Tyre Nichols Wanted to Capture the Sunset
The 29-year-old deserved more chances to observe life’s ordinary miracles.
Vincent van Gogh’s painting Willows at Sunset is a dazzling kaleidoscope of twilight. The canvas is awash in orange and yellow brushstrokes, as if the painter meant to depict the world ablaze. An asymmetrical sun hovers in the background while beams of light shoot across the sky. Terra-cotta grass leans in the wind that I imagine van Gogh felt slide across his cheek. Three pollarded willows rise up from the earth and bend like bodies frozen mid-dance. Shades of black expand across their barren trunks, as if they are about to be swallowed by the oncoming night.
The piece, painted in 1888, wasn’t originally meant to be shared with the world. The wide brushstrokes on the canvas have led art historians to believe that van Gogh painted the image quickly, perhaps as a sketch for another work—the artist’s attempt to capture the majesty of a sunset before it slipped beyond the horizon.
I first stumbled upon Willows when Googling examples of sunsets with my 5- and 3-year-old children so that we might be better equipped to draw our own.
Sunsets are a recurring theme in van Gogh’s work. He was drawn to them. He was moved by them. In a letter to his brother Theo on July 5, 1888, he wrote:
Yesterday at sunset I was on a stony heath where some very small and twisted oaks grow; in the background, a ruin on the hill, and wheat in the valley. It was romantic, you can’t escape it … The sun was pouring bright yellow rays on the bushes and the ground, a perfect shower of gold. And all the lines were lovely, the whole thing nobly beautiful.
I’ve been thinking about van Gogh’s painting this week as Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old man who died in early January after being beaten by five Memphis police officers, was laid to rest. In interviews, Nichols’s relatives have attempted to ensure that he is remembered as a man beyond the gruesome video of his beating. One piece of information from these interviews stood out to me: Tyre Nichols also loved sunsets.
“That day, when he left around 3 o’clock, he was on his way to Shelby Farms, because my son—every night—wanted to go and look at the sunset,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said about her son and his trips to the Shelby Farms skate park. “That was his passion. Going to Shelby Farms to watch the sunset and take pictures.”
Yesterday, I saw a photo of Nichols that seemed to capture his love of those daily moments. He is wearing a pair of black sunglasses, a dark tank top, and a necklace. Behind him, the sun is setting beyond some trees, showering the left side of his face in a brilliant cascade of yellow light. He is standing next to a car, with both the driver’s-seat and back-seat doors open, as if they are inviting the sun to come sit down and take a ride. It is a selfie, the sort of photo that Nichols looks to have taken quickly, in order to, like van Gogh, capture a moment—a feeling, an image—that he wanted to hold on to. Perhaps Nichols was on his way to the skate park. Perhaps he was on his way to pick up his 4-year-old son. Perhaps he was teaching his son how to skateboard. Perhaps they were going to watch the sunset at the skate park together.
I don’t know if Nichols was familiar with van Gogh’s work, but I know that the two of them shared a sense of wonder in observance of this daily miracle. This phenomenon that is at once so common, and yet so worthy of our attention.
I haven’t always stopped to watch sunsets. I often fall victim to the plague of feeling too busy: Deadlines to make. Soccer practices to bring the kids to. Dinner to cook. Emails to check. But Nichols’s photo, and his mother’s words about his love, have reminded me of how important it is to sit still with these moments. To more fully incorporate into my life the ritualistic forms of praise to the world around us that Nichols did into his.
Understanding this fact about Nichols also gives us a different sense of what has been lost. It is not only that these Memphis police officers stripped a family of a son, a father, a friend. They stripped away Nichols’s ability to watch more sunsets, to sit in observance of these reminders of how precious and miraculous life is.
Nichols deserved to live a long life. He deserved more time with his family. He deserved more sunsets.