Producer blog: Why I took my 12-year-old to the Van Gogh exhibit at DIA (and how it went)

‘Experiencing Van Gogh with my son is something I will treasure for a long time’

Van Gogh in America at Detroit Institute of Arts. (WDIV)

This is the weekend my 12-year-old son is focused on wild cards, the football teams playing to move one game closer to the Super Bowl. He had winners he wanted for each game and was ready to watch. Except, I had one distraction for him that meant a lot to me, and I was hoping would be something special for him, too.

I have been wanting us to visit the Van Gogh in America exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Art.  For me, this is a chance of a lifetime to see so many original works in one place and I wanted my son to experience them, too. Illness kept us from going during his holiday break and this was the second to last weekend to visit the DIA an see the incredible works by the Dutch artist.

“Are we still going to Van Gogh this weekend,” he asked more than once.

It made me smile each time he asked because I didn’t want him to feel like he had to go. I wanted him to be excited to see the paintings of one of the greatest artists of all time.

The Detroit Institute of Art is the first public museum in the United States to purchase a painting by Van Gogh, his Self Portrait in 1922.

One hundred years later, Van Gogh in America celebrates that distinction with 74 works from around the world. It tells the story of Van Gogh’s rise to fame on the United States.

Sunday was our day to go.  As we were driving there, I had my son looking up facts about Vincent Van Gogh and his life so we would be ready to experience his work.   He learned he died by suicide at the age of 37.  We talked about which paintings are the most popular including Starry Night.

Walking inside the exhibition I quickly realized I underestimated how much my son would enjoy seeing Van Gogh’s work up close and how much I would relish experiencing the paintings with him.

The DIA was full of people also wanting an up-close look at the paintings, and we both waited patiently as we moved to each one.

One of the first was Van Gogh’s Chair which immediately pulled him in.  The details of Van Gogh’s daily life including the pipe on the chair fascinated him.  We were surprised to learn The Chair was considered a self-portrait.  And as watched him looking at the paintings, I could see him taking in all the details, the colors, the texture of the paint strokes and the possible meanings of each work.

He took pictures of each one, he said so he can look at them later. We appreciated the paintings together, talked about what we liked and took time to read the different phases of the exhibition and write ups on individual works.

My son was most taken with Olive Trees and learning Van Gogh painted it outside the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence where he was being treated for mental health.  When he learned it was one of at least 15 works of the olive groves near the hospital he speculated why so much focus on those trees.  We appreciated the detail of the knotty trees and the colors, especially the use of the greens and blues.

The Wounded Veteran, Poppy Field and Mountains at Saint-Remy were among his favorites.

Then we walked into the final exhibition area, and he spotted Starry Night from across the room. He moved directly to it, excited the famous work was there for him to see.  He stood there quietly, waiting for his turn to get closer to the painting.  Then we took the time to just take it in.

Experiencing Van Gogh with my son is something I will treasure for a long time. We are not art experts. Art is not his favorite class at school.  But he found joy and showed so much appreciation for this Van Gogh experience.

He never complained about the lines, never picked up his phone to do anything but take pictures and we talked all the way through about what we were seeing.  Both of us taken with the brush strokes and wishing we could feel the texture of the paintings we were so close to inside the DIA.

We quickly walked back to look at some of his favorites one last time, then returned to Starry Night to pause one last time.

Later he texted pictures to friends to show where he had spent part of his Sunday. When his dad came home from work, he spoke excitedly about seeing the paintings and discussed how he thinks Van Gogh’s mental health affected his paintings. “Even if the landscape is vibrant, everything else is grim,” he said.

This mom’s mission accomplished. Better yet, my son asked to go back to the Detroit Institute of Art to check out other exhibits. Why did I wait so long to take him?


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