Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel-Van Gogh in the Nursing Home-A Room of One’s Own

Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.

Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.

The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized.  Yet, the tunnel is  a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of  our society and ourselves.

The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.



A Room of One’s Own

Chapter 13

Van Gogh in the Nursing Home

(Google, Self Portrait, 1886/1887, The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois)

(Google The Flowering Orchard, 1888, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, oil on canvas, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, Art Insitute of Chicago, Illinois

“This time it’s just simply my bedroom, only here color is to do with everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, to look at the picture ought to rest the brain or rather the imagination.

The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.

The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheet and pillows very light lemon-green.

The coverlet scarlet. The windows green.

The toilet table orange, the basin blue.

The doors lilac.

And that is all—there is nothing in this room with closed shutters.

The broad lines of the furniture must again express inviolable rest.

Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes.

The frame—as there is no white in the picture will be white.

This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I have been obliged to take.”*

It was Vincent van Gogh, who brought us all together one frigid night in deep winter. An artist who lived some 100 years before, immortalizing his small corner of the universe for us, painting every facet and detail. The trees outside his window, the faces of his friends, the streets and fields where he walked, even his boots, echoing his footsteps. A record of a man’s life forever resurrected through pigment and canvas, his heated colors and swirling lines like waves of emotion seeking us first separately, then communally.

I had absolutely no inkling or premonition of any breakthrough beforehand, expecting the usual state of somnolence and impassivity that had pervaded the sessions at the Home. Erica, of course, would speak, and perhaps May, but the participation of the others seemed highly unlikely. In fact, I had almost canceled earlier, after enduring a root canal that afternoon. My mouth was numb with Novocaine, my jaw tired from the strain of surgery only hours before. I would have preferred to relax, stretch out on my couch, and watch TV instead of trekking to the Home in below freezing temperatures.

Yet, when I saw the self-portrait of Van Gogh flashing before me at the start of class, I instantly forgot my own aches and discomfort. Vincent’s image seemed to burst forth from the screen, his face stark white in complexion and impact, contrasting to the thick orange maze of his beard and hair. Pink and blue speckles bombarded the space around  him, while streaks of red and green appeared to be growing out of his suit coat.

It was his eyes, though, that held me, often epitomizing the most electric and piercing gaze in the history of art, but here sad and tired. Madness was still a few years away, but already the sign of mental and physical fatigue were evident in the hollow cheeks and the gaunt, haggard look.

My own complaints were so minuscule compared to Van Gogh’s pain—and the common suffering of my audience at the Home. Vincent and the residents were kin in a way, mutual inmates of an institution, or in the terminology of his day, asylum. I had never considered the parallel until this moment, although Van Gogh’s stay was much shorter, his end inconsiderably quicker, a suicide at 37.

However, I decided not to tell them of Van Gogh’s insanity: the self-inflicted slashing of his ear, the frenzied rages, the epileptic seizures, and the mortal wound to his brain. It would be my secret. Erica would probably know, but I would somehow distract her from revealing this negative side of the artist.

Instead, we would take a journey to Arles, the town in southern France where Vincent attained the creative peak of his brief career. Studying and working initially in his native Holland and then Paris, it is at Arles that Van Gogh touches us so directly, and profoundly, in a flood of masterpieces totaling 90 drawings and 100 paintings in less than a year. Entreating us to experience the sublimity of nature with him, both its beauty and tragedy: from the pulpy core of a golden sunflower to the vast reaches of the summer stars, from the fresh expectancy of a baby’s cradle to the seedy squalor of the local pool hall.

So I began with spring in France on that February night in Washington. Vincent had departed from Arles  in the same month, escaping from the drab listlessness of Paris in the winter to what he thought would be the warmth and fertility of a southern climate.

Ironically, he was greeted with snow and more cold upon his arrival. Yet, by March, Arles and its environs were magically reborn into a spring fantasy of budding orchards and azure skies. An ephemeral paradise of heavenly almond white, rose peach, and apricot pink, which Vincent was driven to preserve, desperately recording every petal and limb in rapid, energetic brushstrokes.

The only slide I had from the multitude of orchards was The Flowering Orchard, a lyrical interpretation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A composition dominated by one, red-brown tree growing in the foreground, reaching out and upward with delicate, searching branches. The softest, tiniest buds sprouted at its very top—a graceful intertwining of verdant yellow and green—while beneath, an emerald expanse of grass carpeted the ground.

I talked excitedly about The Flowering Orchard, inspired by its compelling loveliness. I surveyed the congested mass of wheelchairs and walkers as I spoke, trying to determine in the shadowy light whether my enthusiasm might just be contagious, infecting at least one resident with the joy of spring.

Yet blank stares and inexpressive features seemed to encircle me—masks of indifference resistant to even the greatest works of art, whether Van Gogh or Michelangelo. I was suddenly furious with them, incensed by their stubbornness and recalcitrance. What was the matter with them? Perhaps I should exit the room now, never to return.

Then the unbelievable occurred. Jennifer, the wheelchair-bound woman usually positioned next to the English lady Isabelle, ventured to comment for the first time on the intensity of Van Gogh’s color, surprisingly sparking a chair reaction of ideas and opinions, spontaneous and uninhibited.

No single voice stood out, as the group was finally in unison. The residents explored every inch of the slide with me, transporting themselves far into the recesses of the orchard, examining and dissecting Van Gogh’s beautiful realm, from the minute blades of grass to the infinite shades of color.

The Flowering Orchard became their cherished possession—a private island of spring that they could enter freely, effortlessly, without fear of sickness or injury. And so were the other Van Goghs that I showed them during the remainder of the hour. After many months of what I sensed as suspicion and distrust, I felt that they were actually accepting me as their guide through the world of Arles: a wheat field; a park near Vincent’s house; the slender coltish figure of a young girl; the mature Madame Ginoux, his former landlady, sitting pensively with a book; and gardens filled with roses and irises.

Yet, we lingered longer than ever before at the artist’s Bedroom at Arles. An interior, as Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, suggestive of “rest or sleep in general.” A simple room atop the second story of his modest house which he rented (with his brother’s financial assistance) in the town.

The spirit of Vincent was everywhere in the room: in the wooden, rough-hewn bed, the plain, rugless floor, the sturdy wicker chairs, and the short stocky table covered neatly with the utensils of Vincent’s toilet—a brush with bristles, bottles, decanters, and an old-fashioned pitcher and bowl.

A mini-exhibition of his painting was displayed on the wall directly over and behind his bed. Beneath what appeared to be a landscape was a handmade board with pegs on which hung the artist’s modest clothes. Also, going to right to left, was a nearly shuttered window, the casements barely touching, a black framed mirror of thick glass, and used towel dangling unobtrusively from its hook, just adjacent to one of the room’s two doors.

But to the residents, Vincent’s room belonged to them as well, They claimed immediate and indisputable ownership of each cranny, nook, and nail. They existentially placed themselves within its homey dimensions, wheeling or walking in a circuitous route from chair to table to bed and back again. They seemed to observe and note everything, from the wonderful red of the artist’s blanket (or scarlet as Vincent described it), to the careful order of his wash table, to the hard seating of his wicker chairs.

Questions also abounded. For instance, why was the floor so oddly slanted, the furnishings and other objects beginning to slide toward the viewer and out of the canvas? And why were some of Vincent’s paintings hung at such obvious angles, leaning precariously out from the flat plane of the wall—as if some imaginary earthquake had permanently dislodged them?

Wasn’t the bed too short for any person of normal height to fit in? Why weren’t the shutters of the window fully opened, allowing in the natural sunlight? And didn’t the glass in the mirror and its white painted surface seem more like a sheet of ice than a reflection?

Yet, despite their apparent scrutiny and criticism of the painting, the residents were devoted to Vincent’s legendary room, with a passion and vehemence surpassing, I was sure, the ordinary spectator.

“I love that room,” May proclaimed at the end of the class, her words uncommonly clear and lucid.

“Why?,” I had to know.

“Because it is his room. It belongs to him and no one else,” she declared emphatically.

A room of one’s own, I reflected afterward, where May and the others could reside separately and undisturbed. A region of independence within a domain of trespassers—of nurses and doctors, treatments and pills, night screams and morning clatterings. Four walls where each one could find absolute rest with the dignity of a human being—a sleep that Vincent truly understood.


*Irving Stone, Editor, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, New York: Signet Books, 1969, p. 398.






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