You WILL believe an oil painting can live and breathe in "Loving Vincent" ... from starry, starry nights to black crows erupting over golden wheat fields.

And we can thank Heyworth native, Illinois State University alum and one-time Pantagraph employee Dena Peterson for having a literal hand in what most will agree is the most special effect of any movie this year.

Or, for that matter, any movie of any year.

For 94 unbroken minutes, Van Gogh's art comes to literal life, all the better to pay tribute to his life and his struggles in a revealing manner heretofore untried. 

At 12 oil paintings per second (or, 65,000 frames from 850 canvases).

And the eye boggles.

Over and over.

Peterson is one of the 120-odd international artists selected to animate the acclaimed Polish-produced film, opening a two-weekend run Nov. 30 at the Normal Theater. 

It's the same theater where she attended movies in her youth, and where she is scheduled for her first homecoming in many years (either via an in-person appearance or, if she can't make the trip, a Q&A-by Skype; details were still being worked out at press time, and will be announced in next week's GO!).

"As artists, many of us can relate to Van Gogh's struggles," Peterson says of her hands-on involvement with five key sequences, including one of its most acclaimed (the crows erupting over the wheat field as externalization of Van Gogh's psychic torment).

"Which is why his life strikes such an emotional chord with us."

Thanks to this experiment, which was so audacious and all-consuming she feels it may never be attempted again, the artist's famously tortured life is now striking emotional chords in filmgoers around the world.

Peterson becoming a part of the team of artists who made the laborious process pay off couldn't have been predicted in her time here in McLean County.

"I always loved art, and was always painting and drawing," says the 1980 Heyworth High School graduate.

"I was a good student, and bright, but my art interests weren't encouraged," she says. "I was considered 'too smart' to be an art student."

So when she enrolled at ISU, she spent the early ’80s studying psychology, earning a bachelor's degree in 1985, and her master's degree the following year.

She made spending money working in the Classified Advertising Department of The Pantagraph, shooting real estate photos (all in the family: her brother was a Pantagraph carrier).

"I took a couple classes in art history and painting classes at ISU, and I got rave reviews and A's ... but even one of those professors said, 'Don't go into art'."

The voice in her heart and soul whispered otherwise. But she was imprinted with that "smart kids don't go into art" mantra.

"I loved learning about psychology ... but when I started doing it, I didn't enjoy it so much as I did doing things with my hands," she says. "I don't know why I didn't listen to that voice more ..."

Then life happened: In 1989, Peterson relocated to Colorado, where she had a good a friend and immediately fell in love with the terrain.

She worked in her chosen field as a mental health counselor ... got married ... got out of her field ... "didn't miss it" ... raised a family ... "and stayed home for many years."

Her painting pastimes continued, "and my style began to emerge a little bit," she says. "I never liked photo-realism, that was not my thing. I like a little more thick kind of brushwork and I was drawn to that, pushing the boundaries of reality a little bit."

She took workshops and received her key training at Loveland Academy of Fine Arts where she lived (Loveland is south of Fort Collins and "about the size of Bloomington"). There also was time in an art school in Fort Collins "to get into art education," but her marriage unraveled around that time, and "I was unable to finish that."

Post-divorce, though, "I got more serious about art, studying with some really great people in private workshops," and taking more classes in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Denver.

There was a foreshadowing of her eventual encounter with Van Gogh by virtue of her finding her way into the art world without a formal degree.

"Even though he studied with teachers, he really taught himself to paint," she says.

While still raising raising her family as a single mom, "I kept with it, honing my skills, getting some recognition and winning awards."

Her involvement with "Loving Vincent" was more of a fluke than a natural step in her self-made progression.

"My daughter called and said, 'Hey, I saw a short trailer that's going around on Facebook about this new film ... you have to see it, it's amazing!'"

Peterson took a gander at the promo short "and I was fascinated ... to me it looked like hand-painted paintings that were moving. What grabbed me was the fact that you could see they were paintings ... see the brushwork."

The film's producers were seeking artists to complete the groundbreaking experiment in a fully painted animated narrative film that would dramatize the theory that Van Gogh did not shoot himself in the stomach, but was murdered by one Rene Secretan, a 16-year-old town bully.

A la "Citizen Kane," the portrait of the artist's life is a mosaic: a mixture of black-and-white flashbacks as various acquaintances recollect his life, and full-color renderings of the characters and incidents from his paintings. (The film was shot with live actors, with the resulting footage used as a movement template for the artists.) 

"I went to the website, and, on a whim, I sent them a nice email and a link to my website," Peterson recalls. "Like most artists, I do this all the time, and don't expect to hear back."

Surprise: She heard back — with the directive "we like your work, and it might be a good fit. When can you come here and take a test?"

So what if the studio turned out to be in Gdansk, Poland?

"I thought, 'I'm going to book a flight to Poland they don't pay for and take a test to see if they'll hire me to do this?' "

She had visions of making the trek and ending up in an "empty room" in a warehouse on the edge of nowhere. In a foreign country with a language she didn't speak.

After some online excavating, she determined the film company, Breakthrough Films, was for real.

An email to the American Embassy there resulted in a "we can't help you much" response.

"My daughter said, 'What's the worse that could happen other than you get a trip to Poland out of it?'"

So it was off to Gdansk.

And, indeed, Breakthrough Films was housed in a warehouse

But not in an empty room.

Three days were spent teaching Peterson and the other candidates the technique of animating a painting by literally altering it with brush-scrapes, which were photographed at the above noted rate of 65,000 frames taken of 850 separate canvases altered by hand.

"In some ways, it was very low-tech," she says of the process that has been routinely wowing eyes jaded by more than 20 years of anything-goes computer animation.

Peterson passed the test with flying colors and became part of the team that worked 8 to 10 hours a day for the next half-year of her life, "at about half of what the minimum wage would be here."

But the too-smart-for-art student of yore was in heaven, all the same.

"This movie is such a labor of love ... and what a cool project to be involved in," she says, back home and into her regular art-making routine in Loveland (to sample that, go to www.denapaints.com).

"People ask me, 'Do you realize you are a part of history now?' and I say. 'I wasn't thinking about that."'

That was then, this is now.

"As a creative way of tying all of Van Gogh's work together in a tribute to it," she says with clear enthusiasm, "I think it's pretty close to genius."

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