On the southwest coast of Australia, as the culture has for the last 100,000 years, there is an Aborigine teaching his daughter to use her dreams to tap into the energy formed at the dawn of time. In Dream Master schools, created by the shamans of Indonesia, rows of students sit in silence utilizing conscious dreaming as a method of intense meditation. The mountains of Malaysia are home to the Senoi people who use dreams to fight their fears, while the Native Americans look to their dreams for a glimpse of the future.
The inspirational nature of dreams is not completely lost on the modern world. Artists and writers continue to tap into a fountainhead of knowledge that can only be found in sleep. Before the nightmarish qualities of Frankenstein resonated with readers, they shook Mary Shelly in her own dreams. The famous poem, “Kubla Khan” emerged from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-induced dream. If Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and self portraits maintain characteristics of another reality, that is because he and fellow surrealist René Magritte credited their dreams as a source of revelation.
It was not difficult to find students within the Art Institute who also produce pieces inspired by their dreaming life. After asking a few simple questions, I found that the students I approached had much to say about the connection between dreams and their artistic process. Nathaniel Clay Smyth who is working on his MFA in Printmedia, feels that his dreams are too personal for others to relate to. “I don’t work directly from them,” he says, “but I do create digital prints which explore themes of the subconscious and dreaming.” One of his more relevant prints is based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Carina Farrero, an MFA Writing student, feels that dreams cannot be separated from her poetry. “They work their way into the fabric that becomes my day, like if I see an image that reminds me of a dream, it inevitably affects my writing.”
BFA painter Emile Ferris’s vivid self-portrait reveals a definite connection between her dreaming and waking life. “I feel my dreams are less about character, and more about places where things can happen. This particular painting contains furniture pieces that were part of a childhood dollhouse. During my dream the pieces started taking on a sinister look, and I felt that was important to paint.”
For most, dreams seem to be a series of hazy memories that ghost up in pieces throughout their day. Others, like graduate sculpture student Chrissy Courtney, relate a more direct experience. Her dream was so sharp and clear that she was able to create a series of pieces identical to the images she saw. “I had this dream where I was at a party and there were these people there whose jaws dislocated and floated off to talk to each other; the people laughed and I noticed they had huge hairy tongues. I created four soft wax jaws based on these images, and now I’m interested in sculpting the relationship between jaws and ear bones.”
Leonardo da Vinci once asked, “Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?” Dream experts have discovered that everyone dreams, even if we don’t remember them upon waking. This makes darker the seemingly meaningless sleep of those who do not acknowledge the relevance of their dreams. As we seek out a deeper understanding of our own work and the work of others, it is important to remember what serves as inspiration. Due to their ephemeral nature, dreams are often overlooked. It is ironic that something as easily forgotten as dreams has served to create some of the most lasting works of art in our time. To turn away from the messages that come in sleep means missing out on some of the most startling images and unlikely ideas that pass through a mind. How many poems weren’t unwritten, pictures unpainted, and songs unsung, because of dreams disregarded?
Illustration by Emile Ferris