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Article: Auburn artist reveals his relationship to Vincent Van Gogh

by: William White / Staff writer
Opelika Auburn News
December 18, 2005

An Auburn artist, general contractor and farm safety specialist told friends gathered at a Christmas party in his home that a letter from his father revealed the family relationship he has with the famous artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).

"I am going to say something this evening that only eight other people on the face of this earth have heard me say. It is about my art," said Jesse LaPrade of Auburn.

"My dad meant a lot to me. He was special to me. He and I were very close for many, many years. He was just as fine a father as anyone could have ever had."

"Dad passed on in 1991. He was 82, almost 83. He died May 7, 1991. Before he died he called me and told me, 'Jesse, I am over in Tallahassee (Florida) hospital.'"

"I asked him how he was doing. He said, 'Not too bad. They are going to operate on me tomorrow. They are going to fix my stomach.' Dad had had a ruptured appendix when he was 23 years old. Back then, they didn't have antibiotics and fought things with sulphur drugs. He had adhesions all his life. They operated to get rid of some of that, but the infection was too severe. He lasted 20 to 21 days after that operation. He died."

"When he called me, he said, 'You know I have a letter for you. I would like for you to read it.'"

"I said, 'You aren't going anywhere, are you?'"

"He said, 'You never know at my age.' He was 82."

"I told him, 'Daddy, you hang in there.' But, I never got to talk to him again. He never regained consciousness in the hospital."

"But, he said, 'I will leave this in my satchel.'"

"He had a little briefcase. It was the old type which you reached in from the top. I knew about it. He had some research papers in it. He was an agricultural scientist. He did plant breeding. He really loved that and was really very good at it. He developed ďVirginia 115," a tobacco variety, which was the highlight of his life."

LaPrade said he didnít think any more about his fatherís letter until he went upstairs to a room in 1993 where they keep all the Christmas decorations and Christmas wrapping paper.

"So I was pillaging around in there on the 23rd of December in 1993. I was looking for a last piece of wrapping paper to wrap up one of my wife's gifts. I picked up the box, and there was the satchel."

"I didnít know if I really wanted to read it or not. I thought to myself that I bet he said a lot of nice things about me. Oh hell, I'll read the letter."

"I took the satchel out of there. I said that before I read the letter, I think I will go down and have me a drink. I did and I had two or three."

"I went up and opened the satchel. It was the biggest letter I ever saw in my life. It was over 20 pages. It wasn't in an envelope. It was in something like a manila folder. Something you would carry under your arm."

"My dadís writing - he was going to be an MD, but he didnít quite make it - his writing did."

"So I started reading the letter and he was telling me how much he loved me, how much I meant to him and all these kinds of things. I was all choked up. I knew that was what he was going to say."

"The next thing he said was 'You know you were adopted.' Well, I liked that. He said he could never bring himself to tell me I was adopted. Because I loved him so much the thought I might change that. I kinda understood that."

"It said in the letter that mom tried to tell you that at least twice, but you did not accept it."

"She picked a bad time to tell me. She said, 'Whenever I did something bad or wrong - 'Oh, you are just an adopted child.'

"Twice she said that, and I didnít think anything of it. Actually, I didnít even want to know if I was adopted. I was happy being a LaPrade. What the heck, I had been that all my life."

"The crux of it was that my real mom died within five minutes of the time I was born. My foster mom and foster dad were at the hospital. They were expecting a child. My mom was sure it was going to be a girl because it didn't kick. They even had on the birth certificate, Jessie, which is for a girl. We all know that's j-e-s-s-i-e - is how you spell a girl's name."

"Their child was still born - dead. There I was without a mom, and no father either. My father had died three months before I was born."

"My mom and dad were of French descent. They lived in a little village in France. I don't remember the name. They were very poor people. They were pheasants. My mom was a civil servant. My dad was what you would call a 'jack-of-all-trades.' He fixed things."

"They made their way to America on a cargo ship. They landed in Charleston, S.C., in late 1940. They were not supposed to get off the ship, but they did. They walked to a place called Cairo, Ga.

"My mom and dad were in a small town near Cairo, but the nearest hospital was in Bainbridge, Ga."

"My dad would make more money by getting in fist fights with no gloves. They said he wasnít real big, but he was real tough. He never lost a fight."

"He got in one in mid to late January in 1941 in a bar near Cairo, Ga. He wasn't a big man, but he still won that fight. He had to walk home in the night. They divided up the money - he and his brothers - and he walked home only to meet a crowd of those people who bet against him. The long and short of it is - he was beaten to death with sticks and clubs and they took his money."

"My real mom was so distraught over the whole thing that she just kinda wasted away. She made her way to Bainbridge. She walked to Bainbridge to have her baby."

"My great-granddad was Vincent van Gogh, according to my dad. He had a child with his sitter called 'The Great Lady.' He did not claim this child. It was a boy. They never got married."

"Vincent van Gogh was my great-granddad, and 'The Great Lady' was my great-grandmother."

"The people in this hospital had this child. They said I was very, very healthy."

"Lucy and John LaPrade had a child they just lost. They came to my foster mother and foster father and told them about this child who didnít have a mother and father."

"According to my foster father in his letter, he said, ĎWell, what really keyed them into taking me on as their child, their son, was the paperwork that my mom had in her possession really showed and convinced him as to who I am. He was very convinced."

"I never knew it until 1993. I was so distraught when I read that. Gosh, I thought, I could have studied art. I could have done something."

"I burnt this letter right in that fireplace," said LaPrade, pointing toward the fireplace across his living room. "I told myself I am never going to tell anybody that. Nobody would believe it anyway."

"But I am going to test myself. I am going to see if I can paint. I started painting."

"I never did paint like this to begin with," he said looking back at his artist's studio off of the living room. "I tried this a long time ago with watercolors not with oils, but they would go everywhere."

"I'd watch Bob Ross on TV on Saturday sometimes and said, 'I sure wish I could do that, but I know I can't. Then I started looking at some of Bob Rossí things.'"

LaPrade asked everyone to walk around and look at some of his things. "I painted some of his (Bob Ross) pictures in my own style. You can tell it is something like his."

He said he told his brother, John. They called his sister, Patricia, and had a three-way telephone conversation.

"I told her about the letter my dad left me. She said, 'When you were 4 years old, you know momma told me you were adopted. She saw we didn't get along and wanted me to try to bring you into the group.' I was floored."

"Thatís why I am sharing this story with you. It has been in my heart since 1993. I wanted to tell my very dear friends who are right here around me."

After talking about his art studies and visit with an art critic, Larade said, "he didnít want to prove anything."

"I donít ever intend to ever take any DNA tests or anything. I donít care. Vincent van Gogh didnít care when people said his art was no good."

"I'm getting a lot more the way he said his personality was. I just donít care if they don't like my art."

"I am happy. That's what makes me click. When I paint something I can almost feel Vincent around me.

"I never painted before 1995. I like to paint early. I like to paint on the weekends when I can paint in the morning."

One friend, an attorney from Montgomery, made the trip over to hear his story.

"Jesse is an old friend of mine," said Floyd Gilliland. "Certainly this is a surprise. I am not an art critic so I donít know anything about the art aspects of it." He said he had known Jesse since the early to mid 1970s. "This is the first time I have ever heard him talk about art. "

"Thatís a very interesting story, for sure. Most of us have dull and mundane lives. Jesse described a very interesting life and ancestral history. It is interesting, thatís all I can say, interesting."

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