Painting Mondays: The Harvest and The Story

Vincent van Gogh’s The Harvest at La Crau is the painting that inspired Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Here we learn more about the painting and how it led to a children’s tale about growing up.

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During the time he lived in Provence, van Gogh braved the heat of the day and went out numerous times to paint the glorious countryside. He  completed The Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background in June of 1888.

If ever a painting captured the beauty of a summer day in the country, this one is it. The color scheme is particularly appropriate, with a blue sky, blue carts, and blue sides of barns  encircled by the orange of the foreground, the wheat stack and the roofs of houses. These elements highlight the almost luminescent gold of the wheat that dominates the image. The brilliant red wagon wheels in the middle right of the picture draw the eye on a line leading back to the white Abbey of Montmajour in the far background of the upper left. Van Gogh was fascinated with the Abbey, visiting it at least 50 times.

Wheat fields are a subject for many of van Gogh’s paintings and can be seen as metaphors for humanity’s cycles of life. Which brings us to children and growing up. How did this painting inspire Vincent, Theo and the Fox? Here is the story behind the story.

To get my son to go on exercise walks with me I would tell him stories. They were simple action tales: Suddenly, a monster…Bam, a hero…Wham another monster. And then one day a real monster struck: Mark had a series of lung infections and several times a day had to sit still for twenty minutes breathing through a nebulizer. Not what an active 5 year old boy wants to do! Just before one of these episodes his grandmother was visiting and we had all gone to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings. She bought the exhibit catalog, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam by Richard Kendall with contributions by John Leighton and Sjraar van Heugten. One afternoon when Mark was being nebulized, he asked me to tell a story. I did not have it in me. He pointed to the catalog saying, “Read me the story.” I tried to explain, “It’s not a story.” Neither he nor Grandma would let me off easy. I had to “read” the catalog to him.

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed The Harvest at La Crau. I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

The tale kept Mark engaged but it was not really a story yet. I knew it needed more. I asked myself, “What do boys do?” The answer, of course, is that they grow up. And while they grow up they wonder what they will become. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. I came up with the idea that the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. And that, I believe, is what makes Vincent, Theo and the Fox a delightful tale. We have two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about life. The writer, Susan Sontag, writes that “art is not only about something, it is something.” By this, she means that art isn’t like science or history, it doesn’t teach you facts you should know. Rather, literature gives readers an experience from which they learn and take their own lessons. I like to think that Vincent, Theo and the Fox achieves this: it does not teach about growing up, it lets readers learn about it.

Because the art is beautiful and chase tales are exciting, young readers don’t “get” what they are experiencing until it is over. But my hope is that the story stays with children and they learn while they process the experience of the story. Because the book gives a biography of van Gogh in an epilogue, children learn about van Gogh while processing the experience of the story. I think this really engages them in van Gogh’s art and gives the story more depth.

What do you think about the story? What do your children get from it? If you want to leave comments I will read them with interest.

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

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© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. All Rights Reserved.

Painting Mondays. The Art of the Re-Do: From van Gogh to Steely Dan

“Don’t be a copycat,” people say. Teachers warn students not to plagiarize. But have you ever said something and later thought you could have said it better? Vincent van Gogh would repeat his paintings. Today, we look at one of them and ask what it tells us about creativity.

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I had the good fortune to visit The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. two days ago. The Road Menders (above) is in their permanent collection. It is also one of the paintings used to illustrate my children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

There are two versions of the painting: the one in the Phillips Collection and another (below), titled The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Remy), held in the Cleveland Museum of Artlarge-plane-trees-1889blog

In 2013, the Phillips Collection brought the two paintings together for Van Gogh Repetitions, an exhibition that included 13 examples of van Gogh’s penchant to sometimes re-do his paintings.

Art teachers in prior centuries believed that making copies of artworks was a valuable practice in learning art. Later, the idea of copying fell into disfavor in some circles. It was felt that an artistic genius should capture and express the original; should make an “authentic” representation or gesture of the subject; not focus on the mundane practice of, eww!, copying. Besides, the thought went, while an original is “imaginative,” a copy borders on being a fake–and a copy can come dangerously close to plagiarism.

Van Gogh’s repetitions, therefore, did not receive serious comparative study for some years. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection used modern techniques, like x-ray analysis, to establish that the version held by the Cleveland Museum came first (for example, x-rays show erasures and changes underneath the top-level paint in The Large Plane Trees; these are not present in The Road Menders). Visual analysis shows that the version held by the Phillips Collection features smoother brush strokes. There’s more. Henry Adams, in an excellent New York Times article, Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, interviewed one of the exhibition’s curators, William Robinson. While the two paintings are very similar, Robinson points out that in The Road Menders van Gogh moved the street lamp for artistic effect, added more lines to the trees, and included an extra person digging. You can find other differences between the two images if you examine them closely, above.

Why did van Gogh “copy” his paintings? In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh said that the repetitions were an opportunity to improve and clarify. Adams’ Seeing Double article further explains that, when working outdoors, van Gogh would be beset by gawking onlookers and the light would change. It was in the studio, van Gogh told Theo, that “he could transform a painting from a direct transcription of a scene into a true work of the imagination.” Take that, anti-copy purists!

Repetition is also modern. Using these two paintings, Michael Lobel, a professor of art history at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y., addressed van Gogh’s “contemporaneity” in an article in the May 2014 issue of Art in America magazine. Van Gogh remains relevant to the modern art world, he says, because his embrace of repetition lets us perceive him:

as an artist who understood the modern condition of the image as repeating and repeatable and subject to extensive circulation in the form of reproductions….this version of van Gogh is more compatible with the artistic outlook of our own time, in which the strategy of appropriation has become a central device in the artist’s toolkit.

Barbara J. King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, makes an additional observation. In her NPR Cosmos & Culture blog, Van Gogh Teaches Us How To Keep Life Interesting, she points out that  copying as a way to perfect artistic technique is not unusual  (musicians, for example, practice many hours every day). King’s insight is that van Gogh’s repetitions are not about copying or practicing in any conventional sense. Instead, she points out that van Gogh’s repetitions are about looking at one’s finished, visible-to-the-public product and deciding to do it again, almost the same, but not quite.

I agree with King. Creative repetition gives incredible freedom and growth. Live concerts are exciting because each performance is slightly different. Rather than getting caught up in perfectionism, in worrying about whether one’s so-called finished product is good or bad, we would do well to heed King’s NPR blog post. She highlights the lesson van Gogh teaches us with his repetitions: “embrace and take delight in an iterative process…you can appreciate what happens when a new mosaic of meaning emerges from the previous one.” As ’70s rock band Steely Dan sings and (for fellow jazz lovers) the more recent Philipe Saisse Trio plays, Do It Again.

– Ted Macaluso

How is The Road Menders used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? The book is an adventure story that introduces children 4 – 8 to van Gogh’s paintings in a fun, exciting way. The tale starts with young Vincent and Theo trying to catch a fox. After the young boys have finished chasing the animal, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows up. One is to be a road mender. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. If you haven’t seen the book yet, you can check it out here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided you include attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com.

 

Six Children’s Books About Artists That Also Teach About Life

Children’s biographies of famous painters teach about an artist’s work and life. A few books go beyond that and use an artist’s life as a way to convey deeper lessons and virtues.

Stories of courage, compassion, standing up for oneself, choosing a path in life, or overcoming adversity are important for children. Finding those themes in the context of the arts gives the readers of such books an experience that goes beyond facts and inspires them to think about their own life choices.

Here are six books that can both educate and inspire young readers (uses affiliate links).

51hlarmxwil-_sx425_bo1204203200_Themes: Courage; Standing up to Mean Comments. At one level, Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter (author) and Kevin Hawkes (illustrator) is about Picasso’s life and artistic evolution. At a deeper level, the book is about courage in the face of doubt; about the exuberance for life that helped make Picasso one of the prominent painters of the twentieth century. Winter turns Picasso’s life into a drama (rather than a mere retelling of biography). By doing that, the story reaches into the heart of every child who is told to “just behave,” of every child who needs to find the inner strength to pursue a dream in the face of harsh criticism. The illustrations reinforce the drama of the story. The book starts with a peaceful landscape. But, turn the page, and a young Picasso is bursting through that same canvas. When art dealers tell Picasso his new work is terrible and ask why he is abandoning prior styles that made money, Picasso “expands himself to a height of one hundred feet” and shouts, “The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good sense!’” What a marvelous way to relate to the intense feelings of children. Readers feel what it means to resist the judgments of peers and forge one’s own path.

61048cn65vl-_sx362_bo1204203200_ Themes: Compassion; Bonds Forged by Fathers and Sons. Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt is based on a true story in Vincent van Gogh’s life. The book recounts how Camille and his father, the postman Roulin, help van Gogh when he was a poor stranger arriving in town. The father models good behavior and Camille becomes friends with van Gogh, despite area children who tease the artist. When Camille feels helpless, because he cannot defend his new friend, his father helps him. Camille learns compassion and hope from his father and from his friendship with van Gogh. The book is about the facts of van Gogh’s life but it is also about a boy learning what compassion means.

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 Themes: Perseverance, Overcoming Disability. In Capturing Joy – The Story of Maud Lewis, written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, children learn about a Canadian painter who, through force of will, created images of joy despite a hard life. The details of Lewis’ life are fascinating, but the book is really about the artist’s self-determination. Lewis was born with several birth defects, had rheumatoid arthritis, and was dirt poor. Her husband was a fish peddler and they lived in a house without electricity and indoor plumbing. Despite these challenges, she persevered, and became famous slowly, over time (rather than suddenly–another good lesson for today’s children). Lewis’ house—which she turned into a work of art—is now a part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In addition to illustrating what self-determination means, the book introduces children to a less known female artist and to folk art.

 Vincent cover 17x10-5 2-11 half for v3-3Themes: Growing Up, Learning from Failure.  Vincent, Theo and the Fox is written by Ted Macaluso (full disclosure, that’s me) and illustrated by Vincent van Gogh. The book is a fable about van Gogh’s life that addresses growing up and figuring out what one wants to do in life. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. In the story, the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. So the book has two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about what to do in the face of failure and, eventually, success. Full-color reproductions of 30 van Gogh masterpieces illustrate the story. A brief, factual biography of van Gogh ties the events in the story to van Gogh’s life.

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 Theme: It’s Never Too Late to Pursue your Dream. At first, one might think that the story of a toll-collector who didn’t start painting until he was 40 years old, would hold little interest for a child. But the lesson–just because you haven’t started, it doesn’t mean you can’t still do it—applies to every age, especially children who procrastinate over homework or have self-doubt. In The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Amanda Hale, we learn that “not a single person has ever told him he is talented.” But Rousseau wants to paint anyway. “Why? Because he loves nature.” And so he does. Teaching himself, mocked by experts, doing it over and over again, until—like The Little Engine That Could—he succeeds. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when Henri is 61. He is too poor to ever travel to a real jungle. And then we read, “It doesn’t matter—he sees one before him. Clear as day.” The story tells the facts of Rousseau’s life in a way that can inspire children to appreciate art and to pursue their dreams.

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Theme: Inspiration Strikes When You Least Expect: Listen to It, Believe in Yourself. Langston Hughes was a poet, not a painter, but Langston’s Train Ride, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, enables readers to experience the magic moment, that single instant, when inspiration comes. The story starts at a moment of success in Hughes’ life and flashes back to his youth, when he was riding a train to Mexico to meet his father “who left us to fend for ourselves when I was just a little boy.” As the train crosses the Mississippi, three words come to Langston, “I’ve known rivers.” From that, comes one of the first poems that made Hughes famous. The magic of this book is that the writing and the pictures combine so that readers experience the train ride, the buildup of thoughts that led to the words, and how Hughes captured them and expanded upon them. The book teaches facts about Hughes’ life but draws readers in to experience the creative process and how one learns to believe in oneself.

Books that go beyond the facts of an artist’s biography to address important themes about life are ones that stick with young readers and engage their imagination. The books above are just a start. If you want to suggest others, please add them in a comment, below. I would love to hear from you. And always encourage your child to read.

 – Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. The author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, he now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced but please include attribution back to tedmacaluso.com.

Painting Mondays: Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset

Sunset is a time of transition and, like all transitions, it holds potential. Vincent’s ability to paint potential is part of what makes his art timeless, part of why he speaks to us today, and also why this painting coincides with an important transition in the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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“a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery” – Vincent describing his painting in a letter to his brother Theo, June 24, 1890

I’ve wanted to write about this painting for a while as it is one of my personal favorites. For me, the effect is both peaceful and haunting. The painting’s emotional impact stems from the fact that sunset is a time of transition, of impending change. And, changes in state–day to night, land to sea, the pause turning to action–always grab me emotionally because they indicate potential: the “what might be” that we don’t quite know yet.

In the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, this painting marks the point where the fox has gotten to safety and the two brothers transition from exploring the world to returning home. But the painting also coincides with a transition in theme, for this is when Vincent and Theo start to reflect on their chase of the fox and what it taught them. It is at this point in the story that young readers experience what it feels like to think about how to be the best that you can be when you grow up (all while continuing to learn about van Gogh).

About the painting: it is a double-square painting that Vincent created in one day in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the short months before his death. Did he know what was coming? I don’t think so, but many commenters believe that the 70 or so paintings he created in Auvers have an intensity that begs for such “significant” interpretation (see, for example, the interpretations of Wheatfield With Crows, another double-square painting from his time in Auvers, which I wrote about here).

I believe Vincent was “merely” in search of beauty. According to VincentInParis.com (a neat website and app that lets you geomap the location where van Gogh created his paintings so that you can visit them), today’s painting is one of three double-square paintings that Vincent wrote about to Theo. In Vincent’s mind, this painting is meant to hang between Undergrowth With Two Figures and Wheat Fields near Auvers. What unifies the three paintings are color and scale. (See them here.)

Auvers-sur-Oise, by the way, was a very pretty place that attracted a number of artists. Here is a view of the town painted by Paul Cezanne (courtesy of WikiArt.org):

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Finally, van Gogh’s time in Auvers was an important one. We will be writing more about it over the next few Painting Mondays as several other paintings from Vincent, Theo and the Fox were created there.

And oh yes, if you haven’t yet heard about the painted movie being made about van Gogh, the trailer for it starts with one of his Auvers paintings, the beautiful Landscape With Carriage and Train in the Background:

As I implied at the start, it is all about potential. Many of van Gogh’s works capture the essence of potential. It is why even today his work evolves in new ways without ever losing its magnificent beauty.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

The story behind the story

Readers sometimes ask how I wrote Vincent, Theo and the Fox; how did you come up with the idea? This is the story behind the story.

To get my son to go on exercise walks with me I would tell him stories. They were simple action tales: Suddenly, a monster…Bam, a hero…Wham another monster. And then one day a real monster struck: Mark got very sick. He had a series of lung infections and several times a day had to sit still for twenty minutes breathing through a nebulizer. Not what an active 5 year old boy wants to do! Just before one of these episodes his grandmother was visiting and we had all gone to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings. She bought the exhibit catalog, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs:  Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam by Richard Kendall with contributions by John Leighton and Sjraar van Heugten. One afternoon when Mark was being nebulized, he asked me to tell a story. I did not have it in me. He pointed to the catalog saying, “Read me the story.” I tried to explain, “It’s not a story.” Neither he nor Grandma would let me off easy. I had to “read” the catalog to him.

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour iimage001n the Background (Arles, June, 1888). I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

The tale kept Mark engaged but it was not really a story yet. When I decided to turn it into a real story I knew it needed more. I asked myself, “What do boys do?” The answer, of course, is that they grow up.  And while they grow up they wonder what they will become. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. Somehow I came up with the idea that the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. And that, I believe, is what makes Vincent, Theo and the Fox a delightful tale. We have two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about life. The writer, Susan Sontag, writes that “art is not only about something, it is something.” By this, she means that art isn’t like science or history, it doesn’t teach you facts you should know. Rather, literature gives readers an experience from which they learn and take their own lessons. I like to think that Vincent, Theo and the Fox achieves this: it does not teach about growing up, it lets readers learn about it.

Because the art is beautiful and chase tales are exciting, readers don’t “get” what they are experiencing until it is over. But my hope is that the story stays with children and they learn while they process the experience of the story. Because the book gives a brief biography of van Gogh in an epilogue, children learn about van Gogh while processing the experience of the story. I think this really engages them in van Gogh’s art and gives the story more depth.

What do you think about the story? What do your children get from it? If you want to leave comments I will read them with interest.

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

7 Children’s Gifts To Tickle The Imagination

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching here are 4 books, a game, and 2 surprises worth checking out.

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching here are 4 books, a game, and 2 surprises worth checking out.

The Book with No Pictures Book with no pix

“This picture book with no pictures knows a thing or two about both books and kid-friendly comedy . . . Once children get the joke, they’ll want to play it on as many of their grownups as possible.”— The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

This book for 5 – 8 year olds has a 4.7 stars on Amazon.

4.7 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

Bugs in the Kitchen – Children’s Board Game 

Ths game won the ASTRA Best Toys for Kids 2015 award (Game Play 6+ Years). The suggested age range is 6-15.

Check it out here.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox

“It’s a compelling and suspenseful story that has a wonderful ending.  It makes van Gogh’s paintings even more memorable.

“This is the first book I’ve read where the illustrations are storied instead of the story being illustrated.  It’s a fun twist! It’s also one of the few stories where the illustrations are presented from a first-person perspective….It adds a depth of imagination that I’m not used to in picture books.  I can’t think of any other picture book doing this — it’s wonderful!”
The Picture Book Review (thepicturebookreview.com/)

5 stars on Amazon – Check it out here.

Fred & Friends MEALTIME MASTERPIECE Picture Frame Placemat, 48 Sheet Pad

MEALTIME MASTERPIECE Picture Frame Placemat

Who would have thought? A placemat that looks like a picture frame so you can arrange your food into a work of art. It is a 48 pad set.

4.5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

Wonder 

This book by R. J. Palacio is a N.Y. Times and Amazon best seller for 8 – 12 year olds.

“Wonder is a rare gem of a novel–beautifully written and populated by characters who linger in your memory and heart. August Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who likes Star Wars and Xbox, ordinary except for his jarring facial anomalies. Homeschooled all his life, August heads to public school for fifth grade and he is not the only one changed by the experience–something we learn about first-hand through the narratives of those who orbit his world. August’s internal dialogue and interactions with students and family ring true, and though remarkably courageous he comes across as a sweet, funny boy who wants the same things others want: friendship, understanding, and the freedom to be himself. “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Amazon “best Book” review.

5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

US NATIONAL PARKS. Post card variety pack

I would not usually think of a box of postcards as a gift, but if you want to enhance a child’s imagination how better to have children dream and (hopefully) mark the places they have visited. And you do not have to stop with just the parks. There are sets of cards from all around America, from Europe, and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

5 stars on Amazon- see this and other postcard sets here.

 

The Phantom Tollbooth 

Norton Juster’s hilarious book illustrated by Jules Feiffer is such a classic I cannot say enough good things about it! If you’re not already familiar with it, check it out.

4.5 stars on Amazon – check it out here.

 

 

© 2015 by Ted Macaluso