• Amy Burvall

Thinking Like an Artist: Be Porous, Push Past, and Play

What seemed like ages ago I did my first TEDx talk – TEDxHonolulu 2011 – with my creative partner from “History for Music Lovers”, Herb Mahelona. It was really tricksy because we didn’t live on the same island and therefore couldn’t practice together until the day before the event, each having memorized our respective parts of the script and practicing with voice recordings of the other punctuated by pauses.

To be honest I thought I’d never do another one until several months ago I was asked to be a speaker at TedxWestVancouverED, with the theme “Imagine”.

Now, Vancouver has long been my favourite city on the planet so of course I was quite tickled. Right off the bat I knew I wanted to resurrect and revamp my BLC mini keynote – #getmART: Lessons from the Artists.

Getting there was another matter. Lots of personal life things and work stress conflicted with my ability to think clearly. But I persevered, and suddenly whilst swimming laps (as it often does) it dawned on me…instead of structuring the talk chronologically by artist and their anecdotes, I’d pinpoint 3 (yes the holy trifecta) major concepts and design the talk around those.

After plotting out all the stories and takeaways from the artists I wanted to touch on, I finally came up with the “conveniently alliterated for your memory’s pleasure”:




The talk centered around the importance of thinking like an artist, as well as honouring the artistry that is teaching and learning. Both versions of #getsmART were offshoots of some blog posts I did around Impressionism and mobile technologies (see this post for all three). This time, I wanted to give a special shoutout to the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary Readymade: “Fountain”.

Usually when I give keynotes, I don’t really make a script per se…I know what I’m talking about and prefer to speak naturally and let my slides, which are very visual, guide me. But TED-style talks are different…they are timed and must be precise, therefore requiring a script.  Every word counts – like a poem. The trick is, you want to practice that bad boy till it’s part of you, like a tattoo, but still come off sounding like it’s the first time you’ve ever said it.

I ended up recording myself in my voice memo app and playing in the car or while drifting off to sleep. I also tapped into my network- sent some trusted friends a copy of the script and voice recording so I could get feedback and make tweaks.

In the end, there were some technical difficulties (with the clicker, which I predicted) that threw me off a bit, but I think it lead to a more “real” performance, as it were. Someone sneezed…I paused and said “bless you”…I decided at the last minute to use a valley girl voice for one of the characters (still wondering why)…and I was able to make a couple of unscripted asides to the audience. In the end, I’m wondering if the live show was better than any scripted version, since it was raw and had the nervous energy backing it (I was last to present and therefore stressing all day in the green room).

in the green room with some of my amazing co-speakers

Side note: I had major wardrobe woes…must have changed my mind 15 times about what to wear. In the end a bunch of attendees at the event encouraged me to wear my hot pink velvet vintage trench coat on stage, saying it was “iconic” (even thought I must’ve looked a bit ready for a walk in the park)

The edited video will be out in a month, but I thought it would be good to record the version I’d envisioned:

See all photos (via Mauricio Chandria) 


After the writing comes the visuals, something I find to be extremely important to me as a speaker and as a viewer. Since having chemo for cancer, my memory needs visual cues to kick it in gear or else I’m lost. I could never speak without any slides, I fear.

Most people know me for my bold, minimalist, pink and black illustrations – in fact, I never sign my artwork because I think it looks cluttered. I’ve definitely improved over time, and now have abandoned my stylus and iPad preferring to use the tech I always have with me – my finger and iPhone.

Each drawn image was created in Paper 53 by Fifty Three and then vectorized (to get rid of the little dots from low resolution) in SuperVectorizer 2 on my Mac. The photography was from my travels, specifically to art galleries in San Francisco and to Frida Kahlo’s Blue House museum in Mexico City. Some of the more famous artwork was Creative Commons, as you have to be careful with that for TED. The paint splotches were created in Paper 53 and edited in the Enlight app, which offers several “paint” filters. I incorporated some animations. The stop-motions using my own drawings were created by duplicating images in Paper 53 then using the gif-maker ImgPlay. The funkier ones were using a psychedelic app called MegaPhoto or Squigglish. Finally, I wanted this vintage typewriter font for some of the titles…this was achieved by importing the font into Over app and creating each word or short phrase as a separate image.

Needless to say, it was unbearably time consuming but, I think, worth it. It’s the best artwork (in my opinion) I’ve ever done for a slide deck.

me spontaneously taking a selfie with the audience after my talk

The most important part of any talk is that the speaker believes in what they are saying…and I certainly do. I hope you enjoy the 18 minutes and keep checking, as I’ll amend this post to include the official event video when it comes out.

Here is the final produced video of the talk:

#art #blc15 #creativity #teaching #education #artists #presenting #keynote #lessons #imagine #tech #TEDx #getsmart #mobile #Vancouver #amyburvall #learning #apps #drawing

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