Went to the opening of the Van Gogh exhibit here in Denver.

Overwhelmed is hardly the word for what I felt: This was one of those experiences in which the sight of the exit door was enough to bring tears, knowing that your time there was over.

But a lesson came home with me afterward. A lesson, as so often happens, made up of many questions.

The painter whose brilliance is celebrated today wasn’t so celebrated during his lifetime. In fact, early on, he wasn’t much of an artist at all. Early drawings were not shining, forward-facing illuminations of what was to come—in fact, many a grade school draughtsman shows equal promise. But the difference between the painter who began his vision-quest and the painter who finished it? Staggering.

Van Gogh became an artist because he wanted to be one. He taught himself. He lived an artist’s life in the pursuit of what he dreamed. Was genius in there all along, waiting for his skill to catch up? Or did he just bang away obstinately in the exercise of sheer, dogged determination until he owned his gift?

And what does that say about those of us who, in our art, are visited by promise but not, perhaps, by the confidence of brilliance? What do we tell ourselves in the ticking interim as we wait for recognition to find us?

Art, music, writing—history is packed-to-bursting with artists who died unrecognized. At some point or another, the influencers or the witnesses turned their faces away. Who gets to decide what’s brilliant and what isn’t? Are the determiners the thousand gatekeepers who stand between the art and the recognition of it? Is it plain old luck? If we each hold the exquisite ability to call success to ourselves, should that determination not have been enough to cut him some cosmic slack?

At what point does the doggedly original become the unquestionably wonderful? When does nonconformism claim a rightful, righteous place in a shiny world? Did Van Gogh ever sit on his bed and think of himself as a talentless hack? Did he ever believe that he had earned a place among more acknowledged painters by his hard work alone? Or did he live—at least sometimes—with the extraordinary treasure that is the lack of doubt?

What inner angel do you call upon to keep going despite yourself…toward the impossible, the sublime, the transcendent?

If anybody out there is channeling Vincent’s spirit right now, could you ask him to give me a call?

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