November 6, 2008
I drew a path to the playground
And all my friends were there.
— Lynn DeAngelis, b. 1985
from an ekphrastic work inspired by her own drawing
It was a small picture and she was looking at it upside down, but it caught Lynn’s eye as she stood across the kitchen counter from me while I perused the Sunday paper when she was home a few weeks ago. “That’s Starry Night,” she said. I looked up from the article I was following and saw that, yes indeed, that was Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, severely squinched* and suffering greatly from being rendered in pale inks on newsprint. But if you love this painting as much as Lynn does, you’ll recognize it no matter how badly it’s displayed.
Until she was in about middle school, Lynn was an avid and active artist. She progressed quickly through the stages of children’s art development, from scribbling to rudimentary shapes to more realistic and recognizable (to someone other than herself) scenes around which she could fashion a narrative. Before she could write words she used drawing to communicate. She drew one scene of her grandmother and a neighbor watching her play with the neighbor’s dog, and sent it as a sympathy note when the dog died, asking me to put “I will miss Peaches, too. Jesus will take care of you” across the bottom.
When she was six she began taking group lessons on Saturday mornings at the Art Association of Harrisburg. She had a talented teacher who was able to help the children develop a variety of technical skills without crushing their creativity. When it came time for the student show in the spring, Lynn chose a pastel on paper landscape that she was most proud of, seen at left above her left shoulder.
The framing cost more than the whole semester of lessons had, but I was pleased with the result. When we took it in to be entered in the show, we learned we needed a title.
“It’s called Starry Starry Night,” Lynn told the man doing intake that morning.
Personally, I thought the white splotches were snowflakes. “Someone’s already used that title, and it’s quite well known. How about Snowy Night?” I said.
But she insisted they were stars. The man helping us was a well-known local artist with a lot of teaching experience. He propped the piece up and stepped back.
“I’d have to say those are stars,” he said. “If they were snowflakes, there would be some on the ground. How about Three Trees in Winter?”
Lynn liked that. She signed the intake form, and we left.
I sensed a teachable moment. On the way home we stopped at the library. I told her about the famous artist who painted dazzling night skies over hushed fields and shimmering water. I found a book with color plates of Van Gogh’s work. We sat at a table and turned the glossy pages past his wheat fields, his sunflowers, his self portrait with the bandaged ear. When I turned the page to the painting I wanted her to see, the shapes in the night sky seemed to whirl out at us and she gasped. “See?” she said. “They are stars!” At home, Lynn wrote a poem (quoted above) about what her drawing represented. It was about visiting a playground at night when no one was there and remembering having fun with her friends.
About six months later, The Starry Night visited the Baltimore Museum of Art, an easy ninety-minute drive from home. Over Christmas vacation I took Lynn to see the exhibit, and I think, in terms of our ability to interact with a piece of art and our appreciation of Vincent van Gogh, it was life-changing for both of us. She bought a framed poster of the painting, the one piece of art she took with her to her college rooms and that now hangs in her apartment. We would see the painting together again when we visited New York the summer before she started high school.
The article in our Sunday paper that caught Lynn’s eye was a short notice of a current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night explores the artist’s “depictions of night landscapes, interior scenes, and the effects of both gaslight and natural light on their surroundings.”
“I’d like to see that,” Lynn said.
What mother, seeking to carry the best of childhood forward into her relationship with her independent adult daughter, could pass up that opening?
We’re going to New York together tomorrow.
(*This is an actual word. I looked it up. I thought it was “squonched.” I was wrong.)
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