In the back of my classroom, I have hung various Vincent van Gogh paintings that I love: The Café Terrace at Night, Starry Night over the Rhone, In Arles, and, probably his most famous, Starry Night. These paintings are arranged carefully on the back wall of my classroom to provide a sense of peace and comfort in the room. They go perfectly with the little pot of sunflowers I keep on the back table—a call back to a series of his paintings called Sunflowers.
I haven’t always loved Van Gogh. It’s not that I disliked his work. It was just that I didn’t appreciate it the way that I do now. Strangely enough, it was an episode of the British television series Doctor Who dedicated to the artist that made me see more beauty in his work than I had before. A scene of the show depicts Vincent, the time-traveling Doctor, and Amy, the Doctor’s traveling companion, lying on the ground watching the night sky. Suddenly, viewers are shown the sky through the eyes of Vincent. It looked how you might imagine, a night sky swirling with yellows and blues—light and dark dancing together in beautiful harmony. Since I first saw that scene, my eyes and heart have been drawn to Vincent’s paintings, particularly the ones with stars in them.
When I recently began to decorate my classroom, I started to think about the reasons why I love his paintings so much. I thought perhaps some of it has to do with my love for Doctor Who, but in reality, his paintings inspire something deeper than that. Then I realized—it’s all about the idea of wonder. Vincent van Gogh had the ability to wonder. Wonder is a term we hear all the time. Think of the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. It goes, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.” We say things like, “I wonder what time they’ll arrive” or “I wonder if I have anything to eat at home”. Children especially wonder. Think about a child you know when they were about 4 or 5 years old. Children that age ask questions all of the time. And they’re able to imagine fantastical things that aren’t really there. They naturally wonder about Creation.
This idea of wonder has been on my mind as I prepare for my 7th grade English class. We are reading a lot of children’s stories this year, which I know is probably surprising for students of this age. However, lovers of children’s literature know that authors of children’s books often have a magical way of pointing out the good, true, and beautiful things about the world for children to ponder and reflect upon. I chose some of these children’s books to cultivate that very skill, a skill that somehow gets lost when children age into young adulthood. So, we are reading fairytales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. We are also reading Alice in Wonderland, a book explicitly about finding wonder in the world. We are reading the stories of King Arthur and Peter Pan, all in an attempt to help them see the magic that exists in the world that God created. That is what Vincent van Gogh was able to do. He was able to see beyond the veil of adulthood, with all its worries and responsibilities, to gaze upon the majesty that exists in God’s creation. In his art, he took the natural world and sprinkled in just a little bit of the magic that he was able to see.
So what makes van Gogh so special? Did he have something that the rest of us do not? Of course not. While it is true that van Gogh was ostracized for his unique abilities, which is evidenced by the way that his life ended, van Gogh was using something that we all have the ability to use—imagination. In Biographia Literaria, author Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the faculty of imagination, claiming that it exists in two parts. He writes, “The imagination, then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Basically, what he means is that the first layer of imagination, what he calls the “primary imagination”, is what gives us the ability to look at the world around us and make sense of it. It is what we use when we see a tall object in the natural world that has branches and leaves and are able to identify it as a tree. It is the ability to rightly categorize the things with which we interact. He goes on to write,
The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of agency, and differing only in degree and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects are essentially fixed and dead.
This description, although somewhat difficult to muddle through, basically describes the process that happens when the five year old child in the back seat is able to turn the enormous tree on the side of the road into a 50 foot tall dragon. Coleridge says that imagination happens when we ponder the natural world around us, and we “recreate” it in our minds. This process is the very thing that Vincent van Gogh was able to do to create such beautiful masterpieces, but this ability also exists inside all of us.
In “On Fairy Stories”, J. R. R. Tolkien writes about the idea of subcreation. Subcreation, Tolkien claims, is the ability to make a “Secondary World” out of the world in which we live. This ability is part of our Imago Dei. Because God is the ultimate Creator, and because we are created in His image, we have the desire to create things. But unlike God, we do not have the ability to create things ex nihilo, or out of nothing. So, we use our imagination to subcreate. We recreate things in our minds, with our words, through music, or with paint, clay, wood, etc. This is a God-given ability that can be practiced and mastered and must be cultivated. And it all starts with wonder.
This very ability to wonder exists, or once existed, within you. You were once the child who made up fairies and dragons while you played. You imagined yourself to be a great wizard or a powerful knight. It once came naturally to you to pretend that things were there that actually weren’t. “What must I do to wonder?” you may ask now, realizing this ability has faded over time. My first suggestion would be to pray and ask God to show you how to wonder again. We can be like the Psalmist David who awes at God’s creation with his words. Next, pick up a fantasy novel, even if it was written for children. Fantasy is what Tolkien claims as the best mode of subcreation. This kind of subcreation will naturally teach you how to wonder.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Finally, spend time with children. If you have younger siblings, or nieces and nephews, or children of your own, watch how they awe at Creation. Instead of deducing or dissecting it in your mind like adults are oft to do, awe at it. Wonder at a hummingbird as it hovers in the air. Wonder at the evening sky when it is painted in purples and pinks and baby blues. Wonder at the stars or the caterpillar in the grass or the playful puppy when it chases its tail and thank God for allowing you to enjoy and rejoice in the beautiful world that He has made.