Vincent was here

In September of 2009, local artist Moni Hill (you might know her boldly colored bird paintings) had completed a show based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Along with spending time getting to know that piece of music, Hill liked the 9-9-9 trilogy of the project. As the project came to a close, Hill was inspired by a next idea: To study the Van Gogh painting, "Bedroom in Arles, 1889."

Beyond deepening her own relationship to the famous 1889 painting (the airy blue walls, the yellow furniture, the bare wooden floors, the framed pictures which seem to almost swing from their hooks), Hill wanted to invite other artists into the discussion.

Initially, the painter approached a few other local artists, who contributed their own contact lists. What started as a seed of inspiration grew into an exhibition including 74 artists. The end result, Waking Up With Van Gogh (which Hill describes as "a lively art conversation"), is sponsored by the Hickory Museum of Art.  (Hickory is a city of about 40,000 people, situated 80 miles or so from Asheville, via I-40).

Over the three years of curating this project, Hill says that her own relationship to "Bedroom in Arles" has changed "only in that I love it more." Through meeting with artists working in mediums from painting and ceramics to photography and collage, Hill says she gained perspective into the painting and hopes the approaches that different artists took can "illuminate Van Gogh's work for the public."

Some artists focused on the bedroom as a whole: Both Connie Bostic and Deona Fish added a female figure sitting in a chair. Other takes are more abstract — Celia Gray's "Eye of the Needle" is an orange-on-grey series of threads; Katie Brooks' "Untitled" is a vessel in copper and polar wood that borrows Van Gogh's oft-used turquoise hue. Hill's own piece features geometric swaths of Van Gogh's palette, studded with tiny white birds. Taiyo la Paix recasts Van Gogh as a tattooed biker making use of the Arles bed with a buxom blond. (See all of the artists’ responses to "Bedroom in Arles" at

Hill tells an interesting story from her research into "Bedroom in Arles." The painting is autobiographical of Van Gogh's home in the south of France. He had moved there from Paris, hoping other creative types would follow his lead, building a hub of artists. Sadly, that didn't happen. "Van Gogh wanted that community in Arles," says Hill. Having worked with the several dozen regional artists on Waking Up With Van Gogh, Hill says, "we live it."

In their own words:

Artists from the exhibition talk about their relationship to “Vincent's Bedroom” and their response to the painting.

Daniel Nevins

Work: "Pieta for Vincent." Painting: oil and acrylic on wood.
Thoughts: "I approached the project from an abstract direction. I used ‘Bedroom in Arles’ as a jumping-off point. It was my way in to the painting, the impetus. I borrowed some of the color palette and composition with an emphasis on the red blanket on the bed. For me, the red blanket was the whole reason for that painting to exist. I didn't look at ‘Bedroom in Arles’ again after the first day of painting. I concentrated on pure intuition and emotion after that."

Heather Lewis

Work: "Small chair (large shadow)." Installation: acrylic paint and handmade chair (“Brian’s First Chair,” hickory, woven hickory bark, and osage oil finish).
Thoughts: "I consider a shadow to be a drawing according to traditional criteria, in that it translates a 3D situation into 2D format, using edges, value and perspective. Unlike traditional drawings, shadows are not fixed to their support. They can be altered in size, created or destroyed instantly by controlling the power source.

"In this instance, the harsh light from a bare bulb near the floor forms a shadow image that is much larger than the chair itself. Recreating the huge shadow in paint allows the effect to remain visible after the light has been switched off. These elements can be seen as metaphors for Vincent's unorthodox vision, his struggles in life, and the creation of work that has had such an impact after his death."

Mark Flowers

Work: "Van Gogh Dreams of Monet." Mixed media.
Thoughts: "My guess is that most of the artists invited were, like me, at first somewhat taken back by making an 'assigned' work. But once I saw who was invited, I also thought this was a chance to be part of a show that would go in very interesting and challenging directions.

"To prepare myself, I read The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles, by Martin Gayford. Great book, and it really gave a sense of the lives of two of my favorite artists of that time period.

"At some point in the book, Vincent writes to his brother Theo about 'approaching yellow.' I liked that notion and focused on the color yellow and the physical texture of his paintings. Also, the chair in the bedroom painting was a focus because I have used chair images in the past. Starting with that, I simply let my instincts lead me. Eventually I added part of an older painting that I had recycled to the mix. It contained a nod to Monet's 'Waterlilies.' Then I bought a plow handle at a flea market that became a nod to Van Gogh's hardworking 'plow to the earth' past.

"The final challenge was having to rectify all these related elements in the way that I would solve a painting, not Van Gogh. My work generally has a sense of object as well as an image, so it became a challenge to connect the visual and physical parts.

"What I came up with was 'Van Gogh Dreams of Monet,' a nod to the fact that Van Gogh was this creative spirit of that time but was doomed to never sell a work, while Monet was becoming a successful painter in terms of sales and notoriety at almost the same time. I also later realized the title was play on words: 'Van Gogh Dreams of Monet (Money).'

“In the end, also by default, it had a slight Asian feel to it. Knowing that the artists of this time were very influenced by Japanese art, I felt I was on the right track."

Margaret Curtis

Work: "Nell in Gliead (Two Years Before Her Death)." Painting: oil on panel.
Thoughts: "What I respond to most in Van Gogh's work is how the emotional intensity he clearly felt about his subject matter is visible in his paint handling. His marks are directly painted, paint into paint, quickly and unselfconsciously. The immediacy of his mark-making seems to be a reflection of the emotional urgency he felt inside. Given his direct and unfussy approach, it always blows me away that he was able to achieve such subtlety and specificity with his color. You can't imagine the marks, colors, or forms being any other way."

Artist: Ralston Fox Smith

Work: "The Bedroom (homage to Van Gogh)." Painting: oil on canvas.
Thoughts: "As a landscape painter I looked for the connection between Van Gogh's interior with the outside where he spent so much time painting. There is a small painting behind the headboard (within his painting) of a landscape, and also there was the window to the outdoors. Focussing on the dark window mullion, I quickly saw the silhouette of a barren tree and that became my focal point. The verticals, especially, then diagonals and horizontals came into view as a possible small grove of trees, and when my wife commented that the floor looked like water, I knew where I was headed.

"I traced Van Gogh's painting from an art book, simplified it to a line drawing and blew it up to the original size of his painting. I then made a stencil and painted the line drawing onto canvas. The most important decisions left were how much of the interior [should] remain noticeable since the composition is so closely adhered to, and how to treat the bed, whether as a single entity or two ends with the intimate space between hidden from view. Friends and other artists helped me arrive at my conclusion which I am truly excited about. I thank them all and look forward to searching for more master's interiors to cast inside out."

Artist: Dawn Rentz

Work: "Dreaming of Sleep." Mixed media on panel.
Thoughts: "Van Gogh's use of color has always been of interest to me. When Moni asked me to be in the show, I knew I would be working with the vibrant palette in 'Bedroom in Arles.'

"Working with the botanical subject matter that defines my work, I chose to create a place of peace with a sense of restful calm as Van Gogh was intending in his painting. The materials I use include acrylic, oil, oil stick, conte crayon and oil pastel."

Artist: Spencer Herr

Work: "Rooms of Empathy." Painting: acrylic on birch.
Thoughts: "I stuck with the muted pallet for a few reasons: First I wanted to stay true to my process and pallet. Second, when I look at Van Gogh's painting I don’t see bright colors, I see an empty room and the profound absence of companionship. I see a need to fill the room with the quick chatter, color, and feel of friends and lovers. I have always seen 'Bedroom in Arles' like forced cheerfulness, wishful thinking, thus making it such a powerful, important and honest painting."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

what: Waking Up With Van Gogh
where: Hickory Museum of Art, Hickory, N.C.
when: Opening reception is Saturday, April 14, 6-8 p.m. in the Coe Gallery. The exhibit is on display from Saturday, April 7 to Sunday, July 29.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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