Arts + Design

A sweet look at some of the small things that make our lives beautiful

Jan 12, 2018 /

Artist Janne Willems has collected more than 11,000 drawings in 30 countries from strangers showing the moments we remember and treasure.

Artist Janne Willems (TEDxGroningen Talk: Discovering a world of happiness) spends almost every day doing the exact same thing. But don’t pity her; instead, envy her for her view into people’s hearts and souls. She goes up to strangers, hands them a blank postcard, and asks them to draw her a beautiful moment from their past week. Their moment doesn’t need to be pretty or perfect, Willems says; it doesn’t even need to be happy — it just has to be “beautiful,” whatever that word means to them.

In this moment collected on a train on the way to Amsterdam, the artist wrote, “Before we go to sleep, I do a little dance at the piano with my pregnant wife.”

Willems began documenting her own beautiful moments when she left home for the first time to go to college. She had grown up in a small town in the Netherlands and had often been bullied and teased as a kid. Going to college in Utrecht, the fourth largest city in her country, was a big deal, a fresh start for Willems. “I wanted to remember all of it,” she says. She start documenting all of the beautiful moments that she was experiencing — memories she was making in classes, with friends, out in the city.

One of Willems’s own beautiful moments from her journal

Her beautiful moments journals were a fun hobby until her mother got sick. Then they became her saving grace — her way to find light in the dark. Willems moved home to be with her family and began archiving every good moment. “The only thing my family had to do was take care of my mother and enjoy each other’s company as much as we possibly could,” she says. “I completed three journals in the last five weeks of her life.” After her mother passed away, Willems continuing keeping her journals, using them as “a way of making a world — where there are a lot of minuses — feel like a big plus.”

On a train in Oslo, Norway, Willems was tickled to find that two newlyweds — unbeknownst to each other — happened to draw the same moment: sitting in the sun after days of rain on their honeymoon.

Three years after her mother’s death, Willems started asking strangers to draw their beautiful moments and sharing them with the world. She began approaching people on trains. “Dutch trains are a terrific place to collect because normally strangers don’t talk to each other,” she says. “But once you’ve asked them to do something out of the ordinary, they start to talk to the person next to them, regardless of whether they know them. The atmosphere in those carriages changes from everybody in their own zone to happily chatting.” Then, she moved on to parks, cafes, anywhere people hung out. “I was curious about other people’s beautiful moments,” she says. “What catches their eye? How does that make life easier on difficult days? What helps them to see the good side of this world?” She created a blog, Seize Your Moments, where she posted photos of the drawings and stories from her encounters.

In the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, a man drew the moment he saw a butterfly emerge from its cocoon.

Since launching “Seize Your Moments,” Willems has collected more than 11,000 drawings from 30 countries. What she’s learned is, no matter the country, most beautiful moments are about one of four things: love, friendship, nature and leisure time. However, she has also noticed particular subjects occurring more often in some countries than others, hinting at what people value. For example, she collected many more nature-related moments in Australia and Nepal, she says. In Singapore, people drew a lot of family dinners. In Turkey, friendship was mentioned twice as often as it is in Australia. “Beautiful moments come in a lot of different forms,” she says, and she’s seen her share of both the heartwarming and the heartbreaking.

In Adelaide, Australia, a woman drew her “unwedding.” She explained to Willems: “We were together for 19 years. We made a ritual to mark our separation. We came together in a garden and said our thanks for being together. We released boats in the water; on them, we wrote what we want to let go of and what we want to hold onto.”

“In every country, people change after you ask them to draw their moment,” Willems says. They smile, they open up, “or they cry because the experience of someone approaching them to hear their story hits them,” she says. After years of amassing beautiful moments — and she has no plans to stop — Willems has one big takeaway: It’s not just nice or fun to collect them, “it’s bloody necessary.”

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a man sketched playing the flute while thinking about his week. “He drew himself making music while he remembered the beautiful moments with her: going to the village and the bakery and fishing,” Willems says.
In Dallas, Texas, a woman drew the Puerto Rican flag, along with the dates that her parents were able to call and tell her they were safe after Hurricane Maria.
In Istanbul, Turkey, a woman drew her beloved four-legged friend.

To see more drawings, visit Willems’s blog, Seize Your Moments or watch her TEDx Talk: 

All images courtesy of Janne Willems.