Whoever said that Instagram is only a place to post poolside selfies and photos of deliciously greasy In-and-out burgers hasn’t discovered the creative potential of this application.
While I, too, post selfies and pictures of papaya and chile smoothies I make on my @vulnerabletraveler account, I’ve connected with other travelers I otherwise wouldn’t have met through it. Instagram helps me connect with others and with myself, since the photos I post are so personal to me and reflect the roller coaster ride that is Peace Corps Nicaragua.
I also use instagram to be more creative in a non-creative environment. While I teach art classes and enjoy sketching alongside my students, there isn’t much of an artistic community in my city. While there are remnants of murals along the city walls, there are no galleries or art museums—only private studios. I can, however, connect with other people who share my interests online, whether they’re artists or not. Since I use hashtags like #travel, my posts make the feeds people from anywhere in the world can peruse.
One of my followers, @zorrathexplorer, found me and liked and commented on my photos. I looked through the photos of a two-week trip she’d taken with her ex-girlfriend to Japan, and an unassuming photo stopped me in my tracks. It was of an older Japanese woman, sitting by a metal grill in an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima.
Her confident yet resigned pose left me spellbound. She rested one arm on her lap and her other elbow rested on top of the table. Something about the way she didn’t feel compelled to smile gave the photo a raw feeling. Her vermillion apron juxtaposed playfully with the drab, nearly mechanical background. The photo had not the quality of a dream, but of the memory of a dream. It was foreign yet familiar.
I hadn’t painted anything in three months (the last being a portrait of my mother), but within three seconds, I knew I had to paint this woman. I expressed this interest in the comments, and Ally emailed me the original. We also chatted about her travels, and she gave me the story behind the photo, explaining that she’d taken it on her iphone 4.
This was one of the most detailed paintings I’d ever done. I’d done portraits of Nicaraguans before, and I tend to focus more on the shades and shapes I see rather than the details in my subjects. For my Japanese painting, the squares and straight edges of the kitchen’s tables, frames, and coffee machine called for me to use a ruler. It was fitting to be accurate and precise in a painting set in Japan. When I visited Tokyo and Kyoto in 2013, I marveled at how organized everything seemed. I didn’t see a single piece of garbage on the floor, and the metro ran impeccably smoothly. My painting brought this appreciation to life.
Three weeks of painting later, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the result. On a trip to the Solentiname Islands’ artist colonies, I showed the portrait to Maria Guevara, a painter and owner of the Hotel Celentiname and asked for her feedback. She liked how my portrait depicted the woman at rest in her surroundings. “The only thing I’d change is that I’d make the background darker so that she pops out more. Does that make sense?” When I looked at Maria’s landscape paintings, I noticed that the areas behind the houses she created were very dark, and this effect gave the houses a three dimensional effect.
Now this painting is sitting in my kitchen. This unapologetic working woman reminds me not only of Japan, but of how social media has connected me with others and with my sense of creativity.
This article is featured in June’s creativity issue of Wanderlust life magazine.