Earlier this month the great-grandson of Post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin passed away. It did not make headline news anywhere and I only found out via social media. The news upset me greatly.
I grew up in a very rural part of Denmark. Prime farm country, most of life revolved around agricultural shows, travelling circuses coming to town, and the occasional dance at the local community hall. I was a bookish child and was a regular visitor to the local library. Books became my solace as I felt out of place – I read a lot of historical fiction and I made fanciful, historical outfits for my dolls. I was a lonely child.
When I started 5th grade, Mr Clovis Gauguin was assigned as our art teacher. He had a large, unruly beard and wore colourful scarves. I had never seen anyone like him and his name was hard to pronounce. He began by declaring art classes should have soundtracks and for the next few years he played us everything from 1950s jazz to 1970s prog rock while we painted. Occasionally he’d urge us to bring our own tapes to class.
And he’d show us art.
His family connections made Post-impressionism the obvious place to start. We sat copying paintings by Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, and (my favourite) Paul Cezanne as well as Gramps Gauguin. Then Mr Gauguin asked us to paint in the styles of the painters we had studied and the paintings were displayed at school. My mum later told me that Mr Gauguin had pulled her aside to talk to her about me. I was going to stretch my wings one day, he told her.
I did stretch my wings. I left my childhood community when I was 18 and moved to big cities doing things I could not have imagined as a lonely child stuck in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to social media, I reconnected with Mr Clovis Gauguin a few years ago and we had some fantastic conversations about art and music. I told him how much his encouragement had meant to me and he was delighted to hear that he had made a difference.
The difference was this: Mr Gauguin showed me there was a world out there filled with art, beauty and truth. He taught me to express myself, to trust in myself and that life could be very different. While many of my passions can be traced back to the Friday afternoons we spent with Mr Gauguin (late 19th century art and early 20th century culture in particular – but also poetry, abstract art and cool jazz), it is very possible I would have discovered these things in my library books. But I would not have known that I had colours and words inside me. Another way of life was suddenly possible thanks to my art teacher.
On the day of his funeral, Mr Gauguin’s Facebook feed was filled with stories shared by people all over the world. Unsurprisingly I was not the only one who had benefited from his joie de vivre, his passion, and his encouragement. Concert videos from a restaurateur in the Southern United States who had once hosted Mr Gauguin’s jazz band; Tahitian relatives sharing memories of drinking beer with Mr Gauguin outside a memorial service for his great-grandfather (“Paul hated the church, so in his honour..”); but mostly stories similar to mine. So many people writing about discovering a big, big world – both within and outwith themselves.
I cried when I heard Mr Gauguin had passed away, but he left his mark on the world by inspiring and nurturing people whenever and wherever. Sometimes you do not need to generate headlines to be a big, important person. And he really was such a person to me.