Category: Inspirations

Inspiration: Contemporary Katsina Dolls

Over the 4th of July weekend my mom took me to the Philbrook Museum in downtown Tulsa, where they have an exhibition of Hopi katsina dolls through September 6th. (I’d always known them as kachinas, but apparently “katsina” is closer to the correct pronunciation.)


I was always drawn to katsinas during our summer trips to New Mexico when I was a kid, and I’m still crazy about them. Their forms and colors are just so lively, and they’re all a little bit scary and a little bit funny. I like the idea of having deities that look like this.


The katsinas in this exhibition are all contemporary, and were made as art pieces by Hopi artists. I took pictures of just a few, the ones that most delighted me.


I love how this guy is wearing a sports jacket and pants. There’s something about him that reminds me of Japan, actually…


And this one definitely reminded me of something from a Hayao Miyazaki movie, particularly Spirited Away. I didn’t do a good job of documenting the artists responsible for each of these, but this one I know was made in 2009 by Hopi artist Wilmer Kaye (whose dolls you can find to purchase via that link). (Actually, I couldn’t resist and just purchased one myself!)

I’ve been taking some time this summer to make things out of clay, and I’m so glad I saw this exhibition when I did—it’s given me lots of ideas. (I’ll probably show a bit of what I’ve been up to soon.) If you can make it to Tulsa sometime in the next month or so, definitely check out this show!

Inspiration: YOMSNIL

One of the things that I like about January (and there aren’t that many) is the way that I feel more open to inspiration and new ideas at the beginning of the year. It’s a time to try new things, or at least to think about trying new things! My new thing is pottery: I took a short wheel class in December, and I’m going to continue with another class that starts soon. I’m a complete beginner—and I have the lopsided bowls to prove it—but I’m inspired to continue when I see things like this.


These are porcelain pieces by Korean artist YOMSNIL, whom I discovered thanks to Pictoplasma. I just adore the expression and life that the artist achieves with simple vessel shapes. I think that playing with clay myself a bit recently makes me appreciate how he worked with the soft material, making characters emerge from it with gentle poking and carving.


Even if I never make anything this cool myself with clay, it feels good to work with a new material—it’s like my hands are learning a new language. See more on YOMSNIL’s website.

Inspiration: Wayne White

One of the best things about Netflix is its big selection of indie documentaries, which (when they’re not in a foreign language) are great for knitting while watching. Last week I found myself watching Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story while working on a new design, and it was the perfect inspiration after a long day of knitting and ripping the same thing multiple times. Wayne White’s name may not be familiar to you, but probably his work is.


His first big break was as a designer and puppeteer on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, one of my favorite childhood TV shows and one of my earliest creative influences. The part of the documentary covering the Pee-Wee days made me want to watch an entire documentary on the making of that show, but I was also interested to find out what the person behind the show’s visuals went on to do. (I also loved seeing clips from the fake alternative kids’ show that White and his puppeteer colleagues made when they were waiting to be needed on the set.)

White’s work in television went beyond kids’ shows. He was also the art director for the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight, Tonight, among many other animation projects. I’m sure I saw this video back in the ’90s, but now that I’ve taken the film history classes, the old-timey sci-fi movie theme strikes me as especially clever and charming.

After getting burned out by Hollywood, White has gone on to make a career in the fine art world with his kitschy, sometimes vulgar word paintings.


I’m less excited about these myself, but I admire his approach to art (and the message of the documentary) that emphasizes playfulness and experimentation without getting preoccupied by what others expect from you. Maybe this is standard artist talk, but it’s something I can’t be reminded of enough as I question the direction of my own work on a daily basis. And the sheer nuttiness and devotion to fun that comes through in White’s work is contagious—I’m finding myself daydreaming about epic projects that border on the impossible, which is probably something we should all do.

Inspiration: François Chambard’s Anthropomorphic Lamps

I’ve mentioned the character art promoters Pictoplasma often here recently because of my involvement with their conferences in New York and Berlin this year. More than that, Pictoplasma is a rich source of inspiration to me because of the seemingly endless stream of highly talented and imaginative artists they bring to my attention, like furniture designer François Chambard. I don’t spend as much time drooling over nicely designed products as some people do, but I am completely smitten by François’s collection of vaguely anthropomorphic lamps and other objects.

Photos by Francis Dzikowksi/ Esto

The simplicity of the designs and the way that their basic variations give the objects wildly different personalities is exciting to me. Some of them have more distinct “eyes” and other human-like features, but I see distinct personalities in them all.


François builds 75% of his projects out of his Brooklyn studio, so I also love the fact that these are getting made close to myhome. I hope to pay him a visit sometime and see if I find any new creatures.


I would love to have one these guys move in with me! (One of the above designs, the Atum Lamp, is available for purchase.)

Even though I’m planning to stick with yarn and needles for the time being, it’s inspiring to see what François is doing with industrial materials and in the context of furniture design. Characters are everywhere!

Inspiration: Alexander Calder

My new year’s resolution this year was a fun one: go to more museums and galleries. It’s embarrassing that I’ve now lived in New York for seven years and there are so many famous museums I’ve still never visited! So a couple of weeks ago I came through on my resolution and went to the Whitney Museum for the first time. I loved it! It’s a nice size (five not-so-big floors), the building is cool (all thick concrete), and it wasn’t crowded at all on a Wednesday afternoon.

I started with their American Legends show, which features artwork from big names of the first half of the 20th Century. I haven’t studied much art history, so while some of it was very familiar or vaguely familiar, most of it was new to me. Paintings dominated, of course, but my favorite pieces were by Alexander Calder. If the name isn’t familiar to you, then certainly his work is.


Calder basically invented the hanging mobile, and his perfectly balanced pieces of orbiting shapes are iconic. I loved the delicate engineering of his mobiles and balancing sculptures, but my favorite pieces on exhibit were his kinetic circus toys.


When living in Paris in the 1920s, Calder created a cast of human and animal figures made of wire and scraps of other simple materials. Each of these toys could perform a trick of motion when manipulated by hand: a lion tamer snapped a whip, a dog walked around on its hind legs. Calder held entire mini circus performances in which he would get down on the floor and manipulate his modernist toys for audiences adults and children. (Back in New York, fans could book Calder’s circus through the Junior League at Saks Fifth Avenue.)


I love the humor and intimate interaction involved in these seemingly crude pieces.


The toys are works of art on their own, but they are meant to be moved by hand and experienced as a live performance. The Whitney has a film of Calder performing his circus in 1955, but I have a feeling that the poor quality doesn’t do the circus justice, and seeing it in person in the ’20s must have been a vastly different experience.


In the 1930s Calder moved on to focus on his wire sculptures and abstract pieces. But his playful, interactive circus strikes me as his richest artistic experiment.

Inspiration: APAK

It’s easy for me to point to things from my childhood that inspire my creativity now, because I’ve internalized them so much: Dr. Seuss, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Jim Henson movies, and the like. These artistic giants are such a big influence that they will always be with me. I find it a little harder to point to contemporary artists who inspire me, which has to do with a feeling I have that there are so many creative people out there, it would be an impossible task to discover them all. There is also a little negative comparison involved (I’ll never be as good as them), and also a kind of inspiration overload that I try to avoid (I’m talking about you, Pinterest).

These are feelings that I’m always working on, but sometimes I come across artists whose work is so enchanting and beautiful that my insecurities drop away, and I can just fall in love. One of those artists is APAK, a husband and wife team who together illustrate tiny worlds that I just want to jump into headfirst.


I first saw Aaron and Ayumi Piland’s work a few years back when I was working at gallery hanahou. I was immediately drawn in by their gentle scenes and the way that their adorable characters are dwarfed by the nature surrounding them.


Aaron and Ayumi been creating artwork together since 2005, and in addition to gallery shows, they do commercial projects and they sell prints and other products through their Etsy shop.


This one is available as a really affordable limited-edition print:


I really can’t choose a favorite piece by them, but I do find myself particularly charmed by their 3D work.


Are you in love yet? The serene wonder of the world they’ve created always speaks to me when I’m I’m feeling less than peaceful. It’s an uncomplicated love for me!

Inspiration: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (plus Giveaway!)

The giveaway has ended, but you can see what’s in the Fun Pak here!

There was a time when Saturday mornings were magical, thanks in large part to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Even now, I still get a little thrill when I hear the first few notes of the theme song, which begins slowly and mysteriously before breaking into gleeful weirdness.

peewee_chairyI almost don’t know where to start when talking about how this show inspires me. Well, yes I do: the anthropomorphized puppet objects have a naive brilliance that I think I recognized even as a kid: Pee-wee’s chair is named Chairy and gives him hugs with her armrests, Clocky tells everyone when it’s time to play different games (all of them bizarre), and the Mr. Window tells us who’s about to ring the doorbell. (The door is just a door, though.) It’s pretty obvious that much of the inspiration for my own Grouchy Couch, Error, and Flushie (among others) came from Pee-Wee’s friends.

And then there’s the animation. I remember getting excited about visits to the ant farm, a world-within-a-world that the show occasionally featured. And the Penny shorts combine a happy claymation style with the almost dreamlike free-association stories of a chatty young girl.

Of course, Pee-Wee himself is the manic man-child who accompanies us through this weird world that is his playhouse. He may “scream real loud” more often than I would tolerate in a real person, but his over-the-top personality wins me over because his innocence is more feral than cloying.

I think the thing I love the most about Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is the way it takes mundane objects and activities that we’re all familiar with and makes them strange and thrilling. Maybe that’s how kids see the world anyway to some extent, but this version is just the right balance of playful and twisted.

I bet many of you are Pee-Wee fans like me, and so I thought I’d share some nostalgia for the show with a special giveaway! I came across someone selling old pop-culture trading cards at the Brooklyn Flea a few weeks back, and I couldn’t resist picking up some Pee-Wee’s Playhouse “Funpaks.” These are the real thing! Original 1988 cards made by Topps; according to the wrapper, they include 1 sheet of tattoos, 3 picture cards, 1 sticker, 1 wiggle toy, and 1 activity card.


Leave a comment by midnight on Monday (May 28th) sharing your favorite thing about Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (or one of the Pee-Wee movies, or even the more recent stage show). On Tuesday I’ll pick a random winner, who will get their very own Pee-Wee Funpak!

Inspiration: Katamari Damacy

Sometimes I wish I had four hands so that I could play video games while I knit. (When I really think about it, though, gaming while knitting would probably mean bad results all around.) My hands are almost always busy with needles, so when I do put the knitting down for a game, it has to be a pretty great game. And Katamari Damacy, in its various iterations, is maybe the closest thing to a perfect game to me.


This is a game with legions of fans, so I’m sure many of you have played it and love it too. For those who haven’t, the premise is sublimely bizarre: the King of the Cosmos has accidentally destroyed the universe, and you, his tiny prince son, are tasked with restoring the planets and stars by making new ones. To create a heavenly body, you roll stuff up on earth, starting with small objects like pushpins and parsley, and gradually adding larger items like teapots, cats, apartment buildings, and clouds as your ball gets bigger.


The rolling works in an easy, natural way, with your two thumbs on two joysticks pushing it forward. (Most of the games are for the Playstation, with the newest, Touch My Katamari, for the PS Vita.) With virtually no learning curve, this is a game that is instantly fun for anyone with two thumbs.

It’s the world of Katamari Damacy that really inspires me. It’s a world full of stuff, but that stuff is curated for maximum play and discovery. Roll up an egg, and it hatches out a swan as you do so, making your ball that much bigger. Roll into a school bathroom and someone’s on the Japanese-style toilet— you may not be big enough to roll him up yet, but you can snag the pile of toilet paper sitting next to him. Grow your ball giant enough to roll up the cosmos themselves, and you’ll encounter magical incarnations of the game’s characters alongside ancient Shinto deities.


For the most part, this is a specifically Japanese world, and much of the items you roll up are specific to Japan. The game’s attitude about its nationality is refreshingly matter-of-fact. After rolling up a pile of caramels, you might roll up an “octopus sausage,” the name of which will appear on the screen, but with no further commentary about what it is. I love how the Japanese developers neither tried to make the world more generic for players in other countries nor played up the Japanese-ness of the game as a big selling point.

This is a game with no bad guys, and no real failure. (You can get shamed by your cosmic father for not living up to his expectations, but once that’s over, you just get back to rolling.) The cosmos themselves don’t contain any good or evil, and nothing in the world is too small or too big to be in play. That’s a spirit that I strive to bring to my own creative projects, and I know I’ll always return to this game for some imagination fuel.