Michael C. Keith
Michael C. Keith is the author of more than 20 books on electronic media, among them Talking Radio, Voices in the Purple Haze, Radio Cultures, Signals in the Air, and the classic textbook The Radio Station (now Keith’s Radio Station). The recipient of numerous awards in the academic field, he is also the author of dozens of articles and short stories and has served in a variety of editorial positions. In addition, he is the author of an acclaimed memoir—The Next Better Place (screenplay co-written with Cetywa Powell), a young adult novel—Life is Falling Sideways, and six story collections—Of Night and Light, Everything is Epic, Sad Boy, And Through the Trembling Air, Hoag’s Object, and The Collector of Tears. He has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O.Henry Award and was a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Award for short fiction anthology and a finalist for the 2013 International Book Award in the “Fiction Visionary” category. www.michaelckeith.com.
Initially his efforts were no more than a seven year-olds’ attempt at copying something of which he had little grasp or understanding. Still his parents were pleased with his interest in painting and bought him everything he needed to fully explore it. The glint in his pale blue eyes when he took up a brush rewarded them a thousand fold. However, when they suggested he take lessons, he balked.
“I want to do it myself. I don’t want a teacher,” he answered with such determination and conviction that his parents relented.
Nicholas made rapid progress with his brushes, and soon relatives and family friends were taking notice of his ability. By his tenth birthday, some were of the mind he was a genuine prodigy. Nicholas felt the same.
“I can really make beautiful pictures, can’t I, Mom?”
“You certainly can. Just like Van Gogh.”
“Yes, just like Van Gogh,” repeated Nicolas, enormously pleased with himself.
When Nicholas showed his rendition of The Starry Night to his 6th grade teacher, she first assumed it was a print of the world-renowned painting.
“That’s one of my very favorite pictures, Nicky. Did your mother buy this print for you?”
“No, I painted it!”
“You painted it? Really?” replied Miss Harper, doubtfully.
“Run your finger over the trees. You can feel the oils. If you touch the star in the right corner, you can see that it’s not really dry yet. I finished it this morning to bring to ‘show and tell.’”
The skeptical teacher put her finger where Nicholas directed and was surprised to find that he was right.
“Well, that’s . . .”
“See. I told you, Miss Harper. I’m working on Van Gogh’s Irises. I’ll bring it in Monday if you’d like to see it.”
“Of course I’d like to see it, Nicky,” said the astonished instructor.
At the end of the school day, Miss Harper called Nicholas’s mother to tell her about Nicholas’s wild claims about reproducing the work of the great painter.
“Yes, we know that Miss Harper. Nicholas has a unique talent and we’re very proud of him.”
“So the paintings are really his own work?”
“Oh, yes. He’s been painting Van Gogh for several years.”
“Have you shown his paintings to any art experts? It’s quite extraordinary for a 12 year old to accomplish such advanced work.”
“No, but we’re going to show his paintings to the public when he wants to, which we think will be sooner than later. Maybe in a year or so. He says he wants to paint The Potato Eaters and The Night Café next. When he’s ready, we’ll contact a gallery. Don’t worry. We’ll certainly invite you.”
* * *
Three years later, Nicholas had reproduced more than 100 of Van Gogh’s works and a gallery had agreed to offer him an exhibit. The Wackers’ son had wanted to paint many more from the artist’s canon before showing them, but his parent’s hoped sales from the exhibit might defray the looming cost of his college education.
“I don’t want to go to college. I want to complete painting all of the Van Gogh oils there are. That is what I want to do. It’s what I love doing.”
Nicholas’s obsession with the Dutch master had become a growing concern of the Wackers. While they were thrilled with their son’s obvious talent, they saw in his single-mindedness a danger to his health. Nicholas had become very thin and his behavior had become erratic. Swings in his mood and his frequent periods of aloofness even put the Wackers at odds with one another. While his mother, Anna, felt her son was only exhibiting the common symptoms of incipient creative genius, his father, Ted, believed Nicholas was showing signs of mental distress.
“He should see a child psychologist. The boy has been so consumed with painting Van Gogh he’s beginning to act like him. The next thing he’ll do is cut off his ear.”
Unbeknownst to the Wackers, their only child had been fighting the urge to do just that. At 19, he’d had his earlobe stretched to accommodate a plug, On two occasions he had removed it when overcome by the desire to slit the dangling lobe with an exacto knife. He had stopped at the very last second, knowing his parents would be appalled. Nonetheless, the urge continued to assert itself.
To placate his parents, Nicholas reluctantly agreed to display his work at a local gallery. While he had completed many of Van Gogh’s better-known works, the gallery could only accommodate a third of them because of space limitations. It promoted the upcoming event widely, proclaiming Nicholas the virtual reincarnation of the famous 19th century artist. The opening attracted a large crowd, which included the prominent local art critic for the local newspaper, James Woodley.
“You’ll be reviewed in the Times,” squealed Mrs. Wacker, delighted by the attention her son was attracting.
Yet despite her high expectations, only two of Nicholas’ paintings were sold.
“I think people don’t recognize what an achievement these paintings are,” bemoaned the gallery owner. “They think they’re just copies of Van Gogh, but they don’t realize what brilliance it took to make them. We’ll sell more when people realize what we have here. I’m confident of that.”
When the review of the show appeared the next day, expectations were lowered, if not dashed. In Woodley’s words, “The exhibit is a carnival sideshow featuring the work of a freakishly talented young imitator. Nothing more, and perhaps a whole lot less. The young man should find another muse to inspire him, because his current one is merely channeling an already revered original . . .”
While Nicholas paid little attention to the review, his parents were devastated and took the critic’s comments to heart.
“Honey, why don’t you try painting something else? Something your own. You’re so talented, I bet you could create wonderful scenes from your own imagination.”
“Mom is right, son. Invent work that is truly your own. You have such enormous gift, and it might be gratifying for you to do work that’s really yours,” added Ted Wacker.
“You don’t understand. I am doing what is mine. It reflects what is in my soul. Why would you want me to paint what isn’t me?” shouted Nicholas, storming from his parent’s house.
* * *
Nicholas wandered the city aimlessly, his thoughts swirling like the clouds that cast their shadows on the path before him. Gradually, the objects around him took on the famous qualities he so loved to emulate on his canvasses. After several hours, of walking and thinking, he found himself at the city’s renowned art museum. His eyes grew large and wild as he encountered two paintings by Gauguin. He stood in silence before them, and then let out a loud grunt of dissatisfaction.
“You . . . you!” he growled, and moved on.
Not five steps away, he froze in his tracks. Mine . . . mine!
A wall filled with Van Goghs caused his body to quake. Mine! Mine!
Nicholas could not understand what his paintings were doing away from his home studio. He grabbed at the first one and began to remove it. An alarm sounded instantly, and just as quickly a guard seized his arms.
“These are mine! I want them back! Why do you have my paintings?” bellowed Nicholas, attempting to free himself.
Within seconds he was hustled off to a small room and handcuffed. There he sat alone until the police appeared to take him to the county jail.
“Why are you doing this to me? All I want is what’s mine.”
“Oh, those Van Goghs were yours, mister?” inquired the officer, escorting him to a waiting car.
“Yes, I painted them.”
“Ah, so you’re the great painter himself, eh?”
“Yes . . . yes, I am the great painter,” replied Nicholas, indignantly.
An assessment of Nicholas’ mental health concluded he was highly delusional and a potential danger to himself, if not others. While his parents were loath to do so, they agreed to place him under long-term psychiatric care. At the Saint-Paul Center, only 12 miles from the Wacker’s home, Nicholas was allowed to continue to pursue his life’s singular passion. As the months and then years passed, Anna and Ted visited their son every Friday without fail. They would sit patiently and watch as he produced his newest Van Gogh painting. When the number of canvasses began to overrun his room, they stored them in his former room at home.
* * *
And there things stood for 15 years. One day, the art critic who had taken Nicholas’ work to task at his first and only gallery exhibit contacted the Wackers. His curiosity over the fate of the young wannabe had surfaced when Woodley had stumbled over his review while putting together a collection of his musings for a planned book. The Wackers told him of their son’s sad existence, revealing how he continued to replicate Van Gogh’s art. This fascinated the critic, who asked to see what Nicholas had done in the many years since his negative critique.
The Wackers agreed and Woodley spent the afternoon closely examining what were now hundreds of canvasses in Nicholas’ old bedroom. He was astounded by what he saw. Not only was the institutionalized artist prolific, but the quality of his replications was astonishing.
“May I take some of these to show my colleagues at the university? I really think they’re quite extraordinary, even if they are copies of Van Gogh’s paintings,” asked Woodley.
The Wackers agreed and then waited to hear back from Woodley, hoping their son’s lifelong efforts would be recognized as exceptional even if they were copies.
Two weeks later, while visiting Nicholas, he announced that the painting he was just then completing was Van Gogh’s last oil. It was unusual though similar to the last batch Nicholas had painted since they’d seen him. While the canvasses were consistent with Van Gogh’s style, the subject matter was very different. Several canvasses contained scenes of planets and strange floating machines.
“What are those, Nicholas? I don’t think Van Gogh ever painted such things,” said Anna.
“These were paintings that he never showed anyone. He kept them out of sight, and then they were lost.”
Nicholas’ referral to Van Gogh in the third person surprised and startled the Wackers, since their son had not spoken in his own voice since his breakdown. Nor had he acknowledge them as his parents during this period.
“I’m done,” declared Nicholas. “I want to go home, Mom . . . Dad.”
The Wackers could not contain their emotions and quickly informed their son’s overseers of his obvious breakthrough. A week later they returned to the Gifford Center to pick up their miraculously restored son.
* * *
As soon as they arrived at the institution, they were informed that Nicholas had gone missing that morning and that a search for him was underway. The State Police had been called in and the Wackers joined in the search. After two days, Nicholas remained missing, and his parents returned home to await further word. The next day they were told the body of their 37 year-old son was found in an adjacent wheat field. It appeared he had died from a self-inflicted wound.
Their deep grief was interrupted a week after their son’s funeral by a call from James Woodley.
“I’m so very sorry for your loss. Nicholas was an amazing individual. More amazing than I ever thought, I must admit. I have some news about your son’s paintings. May I come by later? I think you’ll want to know what I have to tell you.”
When Anna answered the doorbell a half-hour later, she hardly recognized Woodley, because of the strange expression on his face.
“Thank you for letting me come right over. I wanted you to hear this from me before it gets out to the media.”
“Media? What do you mean?” asked Ted, inviting Woodley inside.
“Well . . .” said the art critic, taking a deep breath. “Several prominent art historians have poured over your son’s paintings, and they have concluded that there are no inconsistencies between those of Van Goghs’ and Nicholas’. Indeed, they could not prove that they were not originals, although the originals are hanging in museums throughout the world. At first they even considered that those in the museums might be forgeries and that your son had somehow acquired the originals. That hypothesis was soon discounted as totally impossible and ridiculous.
The Wackers were stunned and confused by the news. For several moments they attempted to speak, but their voices had abandoned them. Finally, Ted was able to squeeze out a few words.
“What are you saying? We know he painted them. We saw him do it time and time again. That’s all he ever did. It was his life.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. It does seem way beyond coincidental. We’re really all blown away by this. But there’s more.”
“What do you mean?’ asked Anna, in a barely discernible a whisper.
Woodley hesitated as if trying himself to grasp the meaning of what he was about to say. "Well, ah . . . the experts ran a test on the oils Nicholas used in his paintings . . .”
“And . . .?”
“They determined they were at least . . . 120 years old,” muttered Woodley, fixing his gaze on a family photograph of Nicholas as a child. The eyes, he thought. Just look at those eyes.
The Boy Who Would Be Van Gogh
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation —William Wordsworth
Nicholas Wacker began painting early. While other kids his age enjoyed the typical pursuits of boyhood, he spent his days in the local library pouring over works of the great art masters. No artist captivated him more than Vincent Van Gogh. He loved the bold textures and vibrant colors and soon began emulating the artist’s approach.