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Sheila Wellehan

Fugitive Red

All the colors that Impressionism has brought into fashion are unstable, so there is all the more
reason to simply use them too brightly – time will tone them down only too much.

– Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, 1888

The paintings fade like flowers… – Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, 1889

Blue bedroom walls started life violet.
The iris’s pink background has faded to white flour.
Bright yellows cower as they turn brown and dour.

Conservators struggle to halt the fleeing colors.
They say it’s tragic.
I’m not sure Vincent would mind.

He didn’t think fugitive pigments were a betrayal.
He embraced the new paints as thrilling tools
a poor artist could afford.

He wrote that paintings change,
paintings fade like flowers.

I wish I could travel back to see his canvases at first bloom
and ask him how he imagined time
would play with their hues.

I hate to think of Van Gogh’s sunflowers frowning
but I love the stark white background for his irises.
Pink would distract from the perfection of each petal and leaf –

When paintings fade, when paintings fade like flowers,
some works lose strength.
Others gain power.

Sixteen Balls of Yarn and a Few Loose Strands

One of the most curious objects preserved at the Van Gogh Museum is a slightly battered Chinese
red lacquer box containing 16 colourful balls of wool and a few loose strands of yarn.

– Laura Coyle, Van Gogh Museum Journal 1996

I see his hands
lifting the gleaming lid.
His fingers linger
on smooth red lacquer.
His eyes light up, then turn serious as he scrutinizes
the balls of yarn in his Chinese tea box.

He holds up rich gold wool,
taking a moment to stroke its soft fibers.
Then yellow, next deep blue and green –

planning and perfecting the play of pigments
in his next painting
as he studies his collection –
sixteen balls of yarn and a few loose strands.

He arranges them next to one another
or weaves their strands together to study the effect.
Usually he groans,
rarely he moans with joy and whistles
when the yarn
helps him understand.

With some balls, he meditates on one color.
With others, he contemplates
harmonious shades of same the hue.

Variegated globes provoke lively interior discussions:
deep blue and green, sky blue and yellow,
bright yellow and dark violet,
yellow-orange and light green.

I see balls of yarn now in his cypresses and irises,
cafés and thatched roofs,
sunflowers and stars.

Imagine him rubbing soft wool on his face
as he looks into the mirror
and ponders his next self-portrait.

History Whispers

The cypresses still preoccupy me … To do nature here, as everywhere, one must really be here for a
long time.
– Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, 1889

I feel its history whisper inside me.
Walking through hundreds of
snowstorms here whitened my hair.

Lady’s slippers pinch my cheeks pink each spring.
I know summer’s here when vernal pools vanish.
Vivid fall colors cheer me as days grow short.

Viburnum and trillium that thrive here
are my benchmarks for beauty.
Beavers that gnaw and splash
are my models for industry, humor too.

Deer embody grace and humility.
I revere coyotes for their fearlessness
and intense determination to survive.

I see my life here, I feel my history,
poems imagined as I watched the waterfall.
Difficult decisions I walked through

helped keep this path clear.
My troubles were eased
by lilies floating in that pond.
Lovers and children laugh every day with me,

though they’re now either memories or grown.
When I stare into the shadows after sunset
I still see my dear first dog.

The forest whispers because it knows I listen,
because it knows
I’m where I need to be.

I’ve lived my life here
because I need to watch and listen.
Because I watch and listen,
it’s inside of me.

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