My stress-filled life had been burgeoning into a borderline melancholy when I agreed to attend the documentary “Happy”at the Imperial Theater with my friend Bethlehem. I was unsure of the details of the story but knew that the film was centered around the artist known for his smiling paintings, Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman.
Like most Augustans, I had seen the Happy Robot signs plastered all around town, and had worn the stickers myself when they were thrust upon me by the ever-delightful and enthusiastic Tricia Hughes. Also like most Augustans, I was fuzzy about the motivation behind Zimmerman’s colorful and upbeat imagery, but curious to hear more about it, and possibly pick up some pointers.
As I am fascinated by stories of personal journeys, I was immediately drawn to the film, which recounts the life of the artist from childhood, through losing his great love, to finding redemption through his craft. I enjoyed watching him at work, fixated on painting while wearing headphones, head bouncing to the music. He would zone in close to the canvas, carefully outlining an image of a smiling bear, then suddenly burst into laughter. I wondered how his mind moved from the music to the paint to the thought which entertained him so much, a little envious of someone so completely in the moment and filled with the capacity for pure joy.
The documentary, created by Michael Patrick McKinley, shows the joyful painter’s lifelong passion for his art, which seems simple in content but is actual replete with symbolism and precise technical skill. As Metro Spirit contributor Molly Swift explains, McKinley has been able to convey that “in the midst of all the noise, the HAPPY campaign stands out both due to its origin and its simplicity. The point is to help people choose happiness. That is all.”
Which brings me back to me, and my current obsession with joy in the midst of stress, simplicity in the midst of chaos. Life has become so complex and overwhelming, that I find myself turning to stories like Zimmerman’s, which demonstrate that elation is a flower on the side of the road, obscured by the weeds and concrete artifacts, waiting for us to just notice it and pluck it for our own. At some point in his arduous journey of loss, Zimmerman realizes that he can either dwell on his pain or discover an outlet for expressing his emotions in a constructive way.
I realize that is naive to think that happiness is as easy as picking the flower out of the weeds; it’s one thing to choose happiness and another altogether to feel true joy in the face of life’s pressures. Viscerally, though, I believe we all make it harder than it has to be. Seeing how other people have overcome these pressures to discover their bliss brings us one step closer. McKinley’s movie inspired me to contemplate the healing powers of the creative process and the helpful power of a bright, simple smile.