To see the world through the eyes of one of the most prolific painters that ever lived, you don’t need to travel to the south of France — that experience can now be found in a shopping center in Northeast D.C.
Just a short walk from the Rhode Island Metro station, at Rhode Island Center is a building that once housed a Big Lots. It has now been transformed into an interactive fine art gallery of sorts, which tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh.
“The idea is every step of the way, we’re surprising and delighting. We’re bringing you deeper and deeper into the story of Vincent Van Gogh, who’s an artist that people really know as a brand name but get to really know as a person and understand the true depth of his art,” said John Zaller, executive producer of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
Over the past few decades, several of Van Gogh’s works have sold for more than $80 million each. But that kind of commercial success eluded the artist during his lifetime. He only sold one of his paintings while he was alive, and the others, according to Zaller, were kept and cataloged by his brother, Theo, who was an art dealer.
The relationship between Vincent and Theo is an important part of the story, Zaller said, because Theo supported his brother both financially and emotionally.
“Theo kept all 600 of the letters that Vincent wrote to him, and we use quotes from those letters throughout the experience. They also show you the philosophical side of Van Gogh and his outlook on life,” Zaller said.
You learn about the many difficult times Van Gogh experienced, including his battle with mental illness, which eventually led to his death by suicide at the age of 37 in 1890.
The start of the experience features what in some places looks like a standard art gallery ——that is until some exhibits in the room, such as a bust of the artist, start getting superimposed with his works.
“You have no idea what’s around the next corner and the next corner,” Zaller said.
The main event is a room, where adults and children alike can be heard saying, “Ooo” and “Ahh,” as 26 projectors in a 10,000-square-foot-room with 30-foot-tall walls literally immerses visitors in the artist’s works.
From blinking stars on the walls to what looks like moving water under your feet, an adaptation of “Starry Night Over the Rhône” is displayed, that gives way to wheat moving beneath your feet and crows flying through the air, paying homage to his work “Wheatfield with Crows.”
“We haven’t altered his artworks, but we’ve taken inspiration from them to animate those artworks, as though he’s painting them himself, as though it’s actually an expression of what he was actually seeing through his mind’s eye at the time,” Zaller said.
Using inspiration from the immersive experience and a lot of crayons, attendees then get to bring coloring sheets with Van Gogh’s paintings — which are then hung in the room.
As they color, many people spend time talking about what they saw during the experience, among them 5-year-old Russel Pettyjohn from Delaware.
“I like the changing color head, it’s really cool,” Russel said.
His mother, Beth, said she’s always appreciated Van Gogh’s works, and feels this is a great way to introduce her children to his paintings.
“Just, like, immersing them, it is so fun to see them just staring at the artwork and hopefully that will make them engaged in art and museums,” Pettyjohn said.
What would it be like to live in a world painted by Vincent Van Gogh? The final destination allows attendees to see just that. Sitting in a chair that swivels, wearing virtual-reality goggles, you take a trip with Van Gogh through an animated and realistic rendering of landscapes and cityscapes in the south of France that inspired his works.
“That was mind-blowing. I almost thought I was going to fall off my chair a few times,” said Tony Mattera of the virtual reality experience. He came to D.C. from Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, Roni, to take the journey into the world of Van Gogh.
Tickets and time reservations for “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” need to be made online. For more information, visit the exhibit’s website.