by Hallie Underwood ’20
I had spent the thunderous weekend in the windy city, chatting endlessly with my mother. From the minute our plane left John Glenn International Airport, I was rambling on about Alexander Hamilton and Chicago’s two-story Zara in between every complimentary airline peanut.
We had spent the entirety of Friday and Saturday laughing until our sides hurt while eating spaghetti with our closest friends in the area, crying the happiest of tears while watching the founding fathers indulge in rap battles at PrivateBank Theatre, and exploring Chi Town under gray skies and through taxicab windows.
When we reached our final attraction, the Chicago Art Institute, my mother and I laughed, combing our fingers through our hair and stomping our rain boots on unfamiliar welcome mats. Tourists reviewed maps and struggled to close soggy umbrellas, and we were so indulged in the commotion that we hardly thought about the beauty that awaited us beyond the crowded lobby. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in the heart of Chicago, I stood in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” in astonishment. It was a small painting that could easily be overlooked by a museum goer looking for Picasso, but it would alter my perspective on change and show me how powerful the present could be. I was quiet.
Van Gogh painted his first known self-portrait in 1886, taking inspiration from Dutch artist Rembrandt. I read this information from the shiny, new visitor’s guide before even eyeing the artwork, so I looked up, meeting a man who had painted himself a glum face in beautiful accented colors. Looking closer, I noticed every brush stroke fit perfectly into place. The white noise had faded into the white museum walls as I was accepting a new person into my life.
For me, accepting new changes this year has come in small doses. I entered the notorious high school doors in the fall. Sure, I have floated down these mint green hallways in tutus for ballet recitals, but then I was too focused the outcome of my not-so-perfect pirouette to notice that each locker belonged to a student and one day, a locker would belong to me.
I spent hours in a dance studio I haven’t returned to since eighth grade. As I noticed “Degas’s Little Dancer”, I saw myself, or at least who I used to be. I was reminded of my mother pulling my hair into a tight bun and the smile plastered across my face as my tap shoes carried me to wherever I wanted to be.
When I was young, I was determined I would be spending every extra second I had with the girls in my jazz class, in the studio perfecting the newfound love. I still find it heartbreaking, and in an odd way, I felt that I was keeping the little dancer from the dance studio she so longingly wanted to be in and stripping her ballet slippers as fast as I had stripped her dreams. With bitterness, I made my way to the next room of artwork, being sure not to look back at Degas’s dancer for too long after.
“Liz” was much bigger than I was. She covered the majority of the white wall they gave her and glanced down at me as if to give me a warning. Vibrant in every aspect, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was portrayed not by her beauty, but for the characters she portrayed in the flourishing career that she pursued for more than six decades. The more I stared at her garish blue eyeliner and red lipstick, the more I admired Andy Warhol for his ability to capture someone with only a paintbrush and canvas.
In this portrait, I could see myself, or at least who I wanted to be. I am quiet. There are times when I struggle to order at restaurants or raise my hand in chemistry discussions. I will not shy away from this minuscule portrayal of myself. But I cannot forget this girl who I hope to be. My portrayal of myself in the future stands confidently in every room and stands up for herself in all aspects. I turned away, knowing full well I would never replace the part of me that hung out with my dog on Friday nights or threw her hands in the air with excitement when discovering the solution to “x” in Algebra. I was surely intrigued by Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with her pearls and red wine and unapologetic attitude, but as I walked away with a bitter disposition I would realize I had never stopped to bid hello to Liz.
Despite the dozens of works I pondered over, there was only one painting I revisited. With eyes that said, “Go on. You can say, ‘I told you so.’”, Van Gogh stared at me from the copper frame on the white wall. How courageous can one man be to paint himself at a given moment and never look back?
According to my souvenir of this experience, the slightly-crumpled museum pamphlet, “by the time Van Gogh made this work, a year later, he had clearly shifted his allegiance from the Old Masters to the Parisian avant-garde”. I had spent so many of my days longing for a pink ribbon to be back in my hair and anticipating a layer of garish blue eyeshadow and it didn’t occur to me that Van Gogh was the most beautiful representation of myself. That stagnant face was always changing! It wasn’t until I was returning to Columbus that I could lean back from my airplane window and sit comfortably in my epiphany.
Sure, a glum face in beautiful accented colors will remain in a room with white walls inside a copper canvas for years to come, but there is no room to limit an artist to his self-portrait. He has found himself in dozens of artistic styles. Those sad eyes tell the story of the depressed man who chopped off the lower half of his left ear, but also the man responsible for elliptical stars and meadows of irises and a cafe’s luminant terrace.
Sure, I am a high school student who sometimes gets lost down endless mint green hallways. I forget to turn off the straightening iron and bicker with my sisters over the front seat of the car, but there is no room to limit a human being to their place in the universe at a given moment. I have found myself in dozens of moments this year; singing along from the pit at the Chance the Rapper concert and hyperventilating in the driver’s seat of my mother’s car while she is directing me around the grocery store parking lot in utmost apprehension. Behind these inspired eyes is the passionate young woman who stays up later than she should to watch The Office, but also a young woman of 2,500-word Franklin Delano Roosevelt essays and blueberry pancakes with the neighbors and doodles on science worksheets that don’t turn out half bad.
My mother was asleep beside me and I cherished the tranquility as the outlines of tiny, luminous towns as they grew distinct from my airplane window. I was quiet. All is quiet.