Starry, Starry Night….
What Do You See?

Starry Night

When I was a junior at Muskingum College, I took a 10-hour art history class called simply The Arts. It was a required class, which you could take in either your junior or senior year. Fortunately, I took it in my junior year. While I didn’t ace it, I did impress Louie Palmer, the professor. It was enough that he asked me to be his teaching assistant the following year. That golden opportunity changed me…radically.

As an undergraduate, I taught several subsections each week and wrote the midterms and finals along with grading them both semesters. Louie gave me a chance in a lifetime to prove to him that what he saw in me was correct. In my twilight years, I have taught art history many times. I would love to teach that class 24/7; it is my favorite humanities class.

Additionally, painting is probably the one area in art history that truly fascinates me. Name a painter, and I’ll explain an array of things about which that artist mastered and why. For example, I love much of what Vincent van Gogh was able to do with his brush and colors. He was a post-impressionist. Of all of van Gogh’s paintings, I especially love Starry Night. I went to the Art Institute in Chicago years ago when that painting and several dozen others were on a world tour.

I stood mesmerized by that painting, which is over two feet high and three feet wide. However, I would like to know about the actual depth of paint that van Gogh added to the canvas. Unless you are very close to the painting, you cannot appreciate that he painted Starry Night with mostly shades of blue and yellow pigment that were surely more than a quarter inch thick.

The scene of Starry Night is the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence as van Gogh saw it from his hospital room in the summer of 1889. Here was an artist that was beset with a long litany of medical and emotional issues facing him. Here was an artist who painted while he wrestled with attempting to see things as a normal person saw them. That accounts for the halos around the stars.

Interestingly, I had an appointment with my cardiologist, Dr. Marchand, within several days of returning from my first visit to Myanmar. He checked my blood pressure and said to continue with my medicine. However, I asked him why I was so wound-up having just returned from Myanmar. He replied that it was due to my endorphins. I dismissed the endorphins rationale. Realizing that I was quite serious with my question, he stopped and looked directly into my eyes. Once he got my full attention, Dr. Marchand uttered, “You have seen the light.”

Vincent van Gogh and I experienced an interesting shared experience. I too was living but not seeing everything clearly. Van Gogh painted Starry Night, and I saw the light. Listen to Don McLean’s song about Vincent.

Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now
Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue
Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you
Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget
Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in the ragged clothes
The silver thorn, a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow
Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will

While I have some medical issues, I am not facing the onslaught of problems that van Gogh faced. Nonetheless, I learned from van Gogh how to face seemingly monumental problems. And, you, my reader are thinking, “So, what did you learn?”

Since you asked, I’ll tell you if you promise not to forget this essay. Vincent van Gogh looked at life and then went back to his painting to create beauty in the midst of despair. He faced troubles and continued to paint. He didn’t quit. He didn’t tweet nonsense or call people names.

Essentially, van Gogh said, “Screw my problems. I want to paint.” And that was precisely what he did…he painted. He painted some of the greatest paintings in the world. I am not a great painter; I can’t paint. However, I love teaching. Why do I love teaching? My father was transferred from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh just after WWII. Since he didn’t go to college due to the war, he was going to move to the best school system in the Pittsburgh area where his three sons would get a good education. He did. Mt. Lebanon had the best schools in Pittsburgh. In addition, Mt. Lebanon was the 19th best school system in the entire country.

My dad’s sacrifice for his three boys taught me one thing: I was dumb. While I managed to get Cs and some Bs and As, that was considered dumb by my fellow students. It wasn’t until Louie Palmer made me his teaching assistant that I started to think that I wasn’t as dumb as I felt. I learned to push on and to try again and again. I’m still teaching in the States.

Of equal importance, in less than four months, I will be returning to Myanmar and visit my family. While there, I hope to talk with some of my three granddaughters’ teachers. I still want to raise a half million dollars for laptops for 1250 student.

Now, there are others in the world that don’t share the feelings of drive and determination that van Gogh taught me. One of them, who lives in Washington, doesn’t like anybody like Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, etc. Instead of creating beauty and happiness for Americans, he labels people based upon their race, religion, color of their skin, and ethnic background.

One final thought. To paraphrase a verse from Don McLean’s song, “This world was never meant for one like you, Donald.”