Cary R. Varnado
"The object of art is
to give life shape."
the 19th century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Alexandria internist
Dr. David Holcombe paints with bold, daring strokes. Van Gogh painted
the life he saw outside his window, but for Holcombe, life is the
it's art, medicine or family, Holcombe views the world with a certitude
not easily found in modern society.
call me a socialist," Holcombe jokes. "It's not really true; it's
just a different perspective. I think it's a broader perspective."
birth of this perspective, says Holcombe, came largely in a "life-altering"
choice he made nearly three decades ago.
a master's degree in poultry science, Holcombe found the doors into
medical school closed in the United States.
I started applying to medical school and was having all this trouble,
I had fine arts and Russian literature," he observes. "Now they like
people that have broader backgrounds it makes you a better physician
and all that, but at the time it wasn't true.
when all that happened, I had applied and wasn't accepted, I said,
'I'm not going to sit around, so I'll go into agriculture.
I continued applying to medical school while I was in agriculture
and every year I'd get all these rejections," Holcombe said.
"Great artists have
Alfred de Musset
as van Gogh was driven to service as a missionary among the Borinage
miners by a deep desire to help his fellow man, Holcombe refused to
let rejections at home keep him from a calling to medicine. So the
self-described "citizen of the world" enrolled at the Catholic University
of Louvain in Brussels, Belgium.
Life as a student is not easy in any country, though, and Holcombe
soon found himself in need of additional income.
one of his personal interests to good use, Holcombe got a job teaching
folk dancing at the student recreation center, where he caught the
eye of a young Belgian girl named Nicole.
"We belonged in different groups," notes Nicole, David's wife of 24
years. "One time I learned, 'Oh that's an American guy teaching,"
1981 David made Nicole the next muse for his life's canvas.
marriage ceremony was simple.
had two witnesses and a few friends," Holcombe recalls.
a humble beginning to their marriage, the couple doesn't regret not
having a more lavish wedding.
"I really can't say that I've ever regretted not having that kind
of social event," Holcombe notes. "I know people think that's important,
but that's not the glue that holds a marriage together."
the paint yet to dry on their life together, David went to work for
a short time in Brussels. But the job market for physicians in Brussels
was not favorable at the time, so he took a residency in Baltimore.
brought with him a wife who didn't speak English. They had little
money and few material possessions.
Life was difficult at first. The couple lived in a tiny apartment
with no air conditioning, at times sleeping on the floor like van
Gogh with his Belgian miners.
couldn't afford any furniture, so we had eight big trunks," recalls
Nicole. "One was a table and one was a chair
When you think about
it, you think 'wow.' So everything we have, we have because we've
worked for it."
"Welcome O Life! I go to encounter for the
millionth time the reality of experience and
to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race."
in Baltimore was more than dark colors and muddied canvas, however.
The Holcombe family welcomed the first two of their four sons, Renaud,
now 23, and Tanguy, now 21, to their midst during this time. Two more,
Joffroi and Thibault, would follow in successive years.
told him, 'you go to work, I will make babies,'" Nicole remembers.
"It was hard. His schedule was tough, he was rarely at home. For three
years we never went to a movie, we never went to a restaurant. It
made you appreciate what you had," she said.
difficult as life in residency could be, however, still tougher choices
I finished," remarks Holcombe, "the real question was 'What am I going
always been a little resentful that I applied for four years to the
University of California without being accepted, so I thought to myself,
'Why would I go back there?'"
"Drama is action, sir, action
and not confounded philosophy."
1885, van Gogh left his native Netherlands to seek a sense of the
exotic in Antwerp, saying, "I find here the friction of ideas I want."
Holcombes, pondering a life beyond Maryland's struggles, would similarly
find an appeal in the familiar language and exotic culture of a land
south of the Mason-Dixon.
decided on Louisiana," Holcombe explains, because, "they speak French,
they're one of the poorest states
but it was also one of the sickest
states in the union, so I figured if the people are sick and they
speak French, this will be a natural fit. We'll fit right in."
adds, "He's obsessed with French. He had a lot of that missionary
zeal, and today he still has it."
So like the Dutch painter ministering to the poor and downtrodden,
the Holcombes moved to Alexandria in 1986, where David works as an
internist at the Freedman Clinic. He feels as passionately about his
occupation now as he ever has.
have to have that special interest," Holcombe explains. "You really
have to get active in the community and if you do, then your experience
will be very favorable.
here was sort of specula-tion that wherever you end up, you're going
to be OK if you approach it with the right philosophical perspective,"
"Il faut ιpater le bourgeois."
("One must shock the bourgeois.")
perspective is one that places the highest value on contributing to
the culture. And the Holcombes have certainly done their share.
the couple still shares the love for Czech folk dance that brought
them together nearly three decades ago. But this is just the beginning
of their collective commitment to the arts.
is fond of creating pysanki, decorative Ukrainian Easter eggs made
using layers of hot wax and brightly colored dyes. She even teaches
the technique at Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
ago, we went to the Czech festival and they were needing some money,"
she explains, "so I said, 'I can teach you that. It's more yours than
mine; it's more like an Eastern European tradition.' So every Monday
from January to March, we decorate these eggs that go to the Czech
For his part, David is a prolific painter, expounding his views on
life, love and even politics on the canvas with a drive that would
make the Dutch master proud.
is a reflection of society," Holcombe says. "There's going to obviously
be a passion for the subject and it's going to be a reflection of
It's going to have an element in it that makes it timeless.
people are almost always misunderstood or rejected or whatever because
people don't think about those things. That's what great art is
all about. That's why your van Goghs flourish in obscurity
because they have all that passion," he said.
"Dancing is just discovery,
what about the children?
pysanki, painting, dance and doctoring, how has this couple worked
to pass on their shared passion to their four boys now spreading their
wings to begin life on theirown?
answer, says David, is simplicity.
of all, you make sure you eat together - at least once a week," he
says. "We forced them to attend cultural events," he continues. "We
took them on trips in the summer. I would pick a destination that
would be not just a vacation, but would be educational, too," he said.
many children took family vacations to water parks or Disneyland,
the Holcombe boys experienced the thrill of climbing Mayan ruins in
the Yucatan Peninsula and exploring the halls of art and history in
Brussels and France.
couple's dedication to service has paid dividends.
serves his country in the Air Force. Renaud attended Loyola University
in New Orleans and found work as a computer programmer. Their youngest,
Thibault, 18, spent his summer learning French in Belgium. For his
part 19-year-old Joffroi, a former Menard cross-country standout,
inherited his parents' love of artistic expression.
his son's sketches, Holcombe boasted, "He has a fine sense of perspective
a real fine hand."
"Dance is the loftiest, the most
moving, the most beautiful of the
arts, because it is no mere translation
or abstraction from life; it is life itself."
Holcombes' marriage is energized, David says, by their shared interests.
discover that the person is still evolving and changing and developing,"
has her egg thing and that continues to develop and evolve and she
goes off to these workshops
and so that way, you look at the person
and you think, 'Well, I really don't know them,'" he says.
For her part, Nicole takes a much simpler view.
been 28 years," she says, "and we are still dancing."