You Are What You Eat (and We Create What We Collect)

I have a mild confession to share with you guys: I have been accused of being a hoarder. It’s true. I confess.

Once, during a childhood move, my parents told me to make piles in my room of things I wanted to keep and things I wanted to give away. My dad came in to check on my progress and found almost everything in the Keep pile, and practically nothing in the Give Away pile.

We Create What We Collect, Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

He looked at the overflowing Keep pile, and saw a large shoebox full of paper scraps balancing on top. Small scraps, big scraps, thick paper, thin paper—probably almost a pound of paper scraps collected in an orange Nike shoebox. When he picked it up, he found another shoebox underneath and opened it to find a collection of smaller boxes inside. Big boxes, small boxes, old white jewelry boxes, little boxes inside other boxes.

He turned to me with the two shoeboxes in his hands and said, “Christine, why on Earth do you have shoeboxes full of paper and… other boxes?” I responded immediately with all my child-assuredness, “Well, I liked them and I might need them one day.”

He ended up caving and we compromised to let me keep the scrap paper box, but get rid of the box of boxes. I hung on to those scraps of paper through 3 more moves and eventually used them to make books in my college studio courses eight years later.

We Create What We Collect, Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

Fast-forward to now, where I collect books (to the dismay of my husband when we move and 75% of my boxes are full of very heavy books), pens, the names of restaurants I want to go to, the names of restaurants I have been to, recipes I have cooked, quotes I like, and essays that resonate deeply.

I think this is a personality quirk of a lot of artists and creatives. We collect things over the years for reasons that don’t always make sense at the time. We just liked it, and thought we might need it one day. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. But it felt right to collect them and keep them together. As Austin Kleon writes,

“The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.” –Austin Kleon, in his book, Steal Like an Artist

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “you are what you eat” a bunch of times.

We Create What We Collect, Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

The phrase was first written by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French gastronome (uh, hello new dream career!) in 1826, and directly translates to “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” He goes on to talk about the link between the food you eat and your physical and mental health.

And I’m on board with that. But I’m broadening my interpretation of this phrase beyond just food: you are what you eat… and you are what you watch… and read… and see… and hear…

Basically you are everything around you. You are what you consume.

We Create What We Collect, Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

What we consume has a strong influence over what we think and who we are. Books, TV, movies, essays, social media, food—all these things go straight into our head and contribute directly to our evolving thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.

The same is true for our art. Our art is going to reflect and be influenced by the stuff we choose to consume.

But as artists, we have to not just consume things, we also need to collect things. The things we choose to notice and collect will spark ideas and give rise to our art.

We artists are extra susceptible to being influenced by our surroundings. The things around us WILL seep into our work, whether we realize it or not. So it’s helpful to be aware of what we surround ourselves with.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” –Haruki Murakami

We also need to be aware of what we hold on to, of what we collect. These collections—artwork that spoke to us, movies that moved us, books that changed us, scrap paper we couldn’t let go—can be filed away so we can revisit them on a day when we need an extra spark.

Collect the things that reach out to you, even if you don’t understand why—but remember to “collect selectively”.

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” –Jim Jarmusch, film director

We Create What We Collect, Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

As Jim says, collect only the things “that speak directly to your soul”. Even if that means a scrap piece of paper.


What about you? Do you collect things like this too? (Paper, pictures of cats, quotes…?) How do you organize them? (Shoeboxes under the bed, Evernote…?) Do you use them in your art? 

Share in the comments below!


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6 Responses

  1. Hey Christine,
    Yes, I am a “collector” as well. And recently, I really look for things from an artistic point of view. I work in a mailroom. So I get TONS of artist ideas on a daily basis. If something comes across my desk that I just can’t live without, I found a way use modern technology to keep it for awhile. I sneak by the office copier & color scan a copy to myself, then email it back home ;-). No paper wasted & I have an exact copy of the image I want to remember later. Sometimes I’ll crop it down to exactly what I wanted. It’s worked so far. Now just to catch up with all my ideas!! :-) Thanks Again, Christine!

  2. This speaks to me on such a high level. I like hanging on to doodles I’ve drawn or things people have drawn for me, articles, scraps of whatever. I filled my old wedding planner with paper and created almost a scrapbook of sorts of all the things I don’t want to toss. It’s really nice to flip through it and get inspiration from! On a different note, I’m trying really hard not to collect any more supplies though, and use up what I have x_x

  3. I am feeling for the loss of your boxes! I have been accused of hoarding, but only by people who don’t understand. One of my very favorite categories is containers of all sorts. Bags are HUGE for me. One friend said I had a bag museum — I only WISH! There are never enough bags! People think I have so many extra, but I am VERY discerning. That doesn’t mean they’re all expensive. Hardly any are–they’re more likely to be vintage or very simple. The other subcategory of containers I collect is boxes. Everything from tiny little tins — I have one about the size of maybe two nickels that had Tiger Balm in it once, and a little painted Tums-tuber-tin which must be from the 40s or before — all the way to “good” plastic boxes with clip flaps for art materials and tools. I am also the proud (recent) owner of a red metal toolbox that houses my growing collection of Stanley tools (sticking with the yellow/black theme on that one). But I have a collection of lovely little cardboard boxes too. Especially when they come in clean and foldy and weird little sizes (no printing or tape is a must), and I save the crap out of those! I’ve recently realized that my bag fetish might stem from my very peripatetic childhood. We moved every couple of years until I went to boarding school at 14, and then schools and moves as a budding adult took me in and out of packing bags and boxes pretty frequently as well. Anyway, I really appreciate your site and your philosophy! My mom started your insta-drawing challenge last week with some great dogs (Austine_Read) and I’m jumping on the bandwagon as soon as I can! Thanks again! (oh jeez my website is SOOOO out of date! Cobbler has no shoes kind of thing!)

    1. Haha, I have SO MANY bags! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and related to the piles of boxes too. And oh my gosh, your mom is Austine_Read! How cool! I love her drawings so much, and have loved seeing them in the challenge each day! So cool that you guys can share creativity together. Thanks for writing and sharing! :D

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