Vincent & I by Sharon Moore Foster

by Sharon Moore Foster, 2002

My first real experience with Vincent was unusual if not bizarre. We locked eyes in the Russian Tea Room on the downstairs landing en route to the Ladies washroom. I stopped cold, with a shiver, as our eyes met and clung—hazel green eyes shocked into awareness by the steady, unwavering china blue gaze.

Why had I never noticed him before? I had gone down those stairs countless times in the past and never before “seen” him so clearly. I shook my head, continue on and returned on my way aware of his gaze, deliberately choosing not to engage.

The next visit to the Russian Tea Room, I numbly made my way downstairs. I again found myself arrested, compelled into stillness and consciousness by the shocking clarity in those same exotic blue eyes. “What does he see?”, I thought. I want to look at life that way—wide-awake, passionately, intensely and unwaveringly focused on what is out there, not in my mind. After an almost reverent pause, I threw back my head and laughed aloud, marking and enjoying the reverberation of my big round laugh in the empty space.

We continued “meeting like this for over three months. Each time I looked into his uncompromising blue/green eyes, I stopped, shivered, tingled back to present time and went on my way—restored to a “self” I recognized but have not kept in touch with for many years. Outside of the Russian Tea Room, I began to notice my own eyes in the mirror each morning—their increasing clarity and focus reflected back to me as a  promise, gentle and persistent, of illuminating sunshine, verdant growth, new life.

At this point my relationship with Vincent escalated. I was invited to work with a group of artists on a fund raising auction. The theme? “An Evening with Vincent van Gogh”. I couldn’t believe the synchronicity of the event.  I was excited and enthused to be nudged into greater intimacy with someone I not only liked and admired, but someone increasingly instrumental in reconnecting me to my “self” and the world. JOY!

During the first Sunday painting experience, I was exposed to the breadth and magnificence of the work of van Gogh. Through slides, prints, and chaotic tumbling stacks of art books, I ran, swam and wheeled through the course of Vincent’s visual life. I thirsted, gulped and ingested the energy and vitality of each brush mark, and the amazing, intuitive-not-making-sense colours of his palette. I was ablaze with passion and energy, eager to paint—to begin again. I was eager most assuredly because I would be copying his work and not boldly encountering the blank canvas myself. What a relief, I thought—to be allowed, NO, to be invited, urged, to paint again—as a labourer of art, a doable, step by step job. An apprenticeship requiring only that I shop up; no courage, no brilliance, no “giftedness” required—simply by presence and hard work. I can do this!

It wasn’t as easy as I thought, after three hours of circling the perimeter, dashing in for a “bite”, a piece of Vincent’s work to copy that didn’t scare me or of “bite” back with it’s luminosity and indefinable, incopiable energy. I sat down to paint. I stood up to paint.  I tentatively brushed the surface with beginnings of marks. The canvas growled back. In fear and desperation, I lumped on colour after colour—raw, dissonant hues jostling for position and dominance. Finally out of paint, I surrendered, exhausted, discouraged and disheartened.

I was not Vincent van Gogh—I was Sharon Moore-Foster. No matter how I tried to emulate him or infuse life force into copies of his art, it simply wasn’t there. Phhhpt! No sizzle, no real encounter. No energetic, insistent, have-to-get-down-fast, seize the moment painting. Put down the brushes and slink away Sharon…

The next week I returned to the Russian Tea Room. I borrowed the Self-Portrait by Vincent, the poster than hung in the downstairs landing. It was tattered and abused, but intact in its embodiment of Vincent’s incredible life force. The china blue eyes, clearly, relentlessly, without judgement, observed me and the world. I felt bone-melting peace. I had been seen. I had been recognized and accepted. I felt his voice whisper “Break loose from your bond. I do not know the future. Make a thorough change. Try the heath.”

Back to the studio and paint. I chose to paint Vincent’s eyes, “the eyes that know the darkness in my soul”. I timed myself—17 minutes a painting. I worked frenetically, senselessly. I didn’t see the palette. I responded to it intuitively, not because I was “at one with the universe”, but because there was no time. 17 minutes. I painted fast and furiously, without thought. See. Respond. Take another look. Paint another colour; the process is as pragmatic as making a meal, 20 minutes beginning to end. Add a dash of this, a pinch of that. Quick judgments. Yes, that adds body; no, that’s too flat. I paint five pieces and a fabric panel, all copies of of parts of Vincent’s works. But they are my paintings too. My energy, my process, my life force, my intuition.

That Sunday I learned how to work. I learned how to paint. I understood that you cannot infuse your art with vitality and passion you don’t possess. In that slowly savoured exhalation, I knew that if you show up day after day, alert, observant, brush in hand, the vitality you do possess tingles in response to all that is in you and around you—that energy will “encounter the blank canvas”.

Vincent would say, “For myself, I have a simple plan: I go out and paint what strikes me, steep myself in the fragrant air of the hearth and believe that in time I shall become fresher, newer, better.”

Thank you Vincent.

Sharon Moore Foster is
an active visual artist &
art educator in the
Edmonton area.