As towns go, it wasn’t much of one, and young Vincent was able to wander the countryside, to his socially aware mother’s chagrin, spending his days observing insects and plants in great detail. He was an odd misfit of a child, and in what appeared to be an attempt to socialize him as well as educate him, he was sent to a couple of different boarding schools. Neither attempt went particularly well, and his school career ended early. Instead, at the ripe old age of 15, he began working with a favorite uncle, trying to become an art dealer like the uncle was. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess that an odd young man who preferred nature and bugs to humans would not thrive at a career involving sales.
Next, he was on to trying to emulate his minister father by becoming a preacher himself. But you know those images of Van Gogh, the self-portraits with the wild eyes and flaming red hair? They are apparently accurate representations of who he actually was, and his zeal and enthusiasm for saving lost souls actually went… well, actually, remarkably well. So well in fact that he apparently began to be thought of as some sort of martyr… which made those in charge of ministry work in the Netherlands a bit uncomfortable, to say the least. And thus he was pushed out of the ministry and towards trying something else.
For an artist who produced over 1300 watercolors, drawings, and sketches in his lifetime, he considered himself to be a poor draftsman (I would disagree with his assessment, but don’t we all tend to be harder on ourselves?) In fact, according to the book “Range”, it was his discouragement at his lack of drawing skill that led to his trying just to paint. It seems that when he discovered painting, he discovered who he was truly meant to be. It only took him about 35 years and multiple career changes before he found his way there. In the final years of his life, he produced what could be called a manic number of paintings.
Vincent Van Gogh quite literally floundered his way towards an almost astronomical level of success.
Let me put this another way: Vincent Van Gogh reinvented himself by trying new things until he found who he truly was.
But do you know what impresses me almost more than anything? More than the price tags now attached to his works? What inspires me so much about him was his willingness, wait no, his zest and enthusiasm, for trying different things until he found the thing that made his heart sing. Often you hear him called a failure at all the things he tried before he picked up that paintbrush loaded down with paint and did things his way, but I don’t think of it that way at all.
I think he was extraordinarily brave for keeping on going.
And frankly, I hope to be like that too. Now, I have no delusions that I will achieve what Van Gogh did. Very few of us will find either the sort of success* that Van Gogh did posthumously, or, thankfully, live the kind of tortured life that Van Gogh did in order to get there. I think that the reality is that few of us live life to the extremes that Van Gogh seems to have done. But I do think that it’s okay, if not actually the goal itself, to continue to try new things and change and evolve throughout our lives. So far, I’ve been an intelligence analyst, a French interpreter for the US Air Force, a homeschooling mother, a teaching assistant in the education department of a university, a historic preservationist, a clothing designer, a gardener, and a cook. After years of homeschooling my children, I’m dusting off the creative part of my brain, sewing up a storm, and loving every minute of it! And I can’t wait for the inspiration that I will find in southern France next September in the presence of two extraordinary artists leading a workshop in the very light and landscape that Van Gogh himself found to be irresistible.
And just maybe I’m about to reinvent myself once again, to add another layer to the process of becoming who I’m fully intended to be. I can’t think of a better place to do that, there where dear Vincent finally discovered his full potential in southern France near Arles and St. Remy, near fields filled with vines and sunflowers and lavender. After all, it was here that he became the prolific artist that he is known for today, producing, among many, many others, the paintings Sunflowers, Haystacks, and his beloved Starry Night. It was here that he became the Vincent Van Gogh whose work we all know and love.
So, anybody else due for some reinvention? Come join us! I’d love to meet you.
And you know what? I think that the most interesting people I’ve met in my life still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.
* I use the word success and its meaning loosely here. I actually think I’m pretty darn successful already in my own way, great kids and great husband and all that. Perhaps the word I should really use for myself is fulfillment, and there’s for sure no one pathway towards that one! However, I have exactly zero expectations that anything I will create in my lifetime will ever, ever be worth $82.5 million, as Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was sold for. And I’m completely fine with that.
Though it would be one heck of an inheritance for my children.
Epstein, D. (2019). “Range.” Riverhead Books.
Naifeh, S., and Smith, G.W. (2011). “Van gogh: The life.” Random House.