My first real exposure into the ARTWORLD was on a 5th grade field trip to the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum to see Van Gogh’s traveling retrospective exhibition. It was Mr. McGinley’s class and he was uniquely adventurous and experimental as a newly minted teacher right out of college. He could also claim credit as being the first to teach perspective, a terribly difficult concept to elementary school students. It should be pointed out that McGinley was not an Art teacher per se, but taught all subjects in addition to coaching Football. Also, we just didn’t do field trips in our small farm community school system at that time period. Now looking back I am pretty sure he must have brought down the castle walls to make this happen and get a bus and driver and permission slips dedicated for the all day event.
A little background first. The only thing I was really proficient at in elementary school was drawing. Being left-handed had limited uses. My blue-lined newsprint portfolio was mostly Disney characters, but I did pretty decent signage and lettering as well. Honestly up until that field trip day, it was all I was exposed to. Mad Magazine and Kelly Freas had not happened yet. Mr. McGinley had even encouraged me to create and enter a poster design for March of Dimes into the local Kiwanis annual Art contest (really big shocker that it won second place!). I still remember my parents and Mr. McGinley being so proud at the awards ceremony. The composition included a large image of Pinocchio sitting down splay-legged with Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder begging the viewer for money in a cartoon balloon. Not a stellar concept, but a lot of 10-year old energy and untold Crayolas went into it. Of course, somebody had to cough up the bucks for the poster board. Suffice it to say that I understood that if you could make something look like what it represented the audience usually deemed it okay. That pretty much covered my rural art training up to that point.
On our field trip day we all marched excitedly single file into the yellow school-bus, glad to be out of the David Hill elementary school building for the day. It was doubtful that any of us had ever been to a bona fide Art Museum before or even heard of Vincent Van Gogh or even knew that art hung in large galleries. The three story museum was about 20 miles away and in the “big” city.
We entered the designated gallery on the second floor and the work was shown all in chronological order. The darker muted monochromatic early paintings from Van Gogh’s mining years (including “The Potato Eaters” and “Boots with Laces”) were first and then the images carefully transitioned into his highly colored Impressionistic ground-breaking landscapes from Arles. I remember distinctly taking the whole gallery in and then walking back and forth to the pictures that most impressed me and trying to soak it all in. I had a very difficult time grappling with the seemingly primitive nature of Vincent’s brushstrokes and questioned the validity of his flatness and depth of color. At my young age there was never any discussion of Van Gogh’s psychosis or his dependency on his brother Theo or the impact of Vincent’s state of mind on his art and his eventual suicide. This monumental show made me reassess everything I thought I knew or did not know.