The Mentor Chapter Seven – The Yellow House

February 19, 2023

We have moved through a few of the exhibition rooms and settled for a while in the performance space, but it is time now to move somewhere else where we can pause to take an even more reflective look at our story.

From the bright white light of the Merlin Theatre stage in 1978, I want to take you into a small room in 1990 which, in contrast, is very dimly lit indeed. The light is soft, almost velvety, and seems to be a deep, dark blue. It definitely isn’t black, or cold, or unwelcoming; so even though it is dark, this feels like a place where we can rest our whirligig minds and be safe with our quietest thoughts.

In the summer of 1990, I was in Amsterdam holding a ticket to enter the van Gogh centenary exhibition at the van Gogh Museum. Looking back, I’m not sure why I first became quite so fascinated by Vincent’s story; perhaps it was because he was the man who never sold a painting in his life, but who was revered as a genius after his death. Maybe it was his obvious vulnerability and vivid pain; or maybe it was just that the swirling skies and fireworks of colour in his work spoke to my own swirling thoughts and a mind of tumbling colours. Whatever it was, I loved his work.

However, until this day in 1990 I had never seen a painting by van Gogh in real life. The centenary exhibition was the biggest collection of his work anywhere, ever, with paintings and drawings loaned from private collections and museums from all over the world; and I had a ticket.

I was near the front of the queue at the main entrance to the Museum, and when the doors opened at 10am, I was quickly inside and standing in a large open foyer between galleries of his work. I remember feeling a little overwhelmed and I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. This was partly my unfamiliarity with how places like this work, but mostly it was because the museum was filling up very quickly with hundreds of people pouring through the doors. For a few moments I had become a slightly bewildered and gently jostled Brit, and it was not quite the contemplative experience I had been hoping for. I decided to get ahead of the shuffling crowds and so I walked as briskly as I could through Vincent’s early life story, not pausing to look at anything, and then up three or four flights of stairs, until I arrived in a small quiet room well above the entrance hall and the milling throng of visitors below. I had walked past probably two-thirds of the exhibition, but now at least I was on my own.

As I entered the room, my eyes had to adjust to the dark blue velvety light. It wasn’t too dark to see, but it was a good few seconds before I could feel orientated in the space. In the centre of the room was a single painting. I didn’t recognise the picture and I couldn’t recall seeing it before in any book or magazine. It was called “The Yellow House”. I was still the only person in the room, and it was so peaceful and so calm; it was as if the dark blue velvety light was absorbing all sounds. The painting was illuminated by a single spotlight, but I swear when I first saw it, it was the picture that was shining its light from the canvass, like pouring light through a window.

At that moment, in that place, I felt like I was with him. I felt like we were standing there together just looking at his painting. I could see his layers of paint like the ripples made by receding waves over wet sand. I could see the rough edges and the scrapes. I could see the depth of colour as if the paint itself was a landscape; and I could see how boldly and beautifully the colours threw off their light. It felt like I was being shown someone’s diary, like they were telling me things that were deeply precious to them. I felt included and involved. It also looked for all the world, like he had only just finished the painting; like he might have popped out to wash his hands. It seemed to me as if the paint could still be moved around the canvass, soft, yielding and not yet dry. I felt like I was the first person to see it.

I was fixed in front of it, unable and unwilling to move. I stood and stared in a profound silence, aware of tears on my face. I wasn’t crying (for a change) I was just moved to my core by something so crushingly beautiful, so raw, so human and yet so apparently ordinary too. After all, it was just an ordinary yellow house on the corner of an ordinary street.

I think I knew then, seeing the Yellow House for the first time, that there could never be anything ordinary in this world, and that all around us there would be people with their stories that should be seen and heard. As I look back on that day, with three more decades of accumulated experience, I cannot say for sure I knew then how important it would become for me to help others to find their stories, but I can say that this is where it began. It feels part of me now, and whenever I find myself in Amsterdam, I always pay a visit to see the Yellow House and it always takes my breath away.

At this point, I do not want to sound like some happy-clappy evangelist asking you to step onboard the cliché tram and play mindfulness bingo with me, but I do want to take you to that room in Amsterdam in 1990. If you were there with me and saw what I saw, and felt what I felt, you would also believe that there are stories all around us, in all of us and in everything. But first we must notice them, then we must allow the stories to speak to us and then we must let the stories stay with us.

The first and most important story is our own. The reflective pause I would like you to make therefore, is not some momentary distraction from your busy day; the pause I want you to make is to create a stillness in your life for your own story to catch up with your swirling, spinning world. The very best person to tell your story is you; and my worry is that in all the hectic to and fro, you haven’t even noticed it.

This is easy to say, I know. We pack our lives with lists, rushing from one responsibility to another. We fill our time with duty and let the world scrape at our soul. Reflection feels like indulgence and a pause just means we fall further behind; and anyway who else is going to change the bed, shop for food, write that report, have that meeting that doesn’t matter and also remember it is someone’s birthday so their card must be posted tomorrow?

However, this is a beautiful story too. It may not be the story you dreamed of, but it is still a beautiful story. We need to know our own story, or else we are flotsam, accidentally thrown overboard into the currents of other peoples’ unthinking ways. Reflection is not an indulgence, it is how we navigate our past so that we can be present in our today. A pause does not mean we fall behind, it means we do not travel too far in a direction we did not intend, or that we can push forward knowing the path we are on is just right for us, for now.

When we know our own story, the more we will know how to make our difference. When we know our own story the more we can help others to make their difference too. Mentoring is then the realisation that when we notice and when we listen, the stories that were hiding in plain sight become real and valuable for the people who are now noticed and heard, and also for us too.

To mentor is not to give advice, or to judge or challenge. It is only ever to make the space for someone else to find their story in their own words. On one summer’s day in 1990, in a dimly lit room in Amsterdam, I discovered something about myself and something about the world I lived in. It was the start of realising that there was even more to notice than I had thought.

In the end, it was not the picture of an ordinary yellow house that moved me, but the man who left his heart and soul for me to discover in the marks he made on a canvass a century before. In this moment of discovery, it was not about the art, but about Vincent finding his way to talk to me; and all I had to do was be kind enough to notice and to listen.

All any of us have to do is be kind enough to notice and to listen.

To be continued…

Take care. Paul xx

If you would like to see a picture of the Yellow House, please follow this link, and use the magnifying tab to get really, really close:

https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0032V1962

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