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Starry Night

c. davidpaulkirkpatrick.com

Van Gogh considered Starry Night a failure.

I can’t imagine standing before this beautiful painting, cringing with disdain and inadequacy as I usually do with my paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh’s brightly colored paintings of Sunflowers and Starry Nights don’t look like the paintings of a disturbed individual. However, he is probably as noteworthy for his infamous ear-severing as he is for his beautiful paintings.

To me, Starry Night is inspirational.

It’s one of his Nocturne Paintings, a series of landscapes he painted at night. Not an easy feat, to be sure. He loved it though. He liked the challenge, as well as the interesting effects he got.

The famous Starry Night was actually the view from outside his window at the asylum in Saint Remy. He was not allowed to paint in his bedroom, so he sketched the view many  times. When he was back at his home in Arles, he painted the sky. Though, he had planned exactly the way he would do so in the asylum [He left out the bars].

If you look closely at the painting, you’ll notice that the city below is a pretty ordinary city scene. It’s not particularly spectacular. What truly makes the painting sparkle, is the agitated sky.

Researchers have been able to determine that he painted the sky and the city separately. The city is an idealized city in Arles..

Being away from the artificial city lights and smog, he was able to see the brilliant colors of a clear sky. He wrote to his brother, Theo, “This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” Scientists have been able to determine that what he saw was actually the planet, Venus.

I’m sure Van Gogh certainly didn’t enjoy the asylum. Who would? Yet he was able to see something beautiful out of what probably seemed like the ruins of his life. Can you imagine a world without Irises, or Starry Nights?

c. 2015

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Shakespeare in Prison

“So is it free will or predetermination that puts Richard in that cell, that puts us in our cells…”

Not exactly the discussion you’d expect to hear walking down the halls of a maximum security prison; much less from the inmates in solitary confinement.

Not exactly the discussion you’d hear in many schools, even. I struggled through Shakespeare in high school. I revisited it recently and still have to work really hard to make sense of it. Who would have thought that hard core prisoners would find it so engaging?

Laura Bates  thought they might. She also thought they could benefit from it. So she went where few teachers dare to go. She taught Shakespeare to maximum security prisoners. These were the baddest of the bad; murderers…rapists….

She found little support. Many, bosses and peers, were dubious. Some saying They don’t deserve education. Others saying, They’re already in prison, don’t make them read Shakespeare. Why in the world would she think that prisoners could appreciate, or even comprehend Shakespeare, when many freemen don’t?

“I came to prison at age seventeen. I never studied Shakespeare at school. He was just a one-named figure from history to me, like Moses or Hitler. I had no idea that he wrote.” said Prisoner, Larry Newton, who would become her protege.

But Bates quickly learned that you don’t need a higher education to read and understand Shakespeare. The prisoners easily related to stories like Macbeth,  making them question their own motives.

They even delved into the lesser read novels. They loved it!

“I believe…as a convict having been allowed to interact with Shakespeare, that you and this program have allowed people to release anger, release thoughts of revenge, various thoughts of frustration and confusions. And when those things cloud judgement, that’s when things happen. I know, for me, it has been an alternative outlet. And when you talk about the issue of murder, I believe that if an individual had a small alternative, a moment to think, a person to lean on, in that split second, it probably never  would have happened.”  Larry says.

These prison discussions matched any higher learning environment.

“Do you think that Shakespeare wrote King John after the death of his own child? The pain just seems so real to me,” one of the prisoners asked.

What might be considered a common question in intellectual circles with access to academic commentary came as a real surprise to the prison Shakespeare teacher, Knowing he had no access to such texts, that it came from his own reading and reflection. He gets it!  

These insights are coming from a murderer who never finished school, with only an elementary grade reading level.

Shakespeare saved my life…[He] offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego. ‘What, are you soft?’ Ain’t you man enough to do it?’  As a consequence of that, I had to ask what was motivating me in my own deeds….When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way I saw myself. So the way I saw myself had to be the source of all my misery…and that realization is empowering!”  Larry Newton from Laura Bates’ Shakespeare Saved My Life

“This place is great!” he said gesticulating around him. “Great for reading Shakespeare!”

c. Laura Bates

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