Stories As Inspiration

Remember what I said about myself and movies … I haven’t had even basic cable in years, and television shows generally don’t hold my interest, but I can’t get enough of books and movies. When I last talked about films, I was discussing movies that had visually inspired me as an artist. Those I chose to include in the list were chosen for visuals only, having nothing to do with the story line.

Awhile ago, I happened upon an article online as I traveled down the rabbit hole that is the internet … you know how it goes. The article was something like “10 Questions To Ask Yourself In Your 20s”, meant to help us young adults find ourselves and figure out what the heck we’re doing by percolating on the answers we came up with (I use the word “percolate” rather than “meditate” intentionally, because I have far too active an inner thought life to ever even attempt tranquil inner peace. I’ve come to terms with this fact.). One of the questions was, “What are your favorite stories, what do they say to you, and what does this say about you?” It’s an interesting thing to think about, especially for creative people since stories whether in film or print are an art of their own. I’ve shared my list here. These books and movies are not all necessarily the most mind-blowing, best written, or most awarded in their genre – that isn’t the point. These are the stories that my mind has continued to wander to from time to time since I first experienced them, or that I’ve found myself watching/reading over and over for whatever reason. The fun part after you make your own list is to figure out why that is.

What are my favorite stories?

Benny and Joon (film) – I swear I did not pick this because it has Johnny Depp in it, though that is what first prompted me to rent it back in the day ;).

  • No one is unlovable. We all have difficulties that we deal with, it is just that some come with a label and some don’t.
  • People are capable of becoming so much more than we’d ever imagine when given the chance.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (novel, later film) – Don’t let the title turn you off, this is actually a whimsical, heartwarming story (with some dark bits) that I remain glad a friend recommended.

  • Don’t despise where you are at in your life right now, or wish it away; there will come a time when you will miss it.
  • Sometimes what you are chasing after, what you think you need and want, will distract you from the opportunity for true happiness right in front of you.

The Sound of Music (film) – I was listening to this soundtrack on my parents record player and dancing to it in the basement playroom as a little kid long before I saw the movie for the first time. I’m sure many of you have seen it at least once as well, because Julie Andrews is basically the Queen of Everything.

  • Don’t try to force yourself into a life plan that doesn’t fit you; it never will. You have a right to change your mind at any moment.
  • People don’t change by having anger or reproach directed at them, being insulted or accused. They change when someone is willing to love them where they’re at, but also respectfully challenges their ideals and pushes them out of their comfort zone in a kind but spirited way.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) -This book made me an Oscar Wilde fan for life.

  • Don’t discount small choices, each decision we make shapes who we will become.
  • Be aware of who you allow influence over what you believe and what is important to you.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time (novel) – I heard this book has become a play now, and I hope to see it someday. This story is told from the point of view of a young boy with autism, and for perspective alone I would recommend you give it a try.

  • Again, people are so much more than we let them be. Don’t box someone in and limit your view of their capabilities simply because of a label they’ve been given, or because their struggles are different from yours.

Middlesex (novel) – Certainly one of the most complex and interesting character-driven stories I’ve ever read, by one of my favorite authors.

  • Don’t be so quick to judge who someone is or what has made them the way that they are. Everyone has a rest of the story.
  • Oftentimes, the most courageous and subversive thing one can be is who they already are.

Howl’s Moving Castle (film) –

  • Again, always remember that everyone has a story, you only see a part.

I was actually surprised that many of the core takeaways from each very different story often overlapped (Though I shouldn’t have been – it makes sense I’d be attracted to the same theme that I value again and again represented in different ways). I can see my draw towards the celebration of idiosyncrasies, and the affirmation of individual human lives as intricate and full of possibility, in my surreal portraits that I’ve fallen in love with creating. I can even see evidence of living out the themes found in these stories in my career choice, not only opening up people’s capabilities through teaching art, but in working with people with disabilities, a group that is often unjustly marginalized and discounted. Stories are important. For creators of all types, our stories come out in what we create. But, even those who view themselves as the least creative individuals on the planet still tell a story in how they interact day to day with other people and with the world around them. So, what are some of your favorite stories?

Films That Have Visually Inspired Me

I am a big movie watcher. I am subscribed to no cable at all, not even 5 basic channels, and am always completely out of the loop as far as tv shows go. Yet, I could easily watch 4 movies a week on netflix. I swear the difference is that television shows tend to ride on dialogue, where most movies depend more heartily on visuals. Being more of a visually-thinking person in every sense, I find that many movies are truly moving pieces of art, filled with beauty and intrigue if you take the time to train your eyes to pay attention to the details. Since the time I was a child, there were certain scenes in movies that I could rewind and watch again and again simply because of the captivating details to be found in a camera angle, an interesting pattern in the background, the decoration on a costume … I’m not going to get into the plots of the films in this list too much because a) I’m focusing on sources of visual inspiration, not story-writing and b) You should go watch any of these you have not seen for yourself :). I’m starting with the films that inspired me as a kid, and working my way forward. Many of my childhood favorites have stood the test of time and I’m sure you have seen, but I think sometimes we overlook the actual artistry that goes into media aimed towards children.

Beauty and the Beast

I still have a big spot in my heart for this movie. The detail of the quaint little village Belle comes from at the beginning of the movie, as well as the intricacies of the Beast’s castle later on, and even the emotive illustration of each of the unique characters themselves is unmatched. My favorite part of the whole movie was always the ballroom scene, where the view pans up to a grand painted ceiling with fluffy clouds and little cherubs. It was like the Sistine Chapel to me at 5 years old.

The Little Mermaid

Another Disney, the brilliant colors of this fantasy undersea world captured my imagination. I could pause the film and stare into Ariel’s grotto for hours, spying at each piece of salvaged treasure she had stacked upon the tall rows of rock shelves. As odd as it may seem, another thing I always remember about this movie visually is the strong lighting. Throughout the film, sunlight streaks contrasting colors across each scene just as I imagine it would shining through the water if one did live under the sea. Each framed looked like a beautiful painting, be it a children’s cartoon or not. Though I’ve come around a bit more with some of the newer Pixar films, I’m not fully sold on solely digital animation yet, as we seem to have lost that quality.

The Princess and the Goblin

This last film from my childhood stuck out to me because it wasn’t Disney, very uncommon for fantasy children’s animated films. The style featured far more pen strokes and outlines, unrealistically pink/pale skin tones, and a constant flowy, ethereal quality to the drawing that lent itself well to fantasy. It was a lot more outright whimsical than Disney. The grandmother was just regal – unbelievably gorgeous and a bit haunting all the same. It was nice to see an older woman not portrayed as a witch, also (Thanks a lot, Disney!).

The Wizard Of Oz

This is one of those movies that back in the days of VHS, I watched again and again until the tape nearly disintegrated. Ahead of its time in the use of sepia tone to represent Dorothy’s normal, mundane day to day life and the use of brilliant super-saturated color to represent the fantasy dream-land of Oz, this film is iconic in the way it used color and pattern to communicate meaning, which is something I and many of my fellow artists and designers need to understand how to do in their own work. The kooky whimsy of Oz created a world every child (and adult) wanted to climb into through their television screen, even with all the not so pleasant bits like green-faced witches and flying monkeys.

A Trip To The Moon

Watching this film birthed my love of the “silent film” aesthetic – harsh contrast black and white, vintage hair and makeup, DIY props and backgrounds with lots of moons, stars, and ocean waves on painted pieces of wood or cardboard. I have always been a fan of creepy-beautiful, and there is something fundamentally haunting aesthetically about even the most cheerful silent film, because of the harsh blackness of the background, the heavy drawn-on makeup around the eyes and lips, and the fact that often times animated details that seemed darling back then, like old moon face up there, seem way creepier to us now (This will be confirmed if you’ve ever looked at old toys or dolls in an antique store) because the fashion of what is considered cute or pleasant has changed. The two portrait drawings I have used as my design logo, current and former, were certainly inspired by this aesthetic.

Moongirl

Moongirl

Moongirl II

Moongirl II

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

I had to include more than one shot for this film so you can fully grasp the aesthetic since it is certainly lesser known. I was perusing one of those “Weirdest movies you’ve never seen” lists online one rainy evening, and this Czechoslovakian film from 1970 was listed, along with the thumbnail of a smiling, fashionable vampire draping herself in jewels in front of an ornate little shabby-chic round mirror I have shown first above. I knew I needed to find out what this was all about. The first time I watched it I didn’t yet own a Netflix subscription, and the only version I could find on YouTube was subtitled not in English but Spanish, so I had to use my limited knowledge from grade school to try to figure out what was going on. The good news is, if any, this film is certainly more visually driven than plot driven. The plot revolving around the nightmarish oddities accompanying the protagonist, a young girl’s, first week of “womanhood” is rather bizarre and convoluted whether presented in your native tongue or not. Every still frame looks like an avant-garde fashion editorial, and the monochromatic color palette rather in whites, ivories and beiges, or blacks symbolically represents innocent purity, legalistic and puritanical piety, and corruption.

In another life where I had more patience with a sewing machine, I could totally have seen myself as a fashion designer. The first thing I thought after absorbing this movie was, “I could build a comprehensive clothing collection and smashing runaway show off of this film”. It looks like I’m not the only one who had that idea, as hand-sewn gowns inspired by Valerie can be found on etsy, and so many clothing and accessory sets assembled with this film as inspiration can be spotted on polyvore.

Brazil

In this sci-fi satire by Terry Gilliam, a government bureaucrat attempts to correct a ridiculous administrative error caused by a fly landing on a typewriter key, and in the process becomes a suspected terrorist himself. Though some of the special effects undoubtedly scream “1985!”, The sets and of course the main character’s iconic robotic flying suit are unique and surreal. Gilliam is never one to skimp on atmosphere, after all, and one can always expect in his work to see a world they have never seen before. Also, those creepy, creepy giant baby head masks in the interrogation room … I don’t know how on earth he came up with that idea, but for some reason it works.

Mirrormask

Not surprising that this movie struck me artistically as Dave McKean, a well known illustrator and comic book artist, directed the film, also written by Neil Gaiman – what a winning combination. It is almost like a modern, darker and twistier, “Wizard of Oz” actually, following one young girl’s struggle through a fantastical dream world to find her “home”. Visually, watching it is a bit like viewing a moving comic book.

The Science of Sleep

Of all the films here, along with “A Trip To The Moon”, I’d have to say this film most captures my preferred aesthetic. The story itself is at times touching, at times awkward and funny, and at times awkward and stressful – it pretty much runs the gamut of emotions present in any real-life friendship or romantic relationship. Now for the fun part – EVERYTHING IS MADE OUT OF CARDBOARD AND PAPER AND CELLOPHANE AND FELT WITH BIG, CHUNKY, APPARENT STITCHES! I hate total realism. I love work that shouts “Look! I am handmade! I am not, in fact, real!” That charming, DIY aesthetic I love in old movies that mainly occurred due to lack of budget and technology, was here done intentionally with what I’m guessing is a pretty decent budget seeing as Michel Gondry directed it. I am in love, that’s all I can say. Sir Gondry also made one of my favorite music videos ever. Enjoy.

Across The Universe

I know most hardcore Beatles fans despised this movie, arguing that the film turned the band’s culture changing music into a sort of 1960s “High School Musical”. I know many of these harsh critics personally. However, I am not hardcore and I say, pish-posh! thought this movie was just lovely. Double exposures, a surreal use of green screen, and incorporating repeated visual tropes such as “strawberries” to not only reinforce the story line but the iconic music itself, made this one a winner in my book. The visuals were crazy, but not so much so that they took away from the emotions behind the characters’ story arcs. They were unique and creative but didn’t distract, and that can be a hard balance to achieve.

The Fall

This movie makes it onto lists for “most beautiful films” or “most beautiful scenes from a film” consistently for a reason. The colors and contrast of both the scenery and wardrobe literally make the characters in the story who they are, and since this film is all about stories, that decision is pivotal. I don’t want to give too much away, just watch it if yourself if you haven’t. See that little girl right there? She’s absolutely the cutest. Just wait until she speaks, she has an accent which makes it even better.

Ghostworld

This is one of the few movies that I thought was better than the book. After watching the movie and becoming simply obsessed with it, I decided I should definitely read Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel on which it was based. I absolutely hated it. The movie itself is a quirky, aloof, slice-of-life type feature and the backdrop is a pretty normal town, nothing notable. I included this film in the list only for the main character, Enid’s, wardrobe. From 90s-tastic fuzzy headbands to leopard print pencil skirts to odd, vintage old-lady dresses to fishnets with everything to the awesome keyhole yellow and black orient-inspired number shown above, I need all of her clothes from this movie. The purple polo above looks handcrafted and has an overflowing trash can made of felt embroidered on one side with the letters spelling out “RECYCLE” crookedly affixed on the other. I have no words.

And the raptor T-shirt! Who could forget the raptor t-shirt? I want to marry Enid … Because she’s adorable, and also, then we could share clothes.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I started with animation, I figured I’d come full circle back to animation – this time, animated films that I have enjoyed as an adult. Anything Miyazaki does is gold. Studio Ghilibi is like Japan’s Disney/Pixar, only it’s kind of way better. This movie can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike. The imaginative mechanical details are what really get me. Now isn’t Howl’s bedroom a major upgrade to Ariel’s grotto?

Paprika

This film may be a cartoon, but there is nothing childish about it. See above, people are literally shedding their skin and morphing into different people, while one tries to strangle the other. His arm is also part tree branch. Yikes. At it’s core, however, this film is more a surreal, thrilling action drama tale then anything remotely horror. The premise of a device called the “DC Mini”, which allows psychiatrists to enter their patient’s dreams as a form of therapy, falling into the wrong hands allows for many magical, zany scenes to take place, both playful and beautiful as well as dark and terrifying, just as within the world of dreams. I’ve always secretly wished some technology like this actually existed even before I knew of this film or anything like it, so that is another one of the reasons I so loved this movie. Satoshi Kon was simply a brilliant artist as it is, and this film seems like it should have far too much going on for it to actually work as a story, but he has pulled it off and it is truly a masterpiece.

Mary and Max

My love for DIY as I’ve touched on a bit earlier has given me a soft spot for stop animation. I tried to make a silly, simple stop motion on paper once over a summer break from college and I threw in the towel after a couple days, lacking the patience. This film follows two pen pals; a shy, lonely little girl with a troubled family life and no friends and a middle-aged man with severe Asperger’s Syndrome, overwhelmed and bewildered by the very act of existing. The two connect by a pretty funny turn of events, and their relationship faces many ups and downs over the years, even as the young girl becomes an adult woman. Each of their somber, frustrating worlds they attempt to make sense of in their letters to each other are depicted in stunning monochromatic, hers warm sepia tones and his deep greys, both with flashes of bright red. It is one of the most adorable and also the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. By the end they are not made of clay but entirely real, flesh and blood.

Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart

I just watched this movie a couple months ago when it popped up on Netflix. It is a French children’s film that I was initially drawn to because the style of the figures reminded me of a merging of Tim Burton and Mark Ryden. It never stops being visually stunning, and the characters especially appear inventive and entrancing. It doesn’t hurt that the music is also awesome. Unlike the grating, overly simplistic, repetitive tunes often present in kids movies, the songs spread in between the action of the film actually sound like real songs.

Take a look at my absolute favorite…

I hope if there is even just one film on this list that sparks your interest, you go try it out! For the local folks, it looks like it’s supposed to rain all the next few days so here’s your chance :). Fellow creatives, movie buffs, anyone at all … do you have any films that have visually left you speechless? I’m always looking for suggestions of new things to watch, and like seeing what makes others’ creative wheels turn.

Inspiration From The Bookshelf

The Artisan Soul, Erwin Raphael McManus

I’ve been so busy lately I am still finishing up books I received as Christmas gifts! For anyone who knows me, you know how shocking this is as I tend to devour books. I’ve really been enjoying this latest one, The Artisan Soul. What’s great about it is it can apply to any passion, not simply the arts. I suppose I should say, it also applies to everything outside of what is “traditionally” viewed as art, since one of the major themes from the very beginning is the fact that everyone is an artist! Everyone has something they do that they love, that when they are engaging with it their creativity freely flows – yes yes yes!

The journaling prompts for each chapter in the back of the book are so helpful in synthesizing what you’ve just read and allowing you to apply it to your own personal journey. This is not one of those lame self help books, or else trust me, there is no way in hell I would be reading it. I’d like to share the latest journal, in which I was asked to write about what kind of world I will create through my work, choices, and actions – a manifesto of sorts. This is not at all polished and total stream of consciousness, but I’d like to include it: I will create a world in which everyone has the confidence to see themselves as creators. People are not afraid to express themselves creatively and stop shutting themselves off from the world due to fear or anxiety. No one will feel purposeless, and no one will feel isolated. Those who were once ignored, mistreated, or shut out will shine and show others their true worth. “Sameness” and monotony will vanish and people will be free to live as they truly are without persecution. All will have the power of fearlessness. We will not need to cling to what is “standard” or precedent, but know that we are responsible for creating the society and world in which we wish to live in, and all of us have the power to make the space around us more inspiring. We will no longer live dull, unfulfilled-seeming lives simply because we are afraid to risk new things, to be strange, to have fun, to engage in childlike moments of joy: go to a park, make masks and wear costumes, invent our own board game, build a tree fort, be undignified … make a mess, laugh more – worry what others will think or say less. It is our life and no one else has to live in it but ourselves. Those who are “different” (for we all are, truly) will be valued for those characteristics that make them unique, not criticized for them. Different will never again mean broken. We will realize in this new world that each person brings something vital to the table, that single piece of the grand puzzle that we cannot complete without them.

Some other awesome books relevant to creativity I’d like to recommend are:

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera – An interesting, close look at the life of an iconic artist whose work was the most intimate form of self expression. After an accident that left her with severe health problems and a lot of time in and out of hospital beds throughout the rest of her life, she used art as a therapy in the purest sense. I read this before Express Yourself Artshop even existed, let alone I began working there. Still, I was always moved by the idea of art as a refuge for the wounded, and a voice for the stifled.

The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse, by Michael Gungor – The ideas for this book started with a blog Gungor wrote entitled “Zombies, Wine, and Christian Music” (I’m sure I’m not the only one dissapointed his book bared not the same title, but ah well…). Gungor, a musician whose work is faith influenced, discusses how a creator must balance all the noise coming in from the voices of critics, fans, and one’s own internal voice. He cautions against creating only to please one or the other, especially giving fans and critics precedent in what we put out into the world over our own creative soul. Given that he is a faith inspired artist, he works in a genre filled with restrictions, expectations, and plenty of red tape that usually dominated by sappy pop music for middle aged suburban folks (He does not himself enjoy making sappy pop music, for the record). Because of this struggle, his personal stories give wise counsel for navigating the treacherous terrain of making a living in a creative field while still creating work you are passionate about, and also holds all creatives in this day and age to a higher standard of being not just well liked but world changing .

The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer – Love or hate this musician (and people tend to either feel one way or the other), this book holds fantastic insight about getting your craft out into the world from the bottom up. The stories within are told like a personal conversation with your best friend, but with lessons that can apply to anyone. There is no blatant advice or “Hey, you need to do this” included in these pages, just “Hello, this is my story, take from it what you will”. This book especially meant a lot to me, because I am one of those people who, like her, wants to do everything myself – especially with art. I have time and time again experienced her fear of the imaginary “fraud police” (That anxiety bubbling up form the fear that you only think you are a competent artist/musician/actress/teacher/chemist/whatever and will soon be discovered for the talentless charlatan you truly are). I also have at times experienced guilt over my chosen path, especially when it is not going as successfully as I’d hoped (What right do I have to try and pursue a field I actually enjoy, when so many others trudge off to jobs they hate day in and day out? Why do I think I deserve to be so happy? How dare I have the audacity to attempt to live out my dreams?) Seriously, life changing stuff here. This book even inspired my starting of this blog :).

So, what kind of world do you want to create? Be honest, we all think about it – what changes, either physically or in mentality, would make the world suck a little less? And of course, have any of you read any awesome books that inspired you creatively? I’m always looking for book suggestions – as I mentioned before, total bibliophile. Chatting is fun, don’t be shy!