A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl
Allow me to paint you a picture.
I am nine years old. My fourth-grade teacher has assigned us a biography project, in which we have to select a historical figure and choose one from a number of project options to complete. Most kids decide to do a book report, because it's the most straightforward choice. A few create dioramas and storyboards.
I, on the other hand, decide to dress up and give an interview as Vincent Van Gogh.
I wrap a bandage around my head to cover my left ear and pull a felt hat down over my thick, unruly blonde hair. I tug on a bizarre combination of a pair of trousers, a button-down shirt, and a suit jacket at least four sizes too big for me. My mother paints an orange beard on my cheeks and chin. After researching Van Gogh's life and writing meticulous notes on a stack of index cards, I hand the sample interview questions to my classmates and perch my tiny body on a stool in front of the chalkboard. They ask questions. I puff on an imaginary pipe and answer as best I can. At one point, I clutch my chest dramatically and mention "troubles of the heart" as a possible reason for my famous self-mutilation. When the twenty-minute interview is over, I hop off the stool, doff my cap, and take a bow to delighted applause from the class.
I wanted to be an artist for much of my childhood. I was an introverted kid, and would often spend hours with my books or art supplies. Getting to draw and paint all day sounded like a dream. Van Gogh was the first artist who made a strong impact on me. My parents and grandmother supported me, sending me to art classes and encouraging me to practice. They even gifted me a beautiful easel, complete with oil paints and an artist's palette, which I would set up in the backyard. I tried to mimic Van Gogh's style, layering thick strokes of paint in an attempt to create the same textured landscapes he did.
Then, in the course of my research for the biography project, I learned that Van Gogh was deeply impoverished for most of his life, despite the obvious brilliance of his work. And that he shot himself at age thirty-seven. I knew I'd never be able to paint as well as Van Gogh. I figured that if he couldn't find success while he was alive, I wouldn't make it as an artist either. I continued making art because I loved it, but I abandoned my dreams of becoming a professional painter. This was around the time that I started to write, and not long after, I started playing classical violin. In retrospect, I swapped one creative outlet for another without realizing it.
Today I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I woke up late to a gray and rainy sky, and figured there was no better afternoon to spend indoors. I went to the museum at 3pm, because the website said that's when crowds tend to be thinnest, but there were still mobs of tourists milling about everywhere. I suppose that since I'm one of them, I can't complain, but I secretly wished they would disappear. The museum is designed to be experienced as a chronological journey through Van Gogh's life as an artist. I was overwhelmed when reminded of the fact that his career lasted just ten years, from age twenty-seven to his death at age thirty-seven.
As I climbed each level of the museum and gazed at Van Gogh's art, I found myself growing increasingly melancholy. It was a sweet kind of sadness, because I enjoy his work so much and had never seen as many pieces of his in one place. But despite the vibrant colors that made Van Gogh so famous, his pieces still somehow transmit the sorrow that followed him around for his entire life. I think that is what drew me to them when I was a child. Van Gogh's art reaches into my chest and grips my heart, and in that grasp I feel the mix of burning passion and profound grief that shaped his life and work.
As a child, I often experienced bouts of depression and anxiety, but I had no idea what they were. I didn't know how to describe what I was feeling, or that it had a name. I remember feeling intensely guilty at times, as though I didn't deserve the life I was given and had to work to be worthy of it. I would feel blue for no reason. I worried a lot, and I had what some might call an "overactive imagination." I would read, write, draw, and paint as a way to get out of my own head, though I didn't realize at the time that art was a coping mechanism. I think something in my subconscious recognized a kindred spirit in Vincent Van Gogh. Which is how I ended up seated on a stool in front of my elementary school classmates, swimming in men's clothing, talking about love and art and painting.
It's also how, sixteen years later, I ended up staring into Van Gogh's eyes through his self portraits, eyes welling up with tears.
I recently said that sometimes there is so much beauty that I can't bear it, and so I cry. I guess that's what happened today. But I also think that in a way, visiting the Van Gogh Museum was like visiting my childhood self, the one who threw herself into creative pursuits with wild abandon. I want to be more like her. Seeing my favorite artist's work reminded me of that. I may not be painting, but I am trying to be a professional artist. I've just traded the brush for the pen.