Would you know Van Gogh?

I saw an article in our local newspaper the other day, announcing an “Unseen” art exhibit at the community center.  The exhibitors are part of an art program available through the Wellness and Advocacy Center which is part of the County Mental Health Division. The group is a peer-run and self-help center.  What intrigued me is these exhibitors suffer mental illness and are homeless.

As I wandered the hall and rec room, I was blown away by the artwork.  I’ve been to the Louvre in Paris and DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. I’ve been to art museums in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.  Not everything in those hallowed halls fits my definition of fine art.  I dare say some of it looked lazy and trite, thrown together by arrogance and disdain.  I’ve seen “artwork” on display in prestigious galleries that was no more than a urinal nailed to a wall and came with a tab of $100,000 – not because of the beauty of the porcelain, but who happened to secure it on a plane of white and say he was “making a statement”.   Frankly, I far prefer graffiti. 

As you see, I have my prejudices. 

The head of the Wellness and Advocacy Center, Naomi Murakami, asks a good question:  “How might we react if we were sitting on a bus or in a café next to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh without any knowledge of his fame or talent?”  Probably the same way people of his day reacted.  They thought he was nuts.  They dismissed his artwork.  He sold two paintings during his lifetime, one to his brother.  Yet “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” sold back in 1987 for $39.7 million dollars ($84 million in today’s dollars).  What the critics of Van Gogh’s day missed, the people of today recognized.  Genius. 

The “Unseen” exhibit was amazing.  One of the artists is an homeless Navajo struggling with alcoholism.  He was once a freelance illustrator in San Francisco and his work was of space ships, astronauts, whimsical aliens.  Another did ”Krypto Neo Random Fractalism”, filling his canvases with complex geometric designs, one with the colors of a night sky, another with sunset pinks, a third in shades of blue.  A homeless woman painted beautiful modernistic city-map landscapes, while another did simplistic scenes of hills, desert buttes and mountains with vibrant colors that caught and held the eye.  One man gathered dead palm branches and discard-items and made startling, evocative masks.  Another painted on futuristic scenes on old screens. 

God gives each of us unique talents and abilities that are meant to bless others – and I was blessed by the artwork these “unseen” and often marginalized people.  I want to remember that truth each time I see someone different and perhaps a little frightening, someone in dirty clothes with an old backpack or huddled and sleeping in a doorway:  he or she was created in the image of God and holds gifts and talents.  He or she is a child of God, loved and gifted by the Almighty.  My part is to see them and offer the same respect and courtesy I would a family member or friend.  That person could be Van Gogh. That person could be an angel in disguise sent by God to offer us an opportunity to be like Jesus.