Written by Sarah Yoon

citytreeOften when I ask artists how they tell stories, they blink blankly. “I’m just a photographer. I don’t tell stories; I take pictures.” The same happens with painters, designers, sculptors, crafters, and even quilters–they don’t realize the full scope of their work.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll narrow my focus to photographers and painters. On a photo-shoot with a young family, you are telling a story. You catch the baby’s smiles and tears, and the parents’ tired but joyful eyes. Each click of the shutter captures emotions and seals memories. Such stories are personal, sometimes meaning more to the subjects than to most viewers, but they still contain the essentials of storytelling: human emotion in response to life-changing events.

When you discover beautiful objects, a doorknob’s patina or tall, weathered columns, you explore a rich history. In this case, viewers emotionally relate to inanimate objects by personifying them. The doorknob is old and satisfied with its life. Each visual layer gives greater potential for storytelling, the skeleton key discarded on the ground or door’s peeling paint.

Once glance at Heather McMillen’s painting “L.A. Landscape” tells you that a story waits impatiently for discovery. A tree with electricity running through its branches grows in a forgotten verge. A broken chain-link fence speaks of disrepair. The city rises in the distance. Though the acrylic doesn’t interpret the story for you, each stroke encourages curiosity. Did this wayside tree grow through its own strength? Who is there to appreciate or aid the stubborn survival of natural life? With each question, a story is built between artist and art, and from art to viewer. Even abstract art conveys feelings that help viewers reflect on their experiences, prompting further storytelling within the viewer.

These examples may seem too modern and abstract for the traditional definition of storytelling, but they sprung to life around 100 years ago. The modernist literary movement originated imagism, which captures pure images without extra interpretation. The poets who use imagism don’t explain their images, but draw them as clearly and evocatively as they can. The poem remains passive, while the reader freely projects experiences and feelings onto the lines. One of the most famous examples of this is William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Just as William Carlos Williams tells a story through such simple imagery, photographers and painters tell stories through their respective art forms. Any associations that a reader has with these images are welcomed into the interpretation. With this idea of imagism, viewers take ownership of the work by taking the story’s potential and helping it blossom, full fledged, in their imagination.

Are you a storyteller? In case you are still wondering, the answer is yes.


Acryilc Painting “L.A. Landscape” by Heather McMillen. Visit her portfolio to discover more of her work, or browse through her blog to explore her sketches and creative process!