I remember driving through eastern Idaho as a teenager heading to Yellowstone National Park with a group of friends. We had just graduated high school and decided a road trip adventure was exactly what we needed. However, few other details spark my memory of this trip.
There was the moment my friends and I took turns standing around a giant Russet Potato with a sign boasting that it was the world’s biggest potato. I didn’t realize until recently, that the potato was probably in Blackfoot, Idaho, where my Great-aunt lived, once upon a time.
And I recall miles and miles of rolling hillsides and wind sweeping through wheat fields like the waves of a golden sea. I remember thinking it was the kind of landscape Vincent van Gogh might have painted.
I have always loved van Gogh’s paintings. I’m awed by the colors, the distortion of everyday things like roads and trees, and the exaggeration of the big vast skies. To me, van Gogh’s scenes are energetic and magical, like a child with a crayon and paper conjuring the fantastical mechanics of the world. I’ve never looked at a van Gogh and thought madness, even as I’ve heard stories about him that might prove otherwise.
When Vincent’s brother, Theo, first saw Stary Night, he thought he was witnessing his brother slipping further away from reality, trapped inside a crumbling mind. He wanted to hide the painting. He saw danger. He felt fear. He wrote his brother a letter wondering if Vincent should stick with creating works like his original Potato Eaters. By the way, Potato Eaters does not look like a van Gogh painting.
Theo wasn’t alone. It took several years, decades for van Gogh’s work to brandish the title of Fine Art. Most artists at that time viewed van Gogh’s pieces as strange, even violent, deranged effigies of a person on the brink. They were uncomfortable gazing upon van Gogh’s Sunflowers, perhaps afraid of what they might see reflected.
I suppose we are all like that, disliking the worst attributes of others because we recognize them within ourselves or avoiding altogether that which scares us. I know I am. However, sometimes, I’m the exact opposite. That which draws me terrifies me.
Instead of running away from the threat, I run directly into its path, like some psycho. I don’t do it for the thrill or the heroics (I never feel more empowered afterward). I do it for the clues.
When I head towards danger, my mind opens, and all my senses are on edge, tingling, expectant. I’m wide awake and alive. I assume I’ll probably die before my journey is over, but I do it anyway. Why? I’m on a hunt. I’m searching, gathering tidbits of information to use to (hopefully) avoid total destruction in the future.
Recently, I came across some pictures of my Great-aunt Glenna and her family, all photocopied onto regular sheets of computer paper. There are few pictures of Glenna. I’m not sure why—it could be because it was during an era when nobody took pictures. Or my Great-grandparents didn’t have a camera and couldn’t afford to hire someone who did—all plausible explanations. However, I worry that the lack of photographic evidence of Glenna was for another reason, that she might have been the van Gogh painting of the family.
Out of all the photos I have, Glenna is in two, one of which claims her as her sister Pricilla. An honest mistake. The two sisters look alike. However, lining photographs side by side, I realized that the photos are of two different women and that one would have to be Glenna.
In the mislabeled picture, Glenna is flanked by her eldest brother, Ray, to her left and her younger brother, John, to her right. John is the only one who seems at ease in front of the camera, although his smile is tense. Ray poses with hardly any emotion at all.
Glenna’s eyes are closed as if she blinked right as the camera flash went off. She is without her trademark glasses, wearing a floral dress complete with the tale-tell sheen of pantyhose on her legs.
I don’t know where the siblings were as they posed for the camera. The three are in front of a stand of trees. The black and white of the photograph gives little detail to indicate what kind of trees they are (they could be full fir trees or else oaks).
There is nothing to indicated how old the siblings are in the picture either. To me, photos of teenagers from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s all look middle-aged. Maybe it’s their clothing and hairstyle, or perhaps it’s the tinge of Sepia that ages them?
I suspect the snapshot was taken on the grounds of State Hospital South, making Glenna anywhere between twenty-four and thirty-nine years old. I wonder the reason for the photo op and visit from two of Glenna’s brothers? A holiday? Maybe Easter?
Until her release in 1955, I doubt if Glenna was allowed off the hospital grounds. I believe very few residents got a day pass back in those days. And because of how long she was hospitalized (fifteen years), I doubt she was privy to perks such as leaving the premises for an Easter egg hunt.
It’s also hard to tell if Glenna is genuinely happy to pose with her brothers or if she was told to stand there and smile, and so she did.
I look at the posture of the three siblings—at how they hold their heads, at their smiles, and their arms—the brother’s arms held behind their backs, while Glenna’s are straight down at her sides. I want to know what it means. The picture is a phantom, the ghosts of relatives past, an omen.
I study this picture a lot, maybe too much. The image draws me to it. I see danger, and I feel fear. I want to run away from it, but I run straight towards it.
Without more information, I can only guess and am a victim of my own tendencies of storytelling. I hate that. I want something concrete. I want to understand what it is I see so that I can avoid the violent brushstrokes that became Glenna’s fate.
*Since publishing, I have discovered that photo of the giant potato on a truck is located in Driggs, Idaho, and that in the picture above, the male on the left is Jim Judge (Glenna’s brother-in-law), not her brother Ray.