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Santa Barbara Van Gogh exhibit inspires public art, sense of community

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Beth Thornton
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Santa Barbara students painted sunflowers as a community project to coincide with the Van Gogh exhibit. The sunflowers installed on State Street have taken on multiple meanings.

"Through Vincent’s Eyes" is the first exhibit at the newly reopened Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) and includes multiple works by famous Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh.

Several Van Gogh-themed events are also taking place throughout the community — and one has an unexpected connection to world affairs and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

SBMA Deputy Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng explained what the exhibit is not.

“Our emphasis is not the sort of cultish obsession with the life, the supposed suicide, the ear slicing incident and all of these very familiar myths really, that surround the idea of Vincent as a self-invented, somewhat naïve genius,” she said.

The goal, Kahng said, is the opposite.

“Which is to demonstrate just how sophisticated he was, how embedded he was in the late 19th-century art world,” she said.  

With twenty Van Gogh originals on loan from around the world and multiple paintings by notable artists that influenced him, Kahng said the galleries unfold to reveal Van Gogh’s journey as a painter.

“It’s not just having Vincent in Santa Barbara which of course is its own draw; it’s having Vincent and literally some of his most admired friends and colleagues represented in the same space,” she said.

She said much of what’s known about the artist's career, which lasted only ten short years, is found in the detailed letters he wrote to his relatives.

Through those letters, she said, it’s clear that his world view was influenced, not only by other painters, but by musicians and writers, too. Some of his favorite novels are on display.

“He admired works of fiction that he knew so well that he could recite them by heart and he often transcribes long passages in his correspondence to his family members and friends,” Kahng said.

Patsy Hicks, director of education at SBMA, said the museum is partnering with a variety of organizations for Van Gogh-related events and activities for all ages – from opera to poetry to painting classes.

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Beth Thornton
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Through Vincent’s Eyes is the first exhibit in the newly reopened museum and includes multiple works by the famous Dutch artist.

“It’s an exciting reopening of the museum to be connected in this way throughout the whole community, and it’s a perfect parallel with Vincent’s own way of looking at the world that is multi-disciplinary,” she said.

One community activity coordinated by the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture is a series of sunflower sculptures on State Street. Though Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings are not in this exhibit, they are some of his most recognizable works.

Kym Cochran, theme artist and co-founder of The Environment Makers, the local company that designed and constructed the six giant sunflower sculptures currently installed on sidewalks near the museum, said she built the 10-foot-tall stems and worked with community volunteers to make the round centers and petals.

She said six local schools received a flower for students to paint.

“We gave them paint kits and they all had the same exact colors, the same exact photo references for inspiration. We included photos of Vincent Van Gogh so they could understand the impressionism style,” Cochran said.

She said she is overwhelmed and delighted by the finished products.

“They came back and all six of them are so completely different. Walk up the street from Carrillo to Victoria and you will see how vastly different they are,” Cochran said.

Student Nico Friedman from Goleta Valley Junior High School worked with fellow students during lunch breaks and study hall to paint a flower.

Friedman said they made an effort to paint like the famous artist, but added their own style too.

“It came in two pieces, the petals and the actual center where you might find the seeds of the sunflower. For the middle, we tried to nail his style more because that was going to be our part of Van Gogh, I guess,” he said.

In thinking about the community-inspired project, Kym Cochran said after two years of pandemic, the sunflowers on State Street bring a smile to people’s faces as they walk downtown.

Cochran said in the past couple of weeks, she knows the flowers have taken on additional meaning for many people as well, since the sunflower has emerged as a symbol of support for Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion there.

“The sunflowers do have many, many meanings. One because it’s a community [art] project that the entire community backed, and then for the deeper meaning of Ukraine and the sunflower,” she said.

"Through Vincent’s Eyes" is at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until May 22, 2022. Sunflowers are on State Street between Victoria and Carrillo Streets. For information about tickets and events, check the museum’s website.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She is a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.
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