Clay Center has hands on Van Gogh exhibit
Story Dawn Nolan | aPhotography Shannon Shank
Step inside the world of the prominent Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh, at Charleston’s Clay Center. Van Gogh for All, a traveling exhibit, opened at the Juliet Art Museum (located on the facility’s third floor) in October and will run through Feb. 13, 2022.
“It is our goal that, every couple of years, the Juliet has a more family-friendly, interactive exhibit,” said Elizabeth Simmons, curator of art and engagement. “We’re right above the [Avampato] Discovery Museum, so we want to engage that audience in a way that traditional art museums might not. We mostly do traditional art shows, but this exhibit is a little different because it is totally hands-on. We’ve had thousands of school kids come through for Van Gogh for All in addition to being open to the public. It’s been very exciting, and we’ve gotten really good feedback.”
Designed and produced by the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation, Van Gogh for All has been on display in Chicago, Springfield (Massachusetts) and Dallas as well as Charleston.
“We brought this exhibit here with some of the Dolores Kohl Foundation’s leadership to construct it and implement education. It’s looking at who Van Gogh was in a way that’s accessible for all ages,” Simmons said. “Even though there are some pieces aspects that seem geared more towards kids, I like to say that the young at heart appreciate it as well.”
Van Gogh for All focuses on the time period when Van Gogh lived in Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers sur Oise in France. Van Gogh was a mostly self-taught artist whose talent was underappreciated during his lifetime. He was known for his thick brushstrokes and vivid paint, swirls and colors.
“He was sort of a late-comer to art, and he tried his hand at a few different careers before deciding that art was what he was called to do. As you may know, he wasn’t very successful as an artist during his lifetime; he only sold a couple of works and was largely supported by his brother. He tried to be an art dealer during the same time, but that didn’t go very well. He also wanted to start an art colony and ended up having tumultuous relationships with other artists. We know he suffered from mental illness and ended up taking his own life,” Simmons said. “The last few years of his life, when he was living in the south of France, that’s when he found his most expressive style, and those are the paintings that we best know today. We get into some of the biography here, but what we’re really celebrating is the paintings.
Though a tragic tale, over the years, Van Gogh gained recognition and fame, and particularly in the last couple of years, Van Gogh-themed exhibits have been popping up worldwide.
“Van Gogh is sort of evergreen, but I do think he’s having a moment,” Simmons said. “I think people connect to both his biography and have empathy for this man who was struggling with mental health issues, but at the same time, making great art that was not really seen that way by some at the time — although he was just starting to get some critical success right before his death. I think we’re drawn to his work because of the bright colors, the expressive brushwork. It still looks different to us. I mean, at the time, it looked really different from what was in the mainstream art world, but even now, I think some of the work can still be shocking.”
Some of the “immersive” Van Gogh exhibits in bigger cities involve having paintings projected on surrounding walls in detail around you.
“I think it’s supposed to be very emotional, you know, very contemplative, like you’re sort of meditating while spending a half an hour taking in these images,” Simmons said. “But it’s still somewhat passive while ours is active, or rather, interactive.”
They also typically come with a hefty ticket price, while the Van Gogh for All exhibit at The Clay Center does not.
“Our exhibit is quite affordable; it is included in Clay Center admission,” Simmons said. Admission to the Clay Center is $9 for adults and $7.50 for kids. Members are free.
Van Gogh for All is self-guided (detailed brochures are available) and set up into different stations. Photography is encouraged. Visitors can view — and feel — large, 3D reproductions of Van Gogh’s work; explore statements of his bedroom and studio; sit at the Café Terrace at Night; practice still life and self-portrait skills and more.
“It’s multi-sensory,” Simmons said. “We have audio elements, we have video, we have plenty of things to touch, there are drawing stations — there’s all these different ways to capture different types of learners. It is an exciting and modern approach to teaching art history.”
One of many highlights of the exhibit is a 12-foot-wide interactive projection of Starry Night developed by new media artist Petros Vrellis.
“This artist took Starry Night, digitally reconstructed it and then rebuilt it in a way where you can touch it and make every stroke move,” Simmons said.
For more Starry Night, visitors can stand in front of a blue screen and see themselves in the painting.
“I mean, Starry Night is so iconic,” Simmons said. “Kids come in, and they might not know anything about Van Gogh, but they know of it. It’s on T-shirts, bags, umbrellas. And with this, it’s like you’re blending in and then moving along with the painting. It’s definitely a fun station that’s accessible for the younger kids.”
Other featured paintings in the exhibit include The Yellow House, Irises (1889, 1890), The Siesta, The Bedroom, The Postman, Marguerite Gachet at the Piano, Self-Portrait, and Sunflowers (Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers and Sunflowers – 1889, 1888).
“There are no original works in this show because if there were, we wouldn’t be able to allow visitors to touch them,” Simmons said. “Being able to see these up-close and feel the 3D brushstrokes is a big part of the participatory learning aspect.”
Additional workshops, classes and special programs will be held throughout the remainder of the exhibit. Information will be posted on the Clay Center’s website.
“We are hoping that this exhibit will make an impression on young minds and that it will be very memorable to them. That way, when they do encounter Van Gogh’s work in the future, they will have already been introduced to it, and it will be familiar to them.”
The Van Gogh for All Exhibit runs through Feb. 13, 2022 at the Juliet Art Museum in the Clay Center. Entry is included in Clay Center admission.
A complementary exhibit, The Floating World:
Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints, opened in mid-December and will run through late March in a smaller gallery at the Juliet. These souvenir woodblock prints, of which Van Gogh owned hundreds and directly influenced his unique visual language, focuses on actor portraits and scenes from the theater. More information can be found at www.theclaycenter.org/museum-of-art/exhibits.
The Clay Center
One Clay Square, Charleston, West Virginia
304-561-3570 • theclaycenter.org
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday noon to 5 pm