In her words: Immersed in Vincent

Being human hasn't been easy lately.

Politics tear at us like a relentless flock of Hitchcock's malevolent birds. Inequity and racism rage. School shootings and hate crimes flourish. The earth exacts her revenge on our errant ways with fire and water. And a tiny terrifying molecule with weird tentacles looms over all of it. We are collectively overwhelmed, exhausted, and riddled with anxiety.

Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Cleveland - Photo Stephen YuskoBut for 35 minutes inside a revamped warehouse on East 72nd Street, Vincent Van Gogh washed all that away with his dazzling sunflowers, a spartan bedroom in Arles, and dreamy starry nights.

I stood there, completely enveloped in the troubled artist's world, his color palettes and intricate techniques bursting all around me. Watching the sun rise and set over "The Sower" as Edith Piaf's unparalleled voice boomed through the space singing, "Non, je ne regrette rien," brought tears to my eyes.

I waxed curious over the "Girl in White" standing in a lush field. Did the artist's heart fill with tenderness over her? The dizzying portrayal of "Corridor in the Asylum" spun around me and I wondered if this work brought him pain or comfort as he wrestled with his own mental illness. We watched the entire loop twice.

Now I wish I'd stayed for a third go-around, or even a fourth.

The Immersive Van Gogh Experience included another component for me, one that is quiet and small. Amid my disorganized collection of jigsaws are six puzzles featuring the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

Hence, I have reconstructed "The Harvest" and "The Café Terrace at Night" one tiny cardboard piece at a time. "Irises" sits in my to-do pile. I've worked a 1,500-piece Van Gogh collage that features 22 of his works.

Whenever I recognized an image from one of the puzzles on the giant screens inside the Immersive loop, it was like spotting someone I know on television. I'd tug my husband's sleeve, and whisper excitedly, "I have that puzzle! Do you remember that puzzle?"

When you construct a fine art puzzle, you literally recreate the image and in doing so, you feel the artist's process. Tadasky's "Whirling Discs" is the most joyous image I've ever worked. You'll never appreciate the twisted details of Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" unless you travel to Madrid's Museo del Prado to view the massive original (it's nearly seven feet tall and more than 12 feet wide), or for about 20 bucks, you could recreate it on your dining room table one piece at a time. The most lackluster puzzle I ever did was da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." Go figure.

Conversely, when I construct Van Gogh's images, I brim with melancholy want. I want to sip the absinthe, step into the church at Auvers, and walk endlessly through his fields of wheat and flowers.

All the while, Vincent's ghost sits next to me, cooing his secrets: Do you see how that ribbon of green changes everything, Erin? The ribbon of green is so beautiful. Everything around you is beautiful. Do you see it?

I certainly do, and when I worked the somber self-portraits, I placed the pieces depicting his ear ever-so gently.

My Van Gogh fever persisted, so I hauled myself over to see There's Nothing like the Real Thing: Van Gogh at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Standing before his original work delivered yet another Vincent to me: the flesh and blood man who applied the paint to the canvas, who stood back and gazed at it with a critical eye. I was standing just as he did when he created this physical evidence of his life. It took my breath away.

If Vincent Van Gogh sighs next to me at my puzzle table and accompanied me at the museum, he was surely smiling with glee as I spun around inside the immersive exhibition watching his work explode with life like a fireworks display.

Being human has never been easy, especially for Van Gogh, but if a thoughtful artist who left us 131 years ago can push away the pandemic and vitriol and pain and show me what is wonderful about being human again, don't you dare tell me there's no such thing as magic.

The Original Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is in Cleveland at Lighthouse Artspace Cleveland, 850 E. 72nd St., through Feb. 6. Tickets are $39.99 to $49.99, plus fees. The exhibit 50,000 cubic feet of projections, 60,600 frames of video, and 90 million pixels.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.