Art TED Talks

Phil Hansen channels your stories of limitations into art

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In this 16-minute documentary, artist Phil Hansen stands in front of a giant blank canvas with a Sharpie in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Soon, using just these tools, a detailed image emerges — one of three birds maintaining in choppy water.

Phil Hansen: Embrace the shake Phil Hansen: Embrace the shake When Hansen’s TED Talk, Embrace the Shake, was posted in May, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video about a new crowdsourced project. But he didn’t just ask people to contribute money — he asked them to contribute their personal stories. Hansen posted his phone number and asked people to call him and tell him a story of how they’ve faced a limitation. Hansen then took each story and converted it into sentence form — some letters spaced out, some clustered on top of each other. The dark and light of the letters of these stories is what forms this image.

In total, 482 backers chipped in funds. But so many more called Hansen to tell him their story. In this documentary, we hear from several of them — a teenaged girl who was diagnosed with impulse control disorder at 10, a man whose father killed himself, a woman who married at age 17 and has felt isolated ever since. “Facing limitations is really a fundamental human experience,” says Hansen in the doc. “What came out of this project is that we all share similar struggles … There is beauty that emerges out of the turmoil.”

So, why the image of the birds in water? The image Hansen created out of these stories is based on a photo he took years ago, shortly after he developed a tremor in his hand that led to him leaving art school.

“This photo represents to me this ambiguous time in my life where I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing,” Hansen explains. “When you’re far away from the picture, you see all these stories and fragments come together as part of a greater whole. And when then when you get close to it, the picture disappears and you’re able to read the stories and experience someone’s life.”