Studying Emotionally Evocative Art


I am in the early stages of a research project. I am compiling a list of artworks, from many mediums, with a handful of constraints:

  • They must be viewable in 10 minutes or less.
  • They must be viewable digitally (via photography, video, written transcription, audio recording, etc.)
  • They must be emotionally effective to a high degree*.

*For the purposes of my analysis, “emotionally effective” is measurable by the physical response incurred in audience members upon viewing. If a piece is beautiful, cool, clever, unusual, innovative, or any other measure of aesthetic or novel excellence, that does not qualify (nor disqualify) the art in question for my list. Rather, I am collecting works which consistently evoke: tears, sweat, an increased heart-rate, laughter, stomach-knotting discomfort, goosebumps, etc. in a large sampling of first time viewers.

I am collecting this data FROM viewers/audience members, not from the artists themselves. To avoid sample bias, I am hesitant to include works from the many skilled artists who I know personally.

Of course, what makes one viewer laugh will not make everyone laugh. Therefore, as I collect these works, I am particularly sensitive in evaluating which things are evocative enough to meet the criteria. It is an impossible and arbitrary measure, therein lies the greatest fallacy of my research. I believe that if people submitting the works to me, do so under the pretense of “This is the most emotionally powerful ____ I have witnessed.” and that I then witness it myself and share [physiological] results, and perhaps share with an additional small group of friends, who in turn also respond, this it is for my purpose good enough. An aside: It would be a moot point if I were witnessing this artwork attempting to be unmoved by it (and fortifying some kind of mental wall), and so at each evaluation I will seek to observe from an open-hearted and attentive perspective. Needless to say, this is going to be very challenging research to conduct.

My aim is to compile at least forty of these pieces, if not more, and describe them analytically in terms of their visual (and/or multi-sensory) characteristics in great detail, watching/viewing each one about ten times, picking them apart for characteristics. I want to tackle the moment that gives you the goosebumps, the frame of film where tears begin, the rhythm and timing of the joke (in seconds, or in measure of vocal pitch-variance) that elicits the biggest laugh.

When I have this list (which I will publish, here), and these summaries, I want to highlight and connect all the common characteristics shared between the photos, dances, poems, films, songs, etc. and find a kind of backbone or formula, hidden in emotionally profound works. I hope to learn from it, and integrate my learnings into the art work that I create.

The bellow statements (PART II) are related, though indirectly, to the more scientific approach described above. Rather than being about the formula for generating emotional potency, I have reflected on the more illusive source, which is immeasurable.


I propose a bold thesis: the key to creating meaningful, emotionally potent art is to allow yourself to experience vulnerability. At its root, the practice of being vulnerable, open, exposed in your fears and candid in your truth, is the most essential part of creating valuable works of art. Art the likes of which steers our culture, fuels innovation, inspires creation and the attempt – sometimes the completion, of great feats. Without this vulnerability, this susceptibility to pain, we not only stifle our ability to connect with others over the experience of living, but perhaps rob ourselves much of the very experience of living fully.

Straying further –

Self-censorship is the crutch. It is a great injustice to our capacity for growth to turn or shy away from love, even in its painful roulette of unjust dispense. In all forms, love helps us grow and learn – from platonic to brotherly, passionate and temporary to steadfast and lasting, we are educated by it. Love is not quantifiable, it is not justifiable, it does not care for social norms or dictatorship. You should be responsible for your actions, you should be aware of your surroundings – your cultural habitat, but the root of all transcendental growth must come from that place of emotional vulnerability and truth. It must. I am growing ever more confident by the day that there is no other way to become wise, or to create great works.

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I Return from the Well

I return from the well, filled & replenished. Each year, this pilgrimage sets fourth a furry of inspiration, creation, and newfound curiosity; this year was no different. Many lessons have been learned, and I am still digesting all that I have felt and seen in what is truly one of the most magical places on earth.

I have the beginnings of a new name, a new act, new friendships, perhaps new love, and a shifted perspective which I hope stays intact over time. Expectations have been stripped, surprises encountered, challenges endured, blessings received.


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A Good Question.

I posted this photo (it’s a still frame from a choreography video I took) online in a community about Self Portraits:


– And someone asked me a great question in the comments – “What does it feel like to fly?” So, I answered them. It’s not an amazing poem (or my typical style, for that matter – it’s full of cliches and profoundly uninteresting language), but I do think it’s a poem, and more importantly I think it’s accurate. Here is my answer:

In a word: empowering.
Flying is the feeling you get when your lungs and legs are strong enough that you can keep running;
the feeling you get when you ride a bike down a hill and it becomes a perfect extension of your body;
the feeling you get when you know how to say exactly what you mean to someone you admire, or play just the right chords on your instrument to let your emotions soar out of you;
it feels like endless struggle, and freedom,
like the cathartic union of “unrealistic” ambition and reality – where they meet, briefly, as the sun rising over the ocean, before ambition escapes into the sky again and begs you to chase it again.
It is both fleeting and constant, built from muscle ache, candy-coated in endorphins, never satisfied, soaked in sweat. Fearless. Weightless.
Triumphant. A daily challenge. To fly is to be consumed with desire.
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The day came, when the pieces fit.

How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur, a Revelation:

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a friend, Joe Edelman, about what it took to become a successful entrepreneur. He told me that he felt the secret de la réussite was to have a strong inner-voice of self love and self care.

When we are motivated to do a thing, not externally, but by ourselves (as all entrepreneurs must be), people tend to have two voices, train-tracks, or whatever metaphor speaks to you. There is a voice which makes demands, which fabricates deadlines, tries to meet goals, and applies pressures of “not good enough” like some frantic imaginary mob-boss always pushing you to prove yourself, to stay up late and get it done, and to make personal sacrifices. We all have it. All too often, this “do your homework” ghost is what we think will help us get shit done.

There is also a voice which cares for you, and speaks of your needs. This voice is also motivational, it also cares about deadlines, accomplishments, and success – genuinely, this is a voice that wants you to create brilliant things and bring them into the world. It is ambitious and a dedicated worker; however, this is also a voice that (different from the first) recognizes your life and livelihood as parts of the same whole, and will tell you not only to work hard, but to relax, to play, to break for lunch or have sex. The nurturing motivator is the part of you that understands what time of day you work best, and gently reminds you when it’s time to turn in. This is not the sound of laziness or self-indulgence, it is not the same as whatever difficult demons you may have to wrestle to get out of bed before noon – it is the part of you that is excited to wake up, drink a delicious cup of coffee, and start working a job you love. This is the voice you must learn to develop and listen to.

For a long time, my perspective on self-motivation didn’t include a firm concept of the second voice, the important one. Instead, I was pulled through project after project alongside my own harshest critic, who was always trying to prove something, and digging myself into a deep hole from which I lacked perspective on what it was I was actually doing. Easily, one forgets why it is they began whatever creative passions they may be starting a business to satisfy. Once you become a much more tyrannical employer than one you might meet in the outside workforce, the love of what it is you’re really doing suffers unjustly. Again and again I hear tales of those who try to professionally advance at something which was once a beloved hobby, who in time, learn rather than to succeed, only to hate that which they once so enjoyed. Money may be a killer of joy, but you can become immune to this disease if you refrain from being motivated by it.

Do not jump through uncomfortable hoops to “prove” you’re working hard enough. Do not do that thing you love because you’re getting paid to. Don’t work overtime because you think you have to. When you take care of your body, your heart, your mind, and leave yourself room to feel motivated by excitement, you will learn more, innovate more, and thrive. Let the money follow, do not allow it to lead. If you need to work two jobs – one for yourself, and one for income, do, but figure out how many hours you actually need at that for-rent job, and don’t let your energetic input surpass your actual needs because you’re trying to prove to yourself that you “work hard”. I have spent years unhappy because I afraid of being a “lazy person”.

Two years into starting a Circus and I destroyed my work-ethic by being motivated by the first voice. I destroyed my marriage, too. It took a year off (essentially – most wouldn’t know it, but I hung up the phone on “home office” two winters ago) and the intervention of some really life-changing art, experiences, and connections, but I am now getting more shit done than ever before, while feeling happy, relaxed, thinking-clearly and tending to all of my inter-personal needs. Yes, you can work two hours a day and be a responsible adult, no it’s not the same as slacking. The fewer hours I spend doing “office work”, the more hours I write, draw, sing, dance, train, and in turn, do much higher quality work overall. I don’t just mean the writing I do for the circus improves, or the ideas I have for shows get better, though that’s also true, I mean everything gets better – my customer service improves, the business connections I am able to make multiply, and with relaxation comes an influx of creativity that nurtures every aspect of how I go through life.

I might only think I’m doing two hours a day of answering Emails, web development, or whatever, but all those recreational hours I spend cultivating job-relevant skills? Oh yeah, that’s “work” too, it just doesn’t feel like it anymore. The time I’m spending off, for myself, because I want to, doing things like writing in this journal, will be the reason I succeed at running a company that’s really going places. We are getting sustainable, I am getting better at doing business, I am getting better at delegating the tasks I’m not excited about doing to people who are, who in turn, are doing higher quality work than I was when I felt like I was pulling teeth to get things done. Guilt is a lousy bedfellow, so give zer the boot. Plus? The less you take care of your own needs, the less you’re able to empathize with others who take care of their own, which makes you a lousy person to work with. If I’ve ever whined at you for not working hard enough on a project we’re sharing, let me take a moment now to say I’m sorry I was an asshole. I was working for my inner critic instead of my inner genius, and it was not a good time.

Lets do it differently from here on out; I think I’ve really learned from this mistake (about the “voices”, and who I’m really working for).

Am I ever stressed, about the Circus, about money, about “accomplishing more”? Oh, sure, but, less and less with time. And suddenly, in a way that speaks to the bottom of my brain, the soles of my feet and the very breath I’m breathing, I identify as a writer, a dancer, and an artist more profoundly and professionally than ever before. I identify as an artist with nothing to prove, and as a prolific creator of worthwhile things. One acknowledged and admired by many peers in the rich community of professional artists surrounding me, who can go into the act of creation with unabashed and unhindered excitement, curiosity, and joy. Finally.

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There’s so much here.

I haven’t updated this blog in an age, but not for lack of creation. I have been video-editing, drawing, writing, dancing, circus-training, performing, event-co-producing, and modeling very densely, with great satisfaction. So, expect an influx of photos, to be sure. Much more frequent and brief updates happen on my Facebook Page (click here) and instagram (click here) if you want a window into my adventures, which are plenty.

I have been doing catalog modeling regularly for Dollhouse Bettie, which is an awful lot of fun (it’s how I spent yesterday), and free-lancing on all kinds of side projects in the photography & fashion world, in addition to attending castings and the occasional project via City Model Management.

Here are some portraits taken of me in my element – as it were, by the very talented and friendly Anastasiia Sapon. I will be taking a moment to update all three of my portfolio galleries here (fine art nudes, circus arts, and fashion/conceptual have new works that belong in them.)

Anastasiia Sapon

_T9A0343-Edit _T9A0388-Edit

The ad I was a part of for Fiat last December was finally released/printed, and is now available in the Body Issue of ESPN magazine; the “making of” video is a delight, and it was a great thing to wake up to. Viewable here:

And, I will also be copying over some text from my other (private) journal, which has some tales of adventures worth regaling to any interested audiences here. Sorry for the long silence followed by a flood of (effectively) backdated posting, but I hope you enjoy what you see and read.

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More from Leah Watanabe






Leah Watanabe Photography 4.20.13

“Childhood Memories”
Model: Bunny Zlotnik
Wardrobe: Renée Moneta
Makeup/Hair: Jessa Reanin

Leah really is a lighting & color-correction wizard, you might never guess these were shot in harsh, direct mid-afternoon sunlight. Have I mentioned how much I like this girl? Yep. Academy of Art has some really stellar students in its numbers.

I shot at the Academy on Friday (for CITY) and will be modeling for them again this Friday – it’s amazing that after years of going into various parts of The Academy of Art’s campus, there are so many buildings I’ve not only never been into, but had no idea where there. Slowly, but surely, they are spreading out and taking over all of San Francisco.

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Knickers & Clowns

I have begun modeling for the delightful lingerie shop, Dollhouse Bettie, and I have to say – I think underwear modeling is quite possibly my favorite sort of modeling. Yep. All the dolling-up, frills, big hair and fanciness of fashion, without the heaviness of the garments. Indeed, I have a nice and full range of movement when only dressed in skivvies  and this makes the whole posing process far more comfortable and easy-going. Bonus points for the novelty-factor & associated sexiness. AND, it means getting to wear more gorgeous creations by Honey Cooler Handmade, whom I have worked with the past. Win!



dollhouse bettie dollhouse bettie Mary_Green_Paris_517da1c9225f5 dollhouse bettie

…And just in case you missed it, the Vespertine Circus will be performing (yours truly included) on May 24th, 25th, and 26th in San Francisco, at a lovely (BART accessible) little theater in Yerba Buena Gardens. Don’t miss out, this is very likely our last bay-area showing of Important Business; after a year of developing, rehearsing, and performing this show, it is soon to be retired. Click it, yo:

This is the trailer for the show to give you a sense of what is in store (clearly filmed while my hair was still pink; I am a goddamned chameleon.):

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Childhood Nostalgia

Another image from my super-fantastic week. Leah Watanabe is such a delight to work with, I think we have a lot in common. Extra thing I enjoy about this picture? Swingsets & tire-swings were my two favorite parts of any playground, and still are. I rarely took the time to do anything else durring recess, being in the air is definitely still a priority for me. We spent quite a bit of this shoot actually playing and having fun in the sun together.


Leah Watanabe Photography 4.20.13
“Childhood Memories”
Model: Bunny Zlotnik
Wardrobe: Renée Moneta
Makeup/Hair: Jessa Reanin

AND on an unrelated note, my Circus troupe has four upcoming San Francisco shows that you should definitely attend. You know, if you like circuses. Or theater. Or office-humor. Written for adults, but kid approved – great for ages 3 and up. Bonus points, we are performing at the Creativity Theater in Yerba Buena Gardens, so, easy BART access, beautiful location, and a carousel! Yep. I’m pretty excited. Come see me be a clown & aerialist.


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An Eventful Week



Quite a few things have happened since I last posted here, so I’ll try for a quick summary.

Thing 1) Six photo-shoots in six days, just finished yesterday. They were diverse and each a very different experience from the others. Three with Academy of Arts students working on portfolio development (Fine Arts *pictured, Fashion, and Editorial), a commercial concept pitch for an IDEO client (and a high-profile one, at that), a feature on my friend’s photography business for Playboy TV (Latin America), and headshots for my new commercial/lifestyle portfolio. Phew! It was a very fun week, and I met a lot of really talented people who I hope to collaborate with more in the future.

Thing 2) I got signed with CITY Model Management. Therefore the commercial/lifestyle portfolio. 😉 Pretty exciting stuff, my digital resume for them currently lists me as both a real people model and fashion/lifestyle, which is excellent. I hope to be doing a lot of work for them, and went to my first casting today. Tragically, the casting was for a cosmetics company, and my skin is flipping out (thanks to the monthly hormonal cycle) and it seems unlikely that I will get cast. I have two other leads with them for next week though, so, no time has been wasted in putting me on projects, which is delightful. I have a new job.

4-image spread

I *also* applied to Dollhouse Bettie as a lingerie model (before I signed with CITY), and got cast, so I will be (every now and then) modeling their fantastically gorgeous lingerie, which is super exciting. If you haven’t been to Dollhouse Bettie, I suggest you check them out, online or in person on Haight st. ❤ I am modeling for them this Friday.

With all these shoots, castings, fittings, etc. I’m going to need to re-program my training schedule and make sure I can stay in tip-top physical condition even while I’m missing many of the class-times I’d like to commit to. It will be an exercise in willpower, no doubt, and already has me waking up several hours earlier each day. Onwards and upwards!

Bellow: Portrait of the shoot-crew for Playboy TV’s “Travel in Style” featuring Mariah Carle’s Boudoir Photography.

Mariah Carle

Bellow: Believe in Magic (portrait inspired by Puskin’s fairytale “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”)
MUA: Carla Tersini Makeup
HAIR: Shannan Strabley Hair Design
Maria Kanevskaya Photography

MMaria Kanevskaya

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Painting is awesome!

A friend shared a painting by Aaron Jasinski with me, and I am so smitten with it (and surprised at the uncanny resemblance of the painting to an image of my former partner and I) that I went on an art-admiring stint (I can’t get enough of: Mark RydenTrevor Brown, Stunt Kid,  or Michael Hussar) and also peeked onto the websites of several painters who I have modeled for. I am pleased to share my findings here. There is a strange and delightful novelty in being painted, I must admit, especially as a painter & illustrator myself. Not too many folks who know me from the circus-world know that long before I performed circus arts, I made pictures of them.

My aesthetic fixation with the romantic world of early American Circus did a lot to spark my whole “change of profession” from something relatively reasonable (developmental psychologist/child therapist via humanistic practice) into something a little stranger (full-time circus aerialist & clown).

I think Drew Fagan is my favorite of any of the illustrators or painters I’ve worked with over the years because we met while he was doing a series of old-timey circus portraits. He paints the type of things I used to, and it feels like getting to go inside my childhood daydreams – stepping from one side of the canvas onto the other. Rarely when I was painting circus aerialists as an unathletic teenager, did I envision that someday I would be an circus aerialist, getting painted no less, as an adult. Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Drew Fagan

drew fagan

Ryan Seng

Ryan Seng

Brian Horton


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