5 People Who Turned Frightening Childhood Events Into Art


As adults, we sometimes (or, more likely, often) forget what it means to be a child. Every moment shapes us, each event seeping into our subconscious to present itself when we least expect it in our adulthood. All of our complexities began so simply, and manifest themselves in weird and interesting ways.

Artists put their childhood experiences on canvas, exposing themselves before their audiences – and psychoanalysts. But what do we really know about these artists? What experiences molded them? Why did they … create?

Here we look at five artists and particularly interesting (often harrowing) events that influenced their lives and work.


1. Jean-Michel Basquiat


The work of this Brooklyn abstract artist, who died too early at age 27, lives on in the galleries and memories of fans and curators who hold Basquiat in the highest esteem. Not only was he a visual artist, but the renegade also performed with his own noise rock band, worked with Andy Warhol on a soundtrack and appeared in Blondie’s video for “Rapture.”

But before he rose to prominence in the New York underground, Basquiat was struck by inspiration … literally. When he was 8 years old, he was hit by a car. He broke bones and suffered internal injuries. While convalescing, his mother bought him a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, a strange but oddly appropriate book for a kid who just had his body shattered by a car. The book served to shape his personal perspective on life and art for years to come.


2. Tracey Emin


Emin, a performance and found-object artist, painter and filmmaker from the south of England, was brought up in a household run by a father with two wives and two separate families. When his business as a hotel owner collapsed, so did his family, which impacted Emin’s later work. When Emin was 13, she was raped. She used the event as inspiration for a semi-autobiographical film. Emin’s work continued to focus on objectification and oppression of women, often featuring herself in the nude while being spied through peepholes.


3. Andy Warhol


Warhol, the eccentric artist, publisher and filmmaker, had childhood troubles all his own. When he was in third grade, Warhol developed the nervous system disease St. Vitus’ Dance (Sydenham’s chorea) and was often confined to his bed for lengthy stretches and spent a good amount of time in hospitals. A pariah at school, Warhol spent his alone time collecting pictures of celebrities. He later said this time of isolation and illness was instrumental in his development as artist and personality.


4. Leonardo da Vinci


Though little is known about the painter, engineer and thinker, DaVinci did record two events from his early life. The first was an anecdote about a kite that hovered over his cradle when he was a toddler. The second story, one more telling of his developing curious artistic mind, involves an adventure he had in the mountains near his home. While exploring with friends, he came upon a dark cave, which both terrified and intrigued him. He thought there may be a monster dwelling within, but couldn’t stop his natural desire to find out what was inside.


5. Dorothea Lange


Depression-era photographer Lange was abandoned by her father when she was 12. As devastating as that incident was, it didn’t compare to the Polio she would contract, which left her hobbled. Her permanent limp impacted her as a person and artist, making her aware of others suffering that shows in her timeless and sensitive work, as in this iconic photograph …


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