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Close Encounters of a New Kind

Missed connections personal ads inspire Sophie Blackall’s quirky paintings

By Jac Kern · February 8th, 2012 · Cover Story
Missed connections — anonymous personal ads posted on websites like Craigslist — are something of a generational phenomenon.

Sure, people have always shared brief moments with one another, later wishing they had said hello, given a compliment, asked for a phone number.

But thanks to the world-shrinking Internet, the brave-at-heart can now take to a classified website and publish a message for a stranger. 

Of course, that stranger may never see the post — maybe he or she didn’t even notice “the moment” in the first place. Perhaps the message will do nothing more than provide entertainment for those who browse Craigslist recreationally. But there’s a slim chance the other person felt that same spark and thought about the moment all day. Maybe they even reached out, as well. 

It’s a chance people take every day — a shot in the dark. And it’s what inspires artist Sophie Blackall.

A Brooklynite by way of Australia, Blackall dives head first into the unpredictable world of personal ads, painting her interpretations of these messages, from heartwarming to heartbreaking and funny to freaky (and we all know missed connections can get pretty freaky). As individual and personal as the posts themselves, watercolors and Chinese ink dance across her canvas and spotlight these moments frozen in time.

Sometimes simple, real-life situations can be more interesting than the most dramatic, gripping work of fiction. And it’s these day-to-day fleeting moments that inspire Blackall’s artwork.

“I’m a shocking eavesdropper on public transport and I rifle through old diaries and bundles of letters at flea markets, looking for stories,” Blackall says. “The internet handed me those stories on a plate, in the form of missed connections — brief, poignant messages between lovelorn strangers.”

Blackall describes her own introduction to personal ads in her art-book Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found, a collection of her favorite posts alongside her whimsical paintings. She was on a crowded New York subway car, smooshed against a “handsome chap.” After he exited the train he turned toward her, a window between them, and mouthed two words she later found out to be “missed connections.” Having never heard of the concept, she looked it up online as soon as she got home.

Instead of finding her subway stud, she discovered endless personal stories and her next project.

She says that other networking sites are too busy and overwhelming and believes that missed connections works so well because there is a very basic formula to each post: “You look like that, I look like this; this is what happened between us and I really wish I could see you again.”

“Within that formula,” Blackall explains, “there are infinite possibilities and delicious details, and even anomalies where the person writing is not looking for love, perhaps, but a lost cardigan belonging to his grandfather or a childhood friend or a different sort of life. Because, as hastily written as these messages may be, or as seemingly flippant, there is the odd incredibly profound one.”

Because of the chance encounter she had with “handsome chap,” Blackall, who previously drew editorial illustrations for publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and Food & Wine, created a blog of her personal ad paintings in 2009, which led to the 2011 publishing of the book. Missed connections provided an endless stream of inspiration — all she needed to do was browse the subject lines for something interesting. To understand just how simple it can be to find missed connections practically begging for an accompanying image, look no further than recent Cincinnati missed connections titles such as “Hooters Pocahontas,” “Looking for my Dunkin Donuts Girl!” and “Hot Construction Cub in my Office.”

Despite any creepy Craiglist connotations, many posts Blackall uses for her work aren’t suggesting a sexy meet-up, but rather just reaching out with kind words or looking for a long-lost love. One missed connection in particular from her book — the longest entry — is from a first timer, age 69, looking for a lost friend with whom he had spent a special summer at Coney Island years ago: “Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not.” It could make even a cynic misty-eyed.

It wasn’t long before people began reaching out to Blackall claiming they knew a subject she painted or they were the person behind an anonymous post she featured on the blog. Some have sent her photos taken during a missed connection experience to compare against her interpretation. She now gets a stream of emails from couples that had found each other through a missed connection.

From a hopeless romantic perspective, it’s a dream come true. However, a stranger you make intense eye contact with might not be ready to sweep you off your feet. Love at first sight is just that, Blackall points out — visual and pretty one-sided. When that moment occurs, you aren’t thinking about the possibility of the person having a really overbearing mother or some grotesque habit. For a split second, that stranger is perfect and can be whoever you imagine. And that’s OK, too.

“I like a happy ending as well as the next person,” Blackall says, “but I love the mystery and the uncertainty and the electric current of possibility contained in missed connections.” 

“There’s a reason the best love stories end at the first kiss,” she continues. “Jane Austen had this down — it’s all about the chase. We’re not really interested in Elizabeth and Darcy after the wedding bells fade, or Cinderella and her prince after the slipper is returned.”

As far as that “handsome chap” goes, Blackall says she never ended up searching for him. Over the years she’s stumbled across a few posts directed toward her, but she’d never paint them. The anonymity of missed connections is important for her artwork, she says. Plus, she’s in a long-term relationship. For her, the idea of capturing a moment and throwing this idea out into the universe is more important than the actual outcome.

“There’s an awful lot to be said for being with someone you know almost as well as yourself and growing and changing together,” Blackall says.

“And if you haven’t found him or her yet, that person who just this morning smiled at you before disappearing down the street may have been the love of your life. Doesn’t hurt to see if they felt the same, right?” ©

The Missed Connections event featuring Sophie Blackall happens Thursday Feb. 9 at the Weston Art Gallery.



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