The Masters | Anguish and Gratitude: Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers with Heart

Vincent Van Gogh. “Three Sunflowers in a Vase.” Oil on Canvas. August, 1888, Arles. United States. Private Collection.

I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with all the sunflower goodness this week. Sadly, we’re just two more posts away from the end of “Sunflower Month.”

I am clearly intrigued by the approach of the masters to the sunflower. Many of them seem to have been as taken with its luminescent beauty as I am. I am in no way an artist like the masters featured all week, but sunflowers are certainly the most doodled flower in my journals, sketchbooks, and letters.

When I began this final week of “Sunflower Month,” I had intended to do only three posts, but I got a little carried away because there were more than three sunflower masters in my collection. My favorite, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch Post-Impressionist, was always on the list. Let’s consider the “sunflower tree” a bonus post, because this week of masters will not be complete without attention to his still life sunflower series—especially with the final masters post I have in mind. 😉

Vincent Van Gogh. “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.” Oil on Canvas. August 1888, Arles. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

From 1888-1889, van Gogh completed seven sunflower still life masterpieces in the studio he shared with Paul Gaugin in Arles, France. He had intended to fill the walls with their brilliance before Gaugin’s arrival. The two featured above are in my postcard collection, thanks to Debbie T, my Love Notes pal (Twelve Sunflowers), and Eepy on swap-bot (Three Sunflowers).

There are four others in the Sunflower Series that were completed in 1887 in Paris. One of them–Four Cut Sunflowers (below)– took my breath away the first time I saw it!

Vincent Van Gogh. Allotment with Sunflower, Paris, July 1887. Oil on Canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

In a letter to his sister Willemien, van Gogh writes:

[…] the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower.  (Letter 856)

Perhaps this tension explains why van Gogh’s “still life” sunflowers are anything but “still.” Each sunflower–in the vases or cut and wilting on a table–is full of personality, life, and movement. Each evokes an emotional response.

I read somewhere that van Gogh wanted to be remembered for his brilliant sunflowers (goal accomplished!) and that people honored his desire by wearing sunflowers to his funeral.

What a radiant sendoff!

Like the Heart

Let me seek You
in the darkness
of my silence

and find You
in the silence
of Your light.

which is
love shining
like the sun

flowing
like a river
and joying

like the heart

Meister Eckhart | Sweeney and Burrows

The Masters | John Bratby’s Sunflowers

John Bratby, Sunflowers I, Oil on Canvas

For our final week of Sunflower Month we will survey a few sunflower masterpieces–works of the sunflower masters that leave us in awe. We cannot possibly feature all the masters, so we will focus on [some of] those who are featured in my personal “sunflower collection.”

The sunflower art above is featured on the cover of Book of the Heart, so it is perfect for our first post of the week. The oil painting was one of many sunflower paintings by English artist John Bratby (1928-1992), best known for his central role in the Kitchen Sink School of Art, a style of realism active in London between 1952 and 1957.

We have reached the point in the pandemic at which we are all overwhelmed, anxious, and restless, so I will be sharing with this week’s sunnies selections from Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for a Restless Soul. In this collection Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows “attempt to [re]voice” the mystic’s thoughts. I hope the posts brighten your days (sunflowers) and stills your soul (Eckhart).

“Sometimes You Have to Break Things”
Meister Eckhart | Sweeney and Burrows

It’s true:
Sometimes you have
to break things
if you want
to grasp God in them.
In the breaking,
we allow what is holy
to take form
in us.  

Be sure to click the links to learn more about Bratby and his art and be sure to join us for more, more, more brilliant masterpieces!

#ThursdayTreeLove | Le Flamboyant

“Le Flamboyant,” 2003, Enel Desir. Acrylic on Canvas.

Isn’t this a stunning work of art?

I pulled “Le Flamboyant,” the image above, from an old agenda that I can’t bring myself to toss because it is beautiful and educational. Though I love the rural scene depicted here, we all know I am drawn to this masterpiece because of the “flamboyant” or flame tree, which dominates this work of Haitian artist Enel Desir.

Enel Desir was born in Cavaillon, a small town in southwest Haiti, and began painting at a very young age. While attending the lycée [high school], he worked various jobs–as a photographer-reporter, a calligrapher, and an illustrator. Under the supervision of a French art teacher, Desir studied the work of such great masters as Velasquez, Renoir, and Rembrandt, which had tremendous influence on his early style.

One of his favorite subjects is the Haitian market scene, which he interprets through his colorful depictions of merchants selling flowers, and his still lifes of local fruits and vegetables. The colors Desir uses–soft green, red, orange, light blue, and yellow–enhance the appearance of the black skin of the human figures in his paintings. In 1991, the art critic Ed McCormack compared Desir with the great Mexican muralist Siqueiros. “Desir,” McCormack said, “creates sophisticated pictorials.”

Desir has participated in numerous worldwide exhibitions; his paintings have always been well received, particularly in the International Exhibition of Seville, Spain (1992) and in South Africa. Very much in demand, his works have been featured on television and in museums, books, magazines, and newspapers around the world. He was a featured artist at the Organization of American States’ exhibit in Haiti, held in Washington, DC, where he resides and paints. –from 365 Days of Black History, IOKTS Productions, published by Pomegranate.

I have had little success with finding more of Desir’s art via the internet. One brief biography of the artist pointed out that though he is a prolific artist compelled to create art, his work is scarce in the marketplace. I did manage to find one other image at the Galerie d’Art Nader of Haiti.

For actual photos of the beautiful flamboyant tree, click here.


I am joining Parul Thakur for #ThursdayTreeLove every second and fourth Thursday of the month. If you would like to play along, post a picture of a tree on your blog and link it back to her latest #treelove post.

Tired like Langston

“Langston,” Lynita Solomon. Used by Permission of the Artist

Yesterday, I read a Facebook post by a woman who denigrated Vice President Kamala Harris for no good reason. The woman asserted that Harris is not a role model and no one should have their daughters look up to her.

The post and responses were hateful and extremely disrespectful. I can’t figure out how people can stir up so much hatred for a person they don’t know just because they don’t agree with the person’s policies or positions on certain issues.

Beyond this illogic, some made lewd remarks and [like the original poster] claimed Harris did “anything” to reach the VP position. The whole thing was disturbing. And to make matters worse, the post was “liked” thousands of times and shared more than 17,000 times!

The comments played into the hypersexualized view of Black women that was written into the narrative of American history to cover the multitude of white men’s violations against Black women’s bodies and personhood. The narrative is hurtful and just as dangerous as the one that gets Black men and women shot for just breathing.

Like the speaker in Langston Hughes’s poem, I’m so tired.

Tired
Langston Hughes

I am so tired of waiting.

Aren’t you,
for the world to become good
and beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
and cut the world in two —
and see what worms are eating
at the rind.

About the Image: The art above is the work of graphic illustrator, Lynita “Elle” Solomon. She posted the image on Instagram in honor of the day Langston Hughes was born, 119 years ago. Lynita has an amazing way of presenting her subjects “without faces,” but we know exactly who they are anyway. You can see more of her work by clicking the image above.

To Autumn, or, Little Girls with Apples

It dawned on me this morning as I opened an envelope from Fran B, one of my Love Notes pals, that we are nearly a month into the season, and I have not done any “odes to autumn” on the blog. Shocker, right?

I assure you, I have been soaking up the goodness of early autumn as much as I can–the milder temperatures, the gentle breezes, the random highlights [bright oranges, yellows, and reds] in the trees. Academic life during COVID-19 is a level of busy I have never, ever experienced, so it’s been a bit of a struggle getting to the blog, especially since I’m typically screen-weary to the point of tears–or madness.

The artwork featured on the card Fran sent is worth my risking my sanity.

“Cider Mill” (1880) by John George Brown. Oil on Canvas. Daniel J. Terra Collection.

Cider Mill by John George Brown (1831-1913) features five little girls feasting on scrumptious apples they’ve just picked outside a cider mill. It speaks volumes about girlhood, apples, and autumn. The art is part of the Daniel J. Terra Collection of the Terra Foundation for the Arts. [Click the links to learn more about the artist and the masterpiece].

This is a delightful piece of art, but it grabbed my heart because the intensity of and seriousness in the eyes of the little girl with the red bow remind me of my baby niece, Lu, whom you’ve seen on the blog before.

Don’t you think she would fit right in?

Oh, and there’s a bonus–the first stanza of John Keats’ “To Autumn” was beautifully imprinted on the back of the card! If you’ve been keeping up, you know that he’s my favorite British Romantic poet:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Oh, there was even more autumn goodness inside the envelope, but you’ll have to wait for that. 😉

“All Power to All People”

“All Power to All People.” Art installation by Hank Willis Thomas at Burning Man 2018. Photo by Christine B.

It’s time for another brief art lesson [and the crowd goes wild]!

The afro pick (or afro comb) installation above is the work of Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist who works “primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture” (Artist’s bio).

The work, entitled “All Power to All People,” was one of the many fantastic pieces on display [in 2018] at Burning Man a “temporary city” built annually in Black Rock Desert in Nevada. According to a New York Times article on the “monumental art” of Burning Man, Thomas’s 24×10 foot tall installation is on tour throughout the United States this year.

Popularized in the 1970’s, the afro comb has a long, long history that dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt and [also] has roots in West Africa. You can read about that here: Combs from Kemet.

The 1970s-style afro pick typically includes the “peace sign” and the “raised fist”–as seen in Thomas’s work.  It was–and still is–a symbol of Black unity, solidarity, collective identity, and Black empowerment.

The photo was shot by my pen friend Christine B, who participates in Burning Man every year. She surprised me last week with a few of these postcards and a very cool “Black Lives Matter” button. 🙂

I was not only happy to receive Christine’s postcards, but was elated that her photo led me to Hank Willis Thomas. A few summers ago, I photographed one of his other installations, but neglected to get the artist information [doh!]. Maybe, that work will be the subject of a blog post next week. Let’s see what time allows.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for a bit of tree love.

Guest Post | “Hear Me Roar” by Liv Grace

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by up-and-coming performance phenom, Liv Grace. Liv Grace graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago, and she is already making her mark in this world. In this post, she shares a little about her music journey and her song and music video, “Hear Me Roar,” which she wrote in protest  of police brutality and racial injustice in the USA. Be sure to watch the video. 


Yoooooo! My name is Liv Grace, and amongst many other things I am a singer, songwriter, and producer. I’ve always been a lover of music and the arts. I’ve loved making music, writing, and editing films since the day I found out my Nintendo 3DS had a video camera. I started writing poetry and fictional stories around the fifth grade. I’ve been singing in choirs since I was really young. I’ve harmonized on praise teams all throughout middle and high school, and I’ve been “belting it out” in school musicals for the past five years.

What I love most about music is its ability to bring people together and make them feel something. A simple melody has the power to make us feel a plethora of emotions and a lyric can help us see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’ve always loved the feeling I get when I listen to music and I like being able to give that feeling to others.

I’ve always been composing harmonies. I remember watching a video of young Ariana Grande when I was in middle school singing into a microphone connected to a guitar looping pedal, layering harmonies and singing over it. I was mesmerized, and immediately I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, my middle school allowance was not large enough to purchase a professional guitar looper and trying to convince my parents to purchase a $100 guitar looper for me—a twelve-year-old with no guitar—was surprisingly difficult. I decided to do the next best thing and downloaded a free beatbox looping app on my phone. I picked a random song from my iTunes playlists, listened to it on repeat and recreated the instrumental with only my voice on loop. My obsession with arranging and recreating harmonies ran wild from there. I found myself recreating Broadway cast albums and singing all of the parts. I’d post small clips of me harmonizing with myself and singing covers on Instagram.

In my junior year of high school, I decided it was time to start creating my own music. This was daunting, yet exciting. Ironically, around that same time my dad, brother, and I stumbled across a space connected to the Hirshhorn Museum called ARTLAB+. That space literally changed my life. In fact, the only reason I actually completed my very first song was because I needed it to apply and audition for one of their arts programs. I was accepted, but didn’t go in with high hopes. I showed up, I sang it, and they loved it! It was at that moment that I realized this thing I’d been doing as a therapeutic hobby was something I was actually good at! I’ve been writing melodies, producing instrumentals, and composing harmonies ever since.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

At the beginning of the shelter-in-place [to flatten the curve of COVID-19], there was a moment when nobody in the US knew what was going on or how to deal with it. My school extended our spring break while administrators and teachers worked on an action plan, so there was this huge chunk of time in which I was able to focus on things that made me happy. I’d started a music account on Instagram earlier in the year, but rarely posted on it due to lack of time. Now, I had what felt like all the time in the world!

Like many others, I began to use this surplus of time to focus on things that I genuinely enjoy and to learn new things. I finally had enough time to pour into one of my passions—music. I started actively posting on Instagram and from this the opportunity arose through ARTLAB+ to share my creative process as a teen artist in collaboration with the Nicholson Project, an artist residency program.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

A couple days into the process [and after I’d written a song on mental health for the project], the video of George Floyd’s murder took over all forms of media. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched my people carelessly shoved to the ground by law enforcement. Every time a video comes across my feed, my heart aches, but watching George groan in pain as he yelled for his mother was the last straw. I knew I needed to use my gift to speak out. I decided my mental health song could wait and began writing “Hear Me Roar.”

When it comes to creating, I overthink everything. I spend hours writing and rewriting, trying to find the right drum pad or the perfect harmonies to accent, but with “Hear Me Roar” everything just flowed so organically. The song just came to me. The chorus popped into my head as I was soaking in a bubble bath. The next day I sat and wrote two verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and arranged backing vocals in one sitting.  The next day I produced the instrumental and just continued tweaking throughout the week until the song was finished. I let it breathe for a little bit, listened to it about a week later and called it a wrap.

The song was done, and I loved it.

A little after the song was finalized, I decided I wanted it to be released with a music video, so I grabbed my video camera and my dad’s mini projector and pushed my bed to the other side of my room. Over a couple days I filmed, directed, and produced the video.

“Hear Me Roar” is the song I needed to hear as we mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality. I needed a song that would remind me no matter how hard anybody tries, they cannot silence my voice.

We often see the tragedies and the news and feel hopeless, like our voices don’t matter. But they do! Not only do they matter, our voices have the power to move mountains and make change in the world. My hope is that “Hear Me Roar” can remind people how powerful their roars are and that they should use them to speak out on issues that matter to them. Right now, we are in great need of change and if we use our individual and collective voices, we can make that happen!

“Hear Me Roar” is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Youtube Music, Deezer, and Napster! It is also available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play Store. You can find links to all of these stores here:

A percentage of the proceeds from “Hear Me Roar” will be donated to the ARTLAB+ program.  Individuals involved in the program devote their lives to uplifting and amplifying the voices of young artists of color and provide us with equipment, professional guidance, and a loving environment to express ourselves in our own creative and unique ways. I want to help the program give the opportunities they’ve given to me to other young Black artists.

You can find me and more of what I’m up to here:

We need your voice to create change, so keep roaring!

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

Wild Silver!

How do you feel about another museum trip?

The Huntsville Museum of Art Buccellati: A Silver Menagerie is another must-see exhibit, and since you can’t be here, I’m bringing some of the pieces to you. I have fewer photographs than I had for last week’s visit showing of the American Studio Glass Exhibit, but the pieces are just as fascinating.

The exhibit features selections from the Museum’s permanent collection of  silver creations designed and fabricated in Italy by the luxury jewelry firm of Buccellati. They were donated by Betty Grisham of Huntsville, Alabama. According to the museum’s website, the Huntsville Museum of Art holds the world’s largest public collection of these unique works of art.

Each piece was designed by Italian jeweler, Gianmaria Buccellati.

Lion, 2000. 925 Sterling.

The present house of Buccellati was founded in 1919 in Milan, Italy and originated what is known as the Buccellati style, which combines Renaissance period techniques, luxury materials, and the extensive use of texture engraving to create objects of great beauty. This distinctive style won favor with a discriminating international clientele, including the Vatican as well as the Royal Houses of Italy, Spain, Belgium, England and Egypt. —Huntsville Museum of Art

Bear, 1997. 925 Sterling.

Gianmaria Buccellati carries on the family tradition today as an internationally renowned silversmith.  He has dedicated his life to creating extraordinary objects that exemplify fine Italian craftsmanship.  –Huntsville Museum of Art

Bear, 1997. 925 Sterling.

His signature silver animals replicate creatures from earth, sea, and sky in a highly realistic manner. Buccellati invented a new method of working in silver to capture fine detail like feathers, hair, or different types of skin, known as “lavorazione a pelo” or “hair-like workmanship.” —Huntsville Museum of Art

Giraffe, 1994. 800 Silver.

An animal reproduced “a pelo” is the result of welding countless silver filaments of varying length and thickness to give the actual appearance of the natural coat. It is a demanding method that requires the highest level of skill and an absolute mastery of soldering techniques. —Huntsville Museum of Art

Tortoise, 2006. 925 Silver.

Animals with the hair-like workmanship were originally produced in 800 silver, which is stronger but less pure than 925 sterling due to its higher alloy content. This was because the intense heat of soldering used in the creation of the animals would have melted the very thin filaments if they were sterling, but the Buccellati artisans were able to invent a new technique of soldering that allowed them to work within the heat tolerance of sterling silver. As a result, all animals produced since 1995 have been created in 925 sterling.  –Huntsville Museum of Art

Swan, 2000. 925 Silver.

Swan, 2000. 925 Silver.

Marine Centerpiece, 1997. 925 Sterling. Amethyst Geode.

I somehow missed photographing the flamingo, which, like the giraffe, is considered a highlight of the collection, but you can see it here on Flickr. [Tip: If you move backwards or forwards in the Flickr album, you’ll see other animals I did not photograph].

My favorites–you guessed it–are the lion and the bear. I just can’t wrap my mind around the exquisite crafting of the hair and fur! The giraffe is über cute and I’m intrigued by the sea creatures. The whole collection is mesmerizing–which is probably why I missed photographing some of the animals.

Do you have a favorite?

“When Giving Is All We Have”

Terrance Osborne, “Front Line”

This morning as we began our final Shakespeare session for the semester (sad face), one of my students requested prayer for the nurses who are suffering under the strain of watching far too many patients die as a result of COVID-19. Just moments before that, I read a Facebook post in which one of my friends, Dr. Scharmaine Lawson, a Nurse Practitioner and author, announced that after prayerful consideration, she’s heading to New York City to help with the COVID-19 relief effort there.

I often think about the health care professionals who are on the front line of this thing day after day after day. No matter how well-trained they are, no matter how often they see death, it is still inexplicably HARD.  The connections between nurse and patient or doctor and patient–however brief–matter, and every death carries emotional weight. With COVID-19 doctors and nurses are bearing witness to far more than the “usual” and they are still out there, weighed down with the grief and burden of so much loss, fighting to save lives.

Some might wonder why someone like Dr. Lawson, a busy NP with a booming practice and a very full life of her own, would uproot and rush into this daunting challenge. Albert RÍos’ poem provides the answers—not only for why we give in the big ways but also why we do so in our smaller, daily interactions.

When Giving Is All We Have
Alberto RÍos

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

About this poem, RÍos wrote:

This is a poem of thanks to those who live lives of service, which, I think, includes all of us—from the large measure to the smallest gesture, from care-giving to volunteerism to being an audience member or a reader.  I’ve been able to offer these words to many groups, not only as a poem but also as a recognition. We give for so many reasons, and are bettered by it.  –from poets.org

Thank you to our health care professionals and to all our public servants and other essential workers for whom the stay-at-home order does not apply.  Thank you to all of you who give daily in your own spaces, outside your own spaces, and “in-between” spaces. We are making something new, something beautiful when we give.


About the image: The image above is the work of New Orleans artist, Terrance Osborne. He created Front Line—a nod to Rosie the Riveter—“to show the men and women on the front line that we love and support them.” [Did you catch the fleur de lis–symbol of New Orleans?] Osborne generously offered the image above as a free phone screen saver and gave 1000 posters to local hospitals. A lithograph ($75 signed; $40 unsigned) can be purchased via his website. To see more of this phenomenal artist’s work, please go to his website. You’ll feel like you’ve just taken a tour of my beloved hometown.

Holding on to Christmas

I thought about taking the Christmas decorations down today, but my not-so-little one convinced me to leave them up a little longer. I figured, if I take them down by Friday, I will still be about three months ahead of my normal schedule. 😀 .

Like my son, I’m having a little difficulty letting the Christmas season go. It took me a while to get in the spirit of things, but I’m not ready for the parts that I love so much to go away–unrushed mornings, Christmas movies, uninterrupted time with the guys, reading and writing, creating and crafting, and hours of contemplation without the nagging “things to do” list over my head.

I’m certainly not ready for the end of [receiving] über cute Christmas postcards from pen friends–like the card above.

My Love Notes pal and literary twin, Bianca, sent the sweet postcard featured. Immediately after retrieving it from the post office box–and before reading the message–I knew who sent it! Who else but Bianca would find in Germany a little girl with my skin color hugging a snowman? She always finds the perfect, most adorable cards that speak to some part of my identity, interests, or character.

The postcard was designed by Tanja Angermeier of Monimari, who creates “sustainable stationery for children’s hearts.” You can find more about Tanja’s work and Monimari by visiting her website. To get a steady diet of Monimari, you can also follow her on Instagram and even purchase some of the items in her Etsy shop.

Thankfully, even after the Christmas decorations have been stored and the last Christmas postcard has been received, we can still make the choice to carry the Christmas spirit with us all year. We can choose to walk with a spirit of love for humankind every single day. After all, that spirit is always in season.