Inspiration is frequently presented as a lightning bolt, almost mystical in its unworldliness. In reality, its origins are often more prosaic, derived from day-to-day objects, scenes, and personal relationships.
That isn’t to say the subsequent art is any less ambitious or powerful—the three artists below are proof of that.
Pui Wan Lim: Memorializing a disappearing city
Pui Wan Lim learned about miniatures as a teenager in 2009 after her sister lent her a book about the art form. Her obsession was immediate; each week, she spent hours scouring Internet forums for new techniques. Many of the masters were Japanese and so Lim, who is from Kuala Lumpur, taught herself the language.
With money from her part-time waitressing job, Lim bought clay and tools. She entered her first competition while still in high school. For her second entry, Lim recreated a provision shop she regularly passed on the bus that sold the snacks and candies she’d loved as a kid.
Lim continued to refine her skills throughout college, flying to Japan at one point to buy materials she couldn’t find in Malaysia. She loved the exactness of the process: “When you spend so much time doing one thing, and you see you are improving from zero to one, and then you find a new technique to make it even better…the experimentation and completion was so satisfying,” she says.
Now, Lim makes miniatures full-time—a job she never dreamed was a possibility growing up. Inspiration still comes from day-to-day life, but as her career has progressed, a throughline has emerged.
In painstaking detail, Lim recreates aspects of Malaysian culture, such as traditional barbershops and pre-Lunar New Year reunion dinners. Beginning in college, she would “purposefully choose old streets to walk down, and talk to the uncles and aunties,” some of whom still practice dying art forms, such as making joss candles by hand. Recently, she memorialized a 60-year-old coffee shop in the center of the city that was about to be razed. The architecture was traditional and distinctive—she recognized it from a history book—and the establishment, which served traditional Malaysian breakfast (kaya toast, soft-boiled egg and coffee) was a favorite with locals despite being near major tourist destinations.
Lim’s work has made her alert to details most pass by. Having traveled extensively through Malaysia, she is fascinated by architectural variations that reflect the country’s many cultures. “When we go on vacation, normally people are taking photos in front of buildings and fancy [backdrops],” she says. “Most of the time I focus on the building structure.”
Bonnie Lambert: Finding beauty in gridlock
As a kid, Bonnie Lambert liked to draw. But other interests stole the spotlight: After college, she spent two decades as a stage actor before transitioning into a career as a freelance graphic designer.
About 20 years ago, she started drawing again as a hobby; for the most part, she copied faces she found in the newspaper. For a long time, pursuing art more seriously scared her. “I hadn’t found my voice,” she says. Finally, in 2009, she took the plunge, signing up for a painting class that led to a series of shows and commissions. About three years ago, she found she’d stumbled into becoming a full-time artist.
Her work focuses on scenes from her neighborhood in Burbank, California. A particular obsession, one familiar to most Los Angeles County residents: traffic. But where most people see exhaust fumes and gridlock, Lambert sees color and light.
“[Cars] reflect the sunset, they reflect people in the windows, they reflect the world around us, too,” Lambert says. Recently, she completed a painting of cars in Los Angeles’ financial district. “The windows reflect the street lights,” she says. “It’s like a pool, a river reflecting the sun.”
Power lines are also featured prominently in her work. Lambert lives two blocks from the Whitnall Highway, a “forest of transmission towers.” But again, where most people see tangled eyesores, she sees sculptural shapes and design efficiency. “Every beam is only what’s needed, nothing more, nothing less.” The lines extend outwards, breaking the canvas into interesting sections; and like cars, they reflect the light. “I find them beautiful now,” she says. “I’ve had people who have seen my work say, ‘Oh I used to think power lines were ugly, and now I’m beginning to think about them in a different way.’”
Lately, Lambert has been finding inspiration in her immediate vicinity, including nearby alleys and houses she never noticed before. “We’ve had a lot of rain, a lot of reflected light, angry clouds.” She’s always been interested in capturing flashes in time, an instinct that has only intensified. Recent work has focused on transitions—from twilight to evening, from late afternoon to sunset—that moment “where you get some outrageous colors for 10 minutes” and then it’s gone.
“There is so much around us that we take for granted,” she says.
Bing Liu: Exploring dark, complex, sprawling issues through an intimate lens
Director Bing Liu mined the experiences of himself and his friends to create the shattering documentary Minding the Gap, which was nominated for best documentary at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Liu got his first camera as a teenager in Rockford, Illinois and started filming skateboard videos. In his early 20s, Liu began interviewing skateboard videographers. After that project was completed, he started interviewing the skateboarders themselves. Common themes emerged—including drug addiction and domestic abuse—some of which aligned with personal experiences from his childhood. “I saw there was this thing that we danced around, which was what was happening at home,” Liu says.
It wasn’t until he applied, at a suggestion of a friend, for a fellowship at the production company Kartemquin Films that Liu began to have higher narrative ambitions for the project. Originally, he’d been filming more than a dozen skateboarders but he narrowed the focus to Keire, a goofy, charismatic skateboarder about seven years younger than Liu, and Zach, who was trying, falteringly, to transition into adulthood.
Liu followed the two of them for the next three-and-a-half years, capturing everyday scenes from their lives—birthday parties, jobs, skating—as well as pivotal moments, such as Keire’s reckoning with his father’s death and the birth of Zach’s child with his girlfriend, Nina. Over the course of filming, darker elements of Zach and Nina’s relationship emerged, including allegations of domestic abuse.
This was an issue Liu was intimately familiar with. As a child growing up in Rockland, he was regularly beaten by his stepfather, who was also physically abusive to his mom. Initially hesitant to add his own story to the film, he came to realize his own experience added important context. “I really started to see Nina early on, when she revealed what was happening between her and Zach, as a younger version of my mom,” he says.
In addition to film from his childhood and interviews with his mom and brother, Liu had about 75 days of footage from the three-and-a-half years he filmed Keire and Zach. From these hundreds of hours, he distilled a searing, 100-minute narrative that explores, with depth and complexity, issues of race, domestic abuse, and cyclical violence.
The process was iterative by design. With interviews, “you can do as much preparation and be as present as you possibly can, but it’s only going to be as effective as the other person is willing to open up, and where they are at in their life, that week, that day, that hour.”
Oftentimes, the essence of a response came the first time he asked a question, such as when, early on, Keire discussed his complicated relationship with his late father. Subsequent discussions often refined these initial insights, without dramatically changing the substance.
Occasionally, however, vulnerability and honesty require persistent pressure. “For three years I kept asking Zach about his family and his internal feelings until finally, he broke,” Liu says, a climatic scene that comes at the end of the film. “Part of it is like surfing. You can go into the water and you can have all the preparation in the world, but if the wave isn’t going to break, you aren’t going to ride the board.”