By Wyatt Alger
Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
What does it take to inspire joy and bravery in others? Portland artist, business consultant and Northwest Academy parent Gary Hirsch thinks it might be as simple as a domino and some pens.
Hirsch, 50 years old with a smart and witty personality, began using these materials in 2010 to start an art project called Botjoy. He began to make bots, small, painted figurines meant to inspire conversation. The bots also include questions and instructions that try to stimulate thought and introspection.
In order to make a bot, Hirsch simply draws a robot character on the blank side of a domino using pens. His illustrations are bright and colorful and make his figures fun to look at or play with. Hirsch has made a variety of bots, each with a different theme that can be distinguished by the illustration on it.
“You can use any type of pen that would stick to a domino,” Hirsch said. “The only other thing that you have to think about is ‘what’s the design that represents your idea?’” Hirsch said.
Each bot comes with a different question, such as “What’s the kindest thing you’ve done?” or “What are you afraid of?” In the case of the Joy Bot, the question was “What brings you joy?”
“When [people] find [the joy bots] they take a picture of something that brings them joy and then they leave it for someone else to find,” Hirsch said. “So this bot was left in a Starbucks, this guy finds it, the thing that brings him joy is his health insurance card. Then he leaves [the bot] for somebody else and they find it and they take a picture of their dog and so the bot makes its way throughout the world.”
The idea of the bots began as a gift from Hirsch’s consulting company, On Your Feet.
“Every year we give away a corporate gift,” Hirsch said. “One year after a few different versions we gave them this little robot domino, it’s called a Joy Bot. We gave these things away and I got a huge flood of response. People came back and said things like ‘Oh my god, I like these! How can I get one? What other kinds do you make?’ and I was like, ‘Well, I just give them away, I don’t know.’ But I realized there’s something powerful about them, because these little robots seemed to help people have conversations with themselves.”
Hirsch began expanding the idea and starting making different versions of the bots.
“I made Brave Bots and I donated them to a children’s hospital because I thought ‘Well, who needs something like that, who needs a little bit of help?’” Hirsch said.
The bots have become very popular and even stars such as Ryan Gosling and Breaking Bad’sR.J. Mitte have received them. However, even with all of the success, Hirsch insists that anyone who is interested make a bot.
“I had another choice with this,” Hirsch said. “I could decide this is my idea and I’m gonna trademark it, and copyright it, and I’m gonna police it, and if anybody out there is making one then I’m gonna find them do something. But man, that is a terrible way to live.”
Instead, Hirsch started the project that encouraged others to use his idea.
“Two years ago I thought ‘This is stupid, these things are really cool, and people really like them but I can only make so many,’” Hirsch said. “So I started what I call the Steal This Idea Project, which I allowed and invited anyone to steal the idea and make their own bot. And that has turned into a bit of a movement. There are like hundreds and hundreds of people out there making their own now.”
People have even marketed his idea.
“An artist in the U.K. [has taken my idea] and branded it and is selling them,” Hirsch said. “But on the front page of his website it says ‘These are inspired by Gary Hirsch and go to his website and see what he’s doing,’ and that’s kind of enough for me, I’m like give me a little bit of credit and go for it.”
Although Hirsch does have an Etsy where he sells his bots on occasion, it is not always possible to get a bot by simply buying one. Hirsch prefers that people get them in more creative ways, such as finding them around their city.
In 2013, Hirsch had the opportunity to do a TEDX talk on his idea.
“I took it really seriously because I figured what could I do in 18 minutes, which is nothing, that could help people be changed in some way?” Hirsch said. “So it was a really fun challenge.”
Although creating the bot is as simple as a domino and a pen, Hirsch believes that it takes more effort than that to truly make a bot.
“The first thing you do is you don’t pick up any materials or pens at all,” Hirsch said. “The first thing you do if you want to make a bot, I think you should think to yourself ‘Who in my community needs help?’”
Hirsch’s idea has been used by elementary classes which were inspired by the idea of helping the community.
“There is a school outside of San Jose California and they have decided, one of their classes decided, ‘You know, who needs help in my community?’” Hirsch said. “‘So my community’s the world and who needs help in my community are writers’ like J.K. Rowling and others. Big famous writers and not famous writers, but writers need help because it’s hard to write a book. So they decided they were going to make Writers Block Bots, that writers could have and put next to them as they work.”
Different grades in the school also made Discovery Bots, which go on to be intended for scientists and astronauts, as well as Silly Bots for people who need some fun.
Hirsch’s bots have not only inspired other people but his family as well.
“What’s been so great about his bot project for me personally is how much he’s inspired me with my artwork and with my life,” his daughter Emma Hirsch, a freshman at Northwest Academy, said. “He’s really impacted the way I view the world and the way I view my resources, and I’m just proud of him.”
Despite being an important part of his life, the bots are a passion project. Hirsch spends his working hours with his consulting company, using improv to help businesses succeed.
“I was doing improv; I thought improv was amazing and then I simply asked a simpler question: ‘Who else could use this?’” Hirsch said. “My conclusion was is that anybody in an organization or business. So On Your Feet uses the practices and principles that improvisers use on stage to help companies present better.”
On Your Feet has worked with big companies such as Nike, Intel and Apple. Hirsch strives to teach employees to be creative, engaging and collaborative in a fun, friendly environment.
“Oftentimes when [employees] get training for that it’s boring, it’s just PowerPoint and it’s in a big binder,” Hirsch said. “So how can improv help with that is it’s frickin fun. It’s incredibly fun to do.”
Hirsch began by teaching a course at Portland State University, but soon realized that there was a business in his idea. Now his business has spread with employees in New York, as well as partners in Europe.
Hirsch has also done commissioned artwork, with one of them being the reason he stayed in Portland. In 1992, Hirsch was commissioned to create a piece of art on the exterior of a Portland parking garage. The piece was titled “Upstream Downtown.”
“I got to Portland from Ohio and within the first week or so I applied for this weird installation where they had ‘a percent for the arts grant’ where they put in this new set of elevators and then one percent of that went to the artwork,” Hirsch said. “Well 1% of that paid for about maybe half. So then I just had to fund raise the rest of it. And I won the commission and I got to put it up, and it was like, ‘Oh my god, Portland, what an incredibly cool place.’ I get to come here and two months later I get a commission like that.”
Hirsch used the commission to create 18 panels, each with a different multicolored fish painted on them. He is proud of the final product and the response it received.
The piece has been recognized and appreciated by those in the Northwest Academy community.
“When I found out that Emma’s dad Gary did the fish thing it was such a big moment for me because we used to park in that garage when I was a kid, and it would be a big deal which fish we parked next to,” Grace Ettinger, a freshman at Northwest Academy, said.
Hirsch’s passion for art developed at around the age of five when he had intense nightmares.
“When I was young, I would have these terrible nightmares, really vivid nightmares,” Hirsch said. “I can still remember them, actually. I would wake up from these nightmares terrified. and I would go over to my dad’s room, my mom and dad’s room, and I’d tell my dad and he would bring me downstairs and he would have me draw all of the nightmares that I was afraid of. And so this was a way for me to deal with my fears, right?”
Hirsch and his dad would name the monsters and talk about them. His dad also encouraged him to erase his drawings, as a symbolic way of controlling his nightmares. Over time, Hirsch found his nightmares going away.
“So I drew monsters and creatures and things like that ever since I was five, and they’ve almost served the same purpose, which is they help me deal with stuff.” Hirsch said.
Hirsch had some advice for anyone trying to start their own project.
“I think we get in our own way all the time,” Hirsch said. “As soon as an idea comes up there’s often the next voice out of our heads are all the reasons it wouldn’t work. I think what I would say is, don’t do anything that’s dangerous, and beyond that don’t listen to your own inner critic, because it doesn’t really know anything. All it knows is how to keep you safe so it’s a bad voice to listen to. A good voice to listen to is your inner experimenter, whose like ‘I wonder if?’”
While helping scores of other people, Hirsch’s bots have also been able to help him.
“It allows for me to have something sort of surprising and joyful happen almost every day that I wouldn’t expect,” Hirsch said. “I think that is a really fun way to live. Look for joy and surprise and delight and if you can help amp that up 2% in your own life, that seems pretty good.”
Photo Credit: Unsplash