An uplifting new “slow meme” is taking over Reddit

Happy memes.
Happy memes.
Image: Reddit
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Memes work in mysterious ways, and a new one from Reddit pays homage to moms, amateur artists, and a 14th-century painting technique.

The phenomenon—dubbed a “slow meme” by Dazed—began when Reddit user Gaddafo posted a photo of his mother, Cindi Decker of Jacksonville, Florida, smiling shyly and proudly. She’s holding a very good painting of a swan under the headline: “My mom painted this and said no one would like it. It’s her 2nd painting.”

The photo garnered over 75,000 upvotes, but the real magic happened when Swedish artist Kristoffer Zetterstrand recreated the image—not just of the swan, but the entire photo, Decker and all. He told BBC that after noticing a trend of mothers sharing their paintings on Reddit and finding it charming, he “had the idea that I would paint one of those photos just for fun.”

His painting garnered nearly 120,000 upvotes, and was followed by Reddit user lilyofthenight’s painting of Zetterstrand holding his painting of Decker, holding her original swan painting. Thus began a series of “paintception” memes: “Last I counted there were over 40 paintings. I keep getting smaller and smaller,” Zetterstrand told BBC.

The idea behind the meme is a call back to an art concept called the Droste Effect, or mise en abyme. In this case, it’s basically like Russian nesting dolls, but with paintings: The artist places an image within an image to create an infinity effect. The name comes from an old Dutch cocoa brand: Tins of Droste’s Cacao featured an image of a nun holding a tin with an image of a nun holding a tin, and so on.

This flow chart tracks the progress of the paintings over the course of the week (Decker is but a speck in some of the latest iterations).

Some of the images are rendered digitally, others in pencil. The artists have varying degrees of skill, but the overall response to every participant was positive and encouraging.

In an era when a meme lives and dies like some kind of digital phoenix, the idea of a “slow meme”—one in which the user takes time to create something that lasts rather than retweeting an item that flames out in 24 hours—is sort of refreshing.

And in a world of snarky and sometimes toxic (paywall) memes, Reddit’s paintception challenge is uplifting. For one thing, drawing is an enriching practice that helps us think better, and can even bring out our more virtuous qualities. What’s more, people sharing their own creations are doing so with the same goodwill Decker did in the original photo, and shedding the self-conscious feelings we start having in our teenage years about making less-than-perfect art.