In my inaugural Art = Life column article Dec. 5, 2007, I wrote about Rantoul resident Dan Barrett and his Illinois state award-winning art. A couple of years later, Dan’s wife, Sharon Davie Barrett, won the same award, and I also featured her in my column in the Rantoul Press.

Since then we have remained friends and participated together in many art events in our local community, such as the annual Boneyard Arts Festival special day in Rantoul.

I had been looking for an opportunity to collect a piece of important artwork by Sharon because I had many pieces of art in my art collection by her husband, including the award-winning piece.

Sharon Barrett Feb. 12

Sharon Barrett in front of her painting on display.

In light of the common saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” after many years, I finally got a chance to purchase/collect an interesting painting by Sharon last year.

In the painting Sharon used strong color pastels and painted a female human figure picking up an apple, the forbidden fruit, from a tree in a garden.  I asked Sharon to give me her insight of the painting. She told me obviously the painting shows the human desire for love, and it is also a metaphor referring to any indulgence or pleasure that is considered illegal or immoral.

This Friday is Valentine’s Day, and each year on Feb. 14, people exchange cards, candy or flowers with their special “valentine.” This day is popular in the United States as well as in Britain, Canada and Australia, and it is also celebrated in other countries, including Argentina, France, Mexico, and South Korea. However, it is not celebrated in traditional Chinese culture.

But in modern China, for some young people this date is not uncommon to be selected for weddings, anniversaries, mass weddings of hundreds of couples. The holiday has also been expanded to expressions of affection among relatives and friends.

The new purchase of Sharon’s painting led me to Google search the history of Valentine’s Day. I am sure you all know, but according to an encyclopedia “Valentine’s Day, also called St. Valentine’s Day, is named for a Christian martyr and dates back to the fifth century, but has origins in the Roman holiday Lupercalia. The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites. At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century.”

Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day may have taken its name from a priest who was martyred about 270 CE by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend, the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and, by some accounts, healed from blindness. Other accounts hold that it was St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop, for whom the holiday was named, though it is possible the two saints were actually one person. Another common legend states that St. Valentine defied the emperor’s orders and secretly married couples to spare the husbands from war. It is for this reason that his feast day is associated with love.

Formal messages, or Valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were being used. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. Valentines commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally the seat of emotion.

Because it was thought that the avian mating season begins in mid-February, birds also became a symbol of the day. Traditional gifts include candy and flowers, particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty and love.

By learning from Sharon’s painting and from the history, just a couple of days before this year’s Valentine’s Day I feel the same as what famous artist Vincent Van Gogh once pointed out:

“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu