Sometimes a casual conversation can turn into a memory that lasts a lifetime. That happened to me one sunny morning in Amsterdam when I had the great luck of having a long conversation with Vincent Van Gogh. Before you recommend an emergency meeting for me with a mental health professional, let me explain how this "back in time" experience came about. For a number of years I was a creative supervisor at a great advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, Inc. in New York. One of my accounts was KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and I was working on the theme, "Start your European vacation in Amsterdam and fly there on reliable KLM.
" .The agency recommended full page newspaper ads, and the campaign I developed featured all the attractive reasons to begin your trip in Holland. When I heard of the opening of the new Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I knew it would provide wonderful picture and story opportunities for an ad. Americans have had a love affair with Van Gogh art for years.
KLM agreed and flew me to Holland so that I could visit this new museum on the day before its official opening. Workers were putting the finishing touches on this magnificent structure. From an atrium in the central hall sunlight flooded the galleries and brought Van Gogh's vivid color to natural life. In these pre-opening hours the gallery was almost deserted so it gave me a rare opportunity to stop and be entranced by each painting. There was a very old man walking slowly in front of me, stopping for long periods at each painting. I caught up with him, and he smiled a greeting.
Then he began to speak softly. "Ah, the Potato Eaters," as he stared at the world-famous Van Gogh painting. He began to talk about why some of the people in the painting had such unusual faces.
He paused again in front of the Vase with Flowers. Next, The Harvest. "That was in Arles," he said. "A very interesting time." I couldn't contain my curiosity much longer. I introduced myself and asked, "How do you know so much about these paintings?" He smiled again.
"I'm Vincent van Gogh." Then he explained. "My father was Theo, Vincent's brother.
When my mother died, I inherited almost all of his paintings. I told the city of Amsterdam that if they built a museum for the paintings, I would donate all of them. My family was not completely happy with my decision." But then he gazed around the building with some awe, clearly indicating it was all worth it. "You speak really excellent English," I said.
"Well, I have traveled to many countries for exhibitions of my uncle's paintings. Years ago I used to live in New Jersey." I was really taken aback by this. "New Jersey!" "I worked for the New Jersey power company. I made drawings of power grids. I used to amuse my co-workers because I always signed the plans, 'Vincent van Gogh'.
" I talked a few more minutes with this wonderful old man. I later learned that one of the paintings that hung in the Rijksmuseum had a very a special meaning for him, "Branches with Almond Blossom." His uncle Vincent had dedicated this painting to his newly-born nephew. I have thought about this conversation for many years. And realized what I would have missed if I had not stopped to talk with a very old man walking through an art museum.
From Hal Gieseking's new book of experiences with successful people, "Reinvent Yourself." Sample chapters can be viewed at http://virginiahospitalitysuite.com/freelessons.htm