Art TED Conferences

Embrace the shake: Phil Hansen at TED2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In art school, Phil Hansen developed a shake in his hand. He couldn’t so much as draw a straight line anymore. After years of excelling in pointillism, his tight grip of the pen had caused permanent nerve damage.

“To me this was doomsday. This was the destruction of my dream of becoming an artist,” says Hansen in his talk in Session 2 of TED2013.  “I left art school and, then, I left art completely.”

Hansen was lost. But a neurologist helped him find his way again with three words: “embrace the shake.”

At this unusual prompting, Hansen decided to let his hands do what they wanted to do — make scribbles. He realized that he could create beautiful portraits using this approach. He started experimenting, using his feet to paint or a blowtorch to create faces in wood.

“Embracing the limitation can actually drive creativity,” says Hansen, who describes a moment of unproductivity that came, ironically, when he had all the supplies he needed. “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.”

Some of Hansen’s surprising works:

  • a portrait on stacked Starbucks cups
  • a painting done with karate chops
  • asking people to tell him stories about life-changing moments, which he then wrote on a revolving canvas
  • live worms assembled into an image
  • a tattooed banana, created with pushpins
  • a painting done with hamburger grease

Hansen also found himself fascinated with the idea of destroying a piece after creating it. Calling it Goodbye Art, he made a scultpture of Jimi Hendrix out of matchsticks — and then burned it. He did works in frozen wine and sidewalk chalk. He also set up images in candles, blown out before they fully existed, and only captured on time-lapse video.

“Destruction brought me back to a neutral place where felt refreshed,” Hansen says. “As I destroyed each project, I was learning to let go — let go of failures, let go of imperfections. I found myself in a constant state of creation, thinking only of what’s next and coming up with more ideas than ever.”

Hansen thinks this might be a good process for others, too.

“Now when run into barrier or find myself creativly stumped, I sometimes still struggle … but I try to remind myself of the possibilities,” he says. “Perhaps instead of telling each other to seize the day, maybe we can remind ourselves each day to seize the limitations.”

Phil Hansen’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here»