The Common Person, Most Uncommon through the eyes of Colin and Vincent


This is a copy of my friend Colin’s issue. He is drawn behind the glass cubes.

I want to tell you about an old friend. His name was Colin. I thought I was telling Colin a bit of news when I relayed to him that Vincent Van Gogh pronounced his name “Van Guff” or Van Gawf.” Colin remarked in his “armpit of England” accent, “Well o’ course, I knew that. It’s typically the Americans who get the pronunciation wrong, as usual. The Brits know its Van GUFF!”

The similarities between Colin;s work and that of Van Gogh’s may not be apparent at first. Colin works in pen and ink for one thing. But the similarities are astounding. My friend is a comic book artist with the accomplishment of having gotten the ‘first autobiographical account of an autistic’ -into print. (I will put a link at the bottom of the page if you wish to see it.)

Similarities: It was popular in Vincent’s day to paint people of aristocracy in embellished clothing seated before wealthy gilded interiors. But Van Gogh admired other artists who painted people with human dignity and humility. When describing a painting he’d seen of ‘poorer’ folks, he said- “…knowing how to suffer without complaining, that is the only practical thing, it is the great science, the lesson to learn, the solution of the problem of life.”

It was this same dialogue Colin used in his letters to me. He did a drawing he called S.A.D. (sad alcoholic dreamer). It was his typical pen and ink; full of emotion. He had to walk across a big stately bridge to his local shops to mimeograph it for me, and then to the post; to mail it to me. Like me, he never drove a car. I loved his handwritten notes along the sides of the S.A.D. drawing; pointing out details. He’d supply me with the two page descriptions of his works. Some drawings came to me in groups of ten or thirty. He wrote ten page letters or sometimes mimeographed drawings straight from his sketchbook just for me. He carried it everywhere. He was Colin the Artist, blind in one eye but sharp, intuitive and witty!

S.A.D. was an actual man who Colin saw passed out at a diner; his head laying smack down on the table, in his food. Colin drew from life:  the S.A.D., the ladies on the barstools, the buskers on the streets, these were what he saw daily, some were acquaintances, some strangers, and some he called friends.

Van Gogh had seen the paintings of the rich, of the proper ladies posed with jewels and high frilled collars with fine furniture adorning the backgrounds…But he wanted to capture what had NOT been done before-the plight of the common person. The people he knew. Were they not worthy as subject matter?  Were their wrinkles, calluses, haggard bodies and thoughtful eyes not beautiful too? Not having access to studio models, Vincent drew from life the beggars, fishermen, peasants, and even his doctor and mailman. He saw the peasant as the embodiment of universal human values. One memorable painting is the family of Potato Eaters- a monument to human drama in a dimly lit kitchen nook. They have eaten nothing but potatoes for a long time. Their skin was white, their pallor ghostly.

I couldn’t help but click over to Colin’s pub drawings, which were scanned and stored on my computer, for comparison. Colin sketched his doctor too. He sketched the characters he met and conversed with in bars while he drank ‘orange’ and sometimes something stronger…I read a review, after Colin’s work  appeared in American Splendour, which stated that he could (with his pen) “breathe life into an ordinary  ashtray.”

I clicked back over to the Van Gogh site where Vincent’s letters to his brother were reproduced online. In letters to his brother Theo, I was struck how similar to Colin his ideas, subject matter and execution of speech were. Vincent outlined the importance of inner spirit over outward appearance…He painted with an obsession- Vincent said: “Diggers, sowers, plowers, male and female, they are what I must draw continually. I have to observe and draw everything that belongs to country life…I no longer stand helpless before nature as I used to.” Vincent loved his work, stating, “…there is soul and life in that crayon. It knows what I want, it listens with intelligence and obeys…I’ve walked this earth for thirty yrs. And out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures-not made to please a certain taste in art, but to express a  sincere human feeling.”

He was a loner, and I suspect did not express human feeling through his mouth, but rather through epic letters. His fervent need was the ultimate completion of his desired goal- expression of human feeling through paint. I had dabbled too-had sold hundreds of paintings (on saw blades at this point {the 90s}) but I didn’t choose subject matter the way Colin and Vincent did.

Vincent’s way of thinking was based on chains of associations. He believed his creations were based on rational thought.  He said- “…sheer work and calculation, with one’s mind strained to the utmost, like an actor on the stage in a difficult part, with a thousand things to think of at once in a single half hour…”- this is how he described a painting session.

I made the error of e-mailing Colin a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. I did not state that I had retyped it verbatim from the Van Gogh website. I typed his words into the body of the e-mail to Colin with no descriptive header or title to tell Colin that this was indeed a letter Van Gogh had written to his brother so many years ago. “Check this out, Colin”, I wrote in the subject field, and at the end of the letter I finally typed in that it was written by Vincent.

Colin wrote back, “Kim, I first thought you were sending me a letter I’d written to you me-self some time ago. I thought, now when did I write that…? I copied off the letter to show to me mates at the pub. They too were fooled into thinking I’d penned it me-self. Twas Vincent speaking, and not me.” Colin comes from the self described armpit of England near Newcastle and like Vincent, preferred to draw what is the equivalent of the modern day reality of life that he sees around him. He’s recording, like Vincent did, the people-the ordinary people, who are quite extraordinary in his eyes; he’s logging their lives, sketchbook in gunnysack wherever he should go. He spoke as lovingly about his Rotring art pen as Vincent did about his beloved crayon. I thought of my childhood home when I first saw the painting of Van Gogh’s room. Of the floorboards on the old porch; the way they ran away distortedly from view.

More than just a celebration of the underdog, more than a century apart, through their art, both of these men have left behind something greater than the paint and ink they expressed themselves with. They’ve left a piece of themselves and their unique worldview.

BELOW: Van Gogh’s Four Peasants At A MEAL


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