Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Art that embraces our limits

By Phil Hansen, Special to CNN
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Sun June 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phil Hansen gave a TED Talk describing how a shake led him to different forms of art
  • In new project, people describe their limitations and he writes them onto a huge canvas
  • Hansen: A project that began with goal of connecting people is also a portrait of our cultue

Editor's note: Phil Hansen is an artist. He spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website

Minneapolis, Minnesota (CNN) -- Ten minutes ago a woman called me and told me she was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. As I'm standing in the garage, writing her story onto the huge canvas with the others, the only audible sound was my sharpie scraping against the paper, but her voice never stopped spinning in my mind.

Telling a story is like an invitation for others to share their stories with you. That's what I discovered at TED when I shared my story about a limitation that held me back from my dream.

Phil Hansen works on his new project.

After delivering my talk, I found myself constantly being stopped by people eager to share their stories, as hearing mine made them reflect on their own struggles, triumphs, hopes and fears.

This sharing experience stuck with me, and now two months later, I'm in the midst of receiving thousands of stories through my current art project. I had the idea to crowdsource stories about facing limitations. These stories are written onto the canvas, and collectively they create my current art piece.

What started out as connecting with people through a work of art quickly turned into a documentation of our modern culture.

If we either rewind or fast forward 1000 years, many of these stories would still be relatable. No matter how individualized our stories are, and no matter how much times have changed, we share the same core human experiences in faith, self-identity, health, addiction, love, loss, etc.

TED.com: How I became 100 artists

Here are two stories that have been shared:

Artist Phil Hansen creates a piece based on what people tell him about their limits.
Artist Phil Hansen creates a piece based on what people tell him about their limits.

"On paper, I have the perfect life. I'm married to a man who loves me more than I deserve, beautiful, healthy children, and a great career. But I'm in love with someone else that I can't be with and it impairs me every day."

"I was 14 and my mom and I were in a really bad place. We had just gone through a messy divorce from an abusive marriage. She had also been diagnosed with breast and skin cancer and we were very worried about how we would pay for the medical costs without her job. Our faith was slipping. We were standing in line at a pharmacy, we both had pneumonia. This really nice elderly women was in line behind us and my mom let her go in front of us and the woman introduced herself, and put her hands over us and started praying, right in the middle of the Pharmacy. My mom got a check from the insurance company a few weeks later. A few months after that she was hired at a new job. She is currently in her 8th year of breast cancer remission and her 3rd year of skin cancer remission. My faith has been renewed and we could not be in a better place. My mother is my hero."

TED.com: The painter and the pendulum

Closeup of Phil Hansen\'s new project.
Closeup of Phil Hansen's new project.

There are also many stories that encapsulate our society and culture at this very moment -- from the first openly gay couple being able to adopt in Florida, to the innumerable amount of people struggling with obesity, to the increasing number of parents raising autistic children.

What stands out to me the most is that given the opportunity for anonymity in this project, many people are brutally honest about how lonely they truly are in their experiences, thinking no one could possibly know what they're going through.

TED.com: Arthur Ganson's moving sculpture

Within this wired culture, we've become edited versions of ourselves. We may tweet, "Just got a Pepsi, new bottle design. Sweet!" but we don't say, "I'm sad and alone. I had no one to talk to so I went to the store to chat with the clerk while buying a Pepsi."

I can't help but wonder, what's the cost of becoming our "edited" selves instead of our authentic selves? We shouldn't share just gumdrops and butterflies, because the hearty and rocky parts are what help us find our authentic selves.

This slice of life, our lives, that are being captured in this piece are still ongoing and developing. What will continue to come out of it? I don't know, but I wait with fascination and a tired writing hand. What's your story? Share it and be part of art at philinthecircle.com.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Phil Hansen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT