The Art of Sleep and Dreams

Photo by Peter Fogden via Unsplash

Photo by Peter Fogden via Unsplash

The land of Nod and the landscape of art—both with their connection to the liminality of the unconscious and imaginal realm—form a beautiful kinship.

Here are but a few ways that sleep and dreams have inspired artists and where art has served as a sherpa for sleep and dreams.

Art Created in Dreams

As you likely know from your own dreams, they are a fertille canvas upon which the imagination takes shape and form. If you wondered about the power of dreams to catalyze creative insights, we only need to look to the many stories of artists giving credit to their dreams for some of their greatest opuses. A few examples include:

Mary Shelley noted that it was in a dream that she had a vision that forged the basis of the idea for her famous novel Frankenstein. The groundbreaking Flags painting by American artist and printmaker Jasper Johns is said to have come to the artist in a dream. And, Samuel Coleridge claimed that his notion for his classic poem Kubla Khan arrived in a dream (an opium-inspired one, at that); the poem's subtitle, if you may remember from high school English class, is aptly named A Vision in a Dream.

Doing Poetic Justice

While Kubla Khan may have emerged from Coleridge's dreams, the theme of dreams has been captured in poetry the world over. A round-up at the American Academy of Poets website includes scores of poems on the subject of sleep and dreams by various poets, classic and contemporary, including Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, and Margaret Atwood (whose Variation on the Word Sleep is one of my very favorite poems). And lest us not forget those sleep- and dream-remarking lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet, likely emblazoned into our memories from our school days "To sleep, perchance to dream. / Aye, there's the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause."

Let The Music Play

Numerous musicians—be it Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Stipe, and others—have noted that it was in their dreams from which the seeds for songs emerged. And, as it turns out, these weren't just any old songs, but legendary ones, such as YesterdayPurple Haze, and It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

Music can also relax us, helping to put us in the right space for sleeping. Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Moby have crafted a playlist and album, respectively, intentioned to help quiet the mind and lull listeners to sleep.

Dream-Reflected Artwork

Artists may use dreams themselves as the kernel of inspiration for their creation. An example includes Laura Frick who created drawings that captured the patterns of her sleep cycles; in addition to being such an interesting way to understand and evaluate the inherent waves that compose sleep, these drawings have a beautiful graphic design quality to them. Frick is not the only one, of course, using sleep and dreams as the groundwork for art; for example, there is a juried Dream Art Exhibition held each year at the annual International Association for the Study of Dreams conference.

At the Movies

Movies sometimes feel like waking dreams, as we get to leave behind our daily world and climb into the imaginative world offered by the film. That said, there are some movies in which dreams play quite the starring role, including Total RecallInceptionWaking Life and Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, the latter a movie based upon the director's dreams. Check out this list of 20 dream-themed movies to see which you may have seen and/or which you want to add to your to-watch list.

The Artist in You

I'd love to know what role you've found sleep and dreams play in your creativity. If it so moves you, please send me a note to share.