The Potato Eaters
When we first got together and starting talking about this, doing this, starting this conversation, we talked a lot about food. Where it comes from and how it comes to us. In bowls and on forks, how we hold it in our hands and prepare for it. And then we started talking about other things. Because that is what you do at a table. You talk and you share and you eat and get something back that the day took away from you. You grow again through this habit, this gathering of souls. Sharing stories and breaking bread.
And so of course I thought about The Potato Eaters.
The Potato Eaters; almost lost under the limited light of that oil lamp, you can feel it swinging above them, barely enough light to reveal their meal, and yet physically pulling us in closer to the painting itself, because we must get closer to see the details, the steaming potatoes and cups of hot coffee. The clock ticking on the wall and the windows at the back of the cottage. All of it so dark and compelling. It was the story of Van Gogh at that time in his life, who favored the subtle, difficult and poorly-lit narrative of these five earnest peasants to that of the bourgeoisie.
You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. ("Letter 497". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.)
It was in actuality a series of pieces; preliminary sketches and numerous paintings and lithographs, a reflection of the time Van Gogh spent studying the peasant farmers in the municipality of Nuenen, where his father was a pastor in the 1880s. It was an ambitious endeavor, both the subject and the techniques employed as they were ones not yet mastered by Van Gogh. He was initially criticized for this work and it took the better part of a century for it to rise to the notoriety of being his first masterpiece. The final oil painting from this collection can be seen today in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
And this common communion has become one of the most substantial conversations of art history.
This is what we do: we exist, and we have around us the things we care for. We come together to eat and talk and share. We assimilate and object. We appeal. We have these encounters over and over again. And every time that we push our chair back, and stand to leave, we take with us a slightly new perspective. We are simply and singularly affected by this common conversation. This harvesting of words and meaningful pauses. Roots and salt and wine.
Our intention is to come to the table purposefully. To take in what is of the earth, with a measure of sincere excitement for the task at hand. To engage in that which connects us, binds us, and carries elements from all the provocative areas of life; tragedy and turmoil, awe and humility, feast, famine, and the specific energy with which we anticipate what is to come, what we can do, when we collect these conversations.
As Van Gogh himself said “For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.”
We are ready. Let’s start talking.