Since 2010, Janne Willems has experienced 11,143 beautiful moments in 30 countries — and that's not counting her own. For eight years, the Netherlands native has been approaching strangers around the world and asking them to draw a splendiferous episode from their lives. She hands them an index card and some markers. Then she waits while they color in the white space with their memories.
"There's so much power in sharing beautiful moments," said the 35-year-old, who recently relocated to Dallas from the Netherlands. "I succeeded in my task if someone is really reliving their moment."
Her online project, Seize Your Moments, grew out of her therapeutic habit of journaling the joys and jubilations of her daily routine, no matter how small. (One example: freshly baked banana bread.) The sketches gave her a mental uplift, especially when her mother grew gravely ill. The doodles helped her stay connected to the present and focused on the silver threads, not the dark patches. While attending college in Nijmegen, she decided to expand the exercise in positivity to the anonymous faces around her.
"If it helps me," she wondered, "how would it help out other people?"
She held her inaugural run on the train ride to school. Her subjects: passengers as withdrawn as startled turtles.
"It all starts with a hello," she said with an irrepressible chirp.
She followed the greeting with a request to illustrate a beautiful moment. Several people agreed to share, including many who drew pictures of babies.
"That would make a very boring collection," she admitted of the subject matter.
So, she tightened the parameters: The event must have occurred within the last seven days. The baby count dropped precipitously.
In 2013, she quit her job at a nonprofit organization and set out on a world tour with stacks of cards and fistfuls of writing implements. She visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand in 2014 alone. During her travels, she noticed several cultural patterns. In India, men were more eager to draw than women; the genders switched in Western countries. In Australia, adults often hesitated to contribute because they considered drawing a child's activity. Nature was a common theme in Nepal, Australia and New Zealand but not in Turkey, where images of celebrations prevailed. Leisure was a prominent subject in Vietnam. Friendship and love were universal.
Janne, who is still riding trains as well as sharing her project with schools and prison populations in the United States, says she realized early on that "beautiful" was not a one-definition-fits-all concept. One of the most moving images she collected was on a train in the Netherlands. A young man drew a woman in a hospital bed. She tells the tearful man standing beside her that she cannot go home with him. She loves him too much to be a burden on him.
"Beautiful moments can also be sad moments," she said.
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