Dear Vincent: A Psychologist Turned
Artist Writes Back to Van Gogh
By Kendall Johnson
The Sasse Museum of Art:
2019 (print) and 2020 (e-book)
87 pages, with 36 color illustrations
Click image for e-book.
Kendall Johnson and Vincent van Gogh go way back.
Forget for a moment that Johnson’s first significant meeting with Van Gogh occurred when Johnson was eighteen years old, in 1963. But the connection was made as permanently as if they had shared the same time in history. Johnson was touring The Netherlands and wandered into the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with the hope of seeing the artist’s work up close. As a child, Johnson had grown up in a house festooned with prints of Van Gogh’s art on display, so in many ways it felt as if he was going to meet someone he’d known for a long time.
Johnson walked into the museum and confronted Van Gogh’s works. It was a series of moments he’s not forgotten. And those moments feature brightly in his book, Dear Vincent: A Psychologist Turned Artist Writes Back to Van Gogh, a publication of the Sasse Museum and available as an e-book and in print.
I am familiar with such singular moments. When I was fourteen, I attended a boarding school that supported the arts. Even so, from the beginning, I was miserable in that place of dark corners, cloud-filled days, and disapproving looks. Except at 8 a.m. once a week in an art history class, where I sat in the front row in a basement room with splashes of color, texture, and shape projected and glowing on an enormous screen ahead of me—the only light in the room. For four years, I followed a path through Sumer, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, then on to Renaissance Italy, and finally into the world of Paris cafés and New York art communities. These were emotionally “up close” moments for me, and I’ve not forgotten them.
Johnson’s meeting Van Gogh in Amsterdam was similarly up close. And it was very personal. Most young men in the 1960s were not frequenting museums while seeing the sights in that city. There were sketchier parts of the place to experience. But even at the age of eighteen, a short time before leaving for the war in Vietnam, Johnson was beginning a life-long connection with Van Gogh’s pathos, with his life struggles.
This connection has produced a remarkable book that speaks directly to the artist. Dear Vincent is a small, intense book in which that connection shines on every page. It does not drone on with an art historian’s voice. Instead, each open page gives us a Van Gogh painting on the left and words on the right, beginning with a short historical reference, followed by an excerpt from a letter from Van Gogh to his brother (or other family members and friends). Then the magic happens as Johnson writes a responsive letter, directly addressing the artist.
This is intelligent structure, quickly orienting the reader to each stage in Van Gogh’s artistic and personal development, and then presenting a response that could only come from a person who deeply understands the human potential for self-doubt, anguish, and turmoil.
One of the important aspects of Johnson’s treatment of both Van Gogh’s art and his letters is the fine balance between Johnson’s thoughts which are rooted in his work as a trauma therapist and his painterly perspective growing out of his years as an artist. Often, the focus of those who write about Van Gogh is one or the other, but Johnson’s approach gives us a wealth of both worlds, thus enriching our sense of Van Gogh.
It has been said that in breaking from both the European tradition of pictorial realism and the later Impressionists, Van Gogh challenged and did battle with the canvas as he struggled to use it to find ways to wield color and energy-filled brush strokes while expressing himself and his emotions. He had left behind the prospects of becoming a minister, his father’s calling, but in his art he developed and maintained a new belief, one that was founded in human emotions and in nature, rather than in doctrine. This was his religion.
Kendall Johnson is now in his 70s. He has his own experience in combat, both on a destroyer in Southeast Asia and doing battle against the mental and emotional ravages suffered by first-responders as they confront horror and pain in their work. As a writer, Johnson has that rare combination of talents and personal history that makes him beautifully equipped to enter the world of Van Gogh. Johnson is keenly attuned to the suffering of the soul in conflict, in both a professional and personal way, and his letters to the artist use words of quiet, eloquent probing—artist to artist. He speaks as one who has also found the call to art and creativity as a way to navigate his own tangled life experiences. “We are layers of light and darkness,” he writes to Van Gogh, “...and those layers within us careen about unpredictably. Sometimes they grow out of control.”
In another letter to the artist, Johnson recalls that first visit to Amsterdam, seeing Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888). This was one of the prints that was on the wall in Johnson’s home where he grew up. But in response to Van Gogh’s letter about these small, solitary boats, Johnson’s letter gives us a quiet reference to his own horrific experiences on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam:
How can a painting make me smell salt water and seaweed? How can carbon and pigment alone make me hear the seagulls mourn as I feel the deck drop from under me with the pitching and yawling of the storm?
It is in this kind of writing that Johnson lays on deeply personal pigments to the canvas of his words, plucking out anecdotes from his past and brushing them into his responses to Van Gogh’s letters. This is where the connection between the two simmers.
Referencing Van Gogh’s relationship with his father and the turmoil it created in his early life, Kendall Johnson writes to the artist:
The world is your ultimate concern, and your landscapes and portraits your heavenly song. Through your devotion, you outdistance your father’s estate and sanctify your own. With any luck, my son’s admirers will never have heard of me; those shadows can block the light.
Throughout the book, Johnson also catches the significance of Van Gogh’s need for light, personally and artistically. In the section dealing with the temporary sanctuary the artist found in St. Paul’s Asylum in St. Remy after his violent parting with Gauguin, Johnson acknowledges the necessity of that peace in order to be productive, but then asks, as would a companion, a fellow traveler, “But Vincent, do you have enough light?” Light for the eyes, yes. But light for a soul to soar in? That’s at the heart of Johnson’s caring question to the artist.
Perhaps the most poignant of all of Johnson’s letters to Van Gogh appears in the Epilogue, not in response to one of the artist’s own letters. As Johnson mourns the state of our present-day world, with its continual wars, chaos, and our all-too-close capacity to end ourselves, he remains grateful to the artist:
...you open up our minds to a better present, one hidden behind the scales that blind our eyes, a place where flowers and fields sing hymns from within. You’ve described and painted a place where this earth dances through the heavens, whirling in step with its sister starry spheres. You’ve shown how celestial light illumines our darkness, and that we live our days in a cosmic embrace. You don’t create an alternate world, Vincent, you just point us toward home.
Annie Dillard, in her memorable essay “Living Like Weasels,” repeats the tale of a hunter who shot down an eagle in flight. Upon examining the bird, the hunter saw the skull of a weasel, its jaw, all that was left of the animal, clamped onto the eagle’s neck. That small, captured creature must have fought back with an instinctive intensity that could not be dislodged. Dillard says, “I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should,” going on to describe how to live with that kind of purpose:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosed over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
Vincent van Gogh lived his brief life with that kind of singular, purposeful fierceness. The astonishing connection that Kendall Johnson makes with that shining brilliance tells us that he, too, knows something of that lived intensity.
- Kendall Johnson in Dear Vincent: A Psychologist Turned Artist Writes Back to Van Gogh (Sasse Museum of Art: e-book, 2020), page 14.
- Ibid, 36.
- Ibid, 18.
- Ibid, 54.
- Ibid, 80.
- Annie Dillard in “Living Like Weasels,” from her collection of essays Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expedition and Encounters (Harper Perennial, 1982).
is an Editor-at-Large for The Journal of Radical Wonder. She lives in a small college town in California where she also practices law. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in Chiron Review, Emerge, Shark Reef, The Ekphrastic Review, and Pure Slush, as well as other literary journals.
She works regularly with the Sasse Museum in Pomona, California and has contributed to exhibition catalogs for the museum as well as writing ekphrastic poetry to the artwork on display there. Her writing for the museum has been featured in The Torso Project, Photography Past and Present, Icons, Nudes, and 14 Stations, among other Sasse publications.
She was a finalist in Bellingham Review’s 2022 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and is currently working on a curated volume about Palmer Canyon after the Grand Prix Fire of 2003.
⚡ Stargazers, a prose poem by Kate Flannery on page 52 of the e-book Starry, Starry Night: an ekphrastic anthology inspired by Van Gogh’s masterpiece, published by The Ekphrastic Review (25 February 2022)
⚡ Where Does the Anger Come From? (a prose poem) at Spillwords Press (11 October 2021)