“The principal consequence of the creative process is transformation.”
-Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity, p.4.
There is a reassuring and distilled clarity about Kyna Leski’s excellent recent book, The Storm of Creativity (MIT Press, 2015). Leski (http://kynaleski.com), an architect, designer, and teacher at the Rhode Island School Of Design, takes you by the hand and brings you to the edge of a lookout point onto the horizon of your consciousness. In the distance a storm is forming. This storm, she tells you, as you watch the swirling clouds against the sky, is a metaphor for the dynamics of your own creativity. Hearing her talk about it, you feel connected to larger forces–weather patterns and air currents, the flow of time, tides of energy. If you understand creativity as embedded in the world around you, you might see yourself and your agency in an altogether new way. “Analogies have their uses” Leski says. “The creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you” (x).
Following its title, this book progresses storm-like through a series of brief chapters that swirl around their theme, assembling little bits into a broader argument: “Creativity per se has no formal output; rather, it is an ongoing process” (xxiii). The chapters work in succession, but can also be read out of order, as each one explores a different facet and stage of the creativity as storm analogy. As I read I underlined here and there to remember the bits that spoke to me most.
Creativity begins with problem-making, a kind of stirring, a process that “comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). Almost paradoxically, this stirring in turn depends on accepting “the thoughtless and immediate ‘knowing’ of intuition without the support of facts” (11), “dwelling in the uncertain” (28), and having an empty mind in that Zen sense, “a readiness to have no ideas, a true tabula rasa, a genuine blank slate” (16). This allows you to sense “momentary alignment” between you, your materials, or a set of conditions. Leski vividly compares this sensing to seeing a rainbow emerging against sky as water droplets refract light. Creativity also involves a kind of coiled, tensile energy. Among her examples Leski includes photos of expandable and extractable wire structures (24) to illustrate how ideas or art can be a gathered object–“something that holds itself…by its own forces that define it” (52); “the material arranged in an elegant geometry” (53). Whether a building, a story, a painting, or a piece of music, a “creative work is a condensation of its making” (58). As tensile structures, different ideas have different tolerances too. “Some ideas are tight, and others have a loose fit, with wide margins of error” (66).
Two of my favorite parts of The Storm of Creativity are Leski’s discussion of the dynamics of play and, elsewhere, perspective in art. She explains how suspending the need for meaning through a playful approach to one’s materials creates an energy:
“Suspend control of meaning and concentrate on the language’s pattern, and that kind of play generates momentum…Relinquish a correspondence of cause and effect, or where the process will lead (intention), and unburden the play with language from solving a problem (purpose), and you generate further momentum. In other words, work the language itself, not with what the language necessarily represents” (74).
A little later Leski turns to the work of Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and mathematician. She considers Uccello’s “The Battle of San Romano” as a case study for an unusual multiple vanishing point perspective that was significant in the development of linear perspective in Italian Renaissance art. Here is the one part of the three-panel work:
And here is Leski on it:
“Uccello’s perspective is based…on a vanishing point wherever the viewer looks. He doesn’t place objects within a gridded architectural field that vanishes to these points; instead, he focuses on the perspectival construction of the floating objects themselves…Unlike the perspective systems of the time that were based on a convergent infinity, Uccello’s perspective was based on a dynamic immensity. Wherever you look is the trajectory of perspective” (99).
Reading this passage I was struck by this idea of dynamic immensity because it seems to encapsulate the creativity as storm idea. Wherever you look, ideas are connecting to one another like the air and water in cloud formations, forming masses of energy. Like Uccello’s trajectory of perspective, our job in all creative work is essentially to be flexible in our own perceiving–to find the most productive trajectories for our problem-solving. “Really, really good observation…is how discoveries are made” says Liski (95), and this book convincingly shows in dozens of ways how discovery has its own logics. But let us not forget how storms are also apt metaphors for creativity because of the chaotic and unpredictable ways they form, surge, and dissipate without regard for boundaries. So too with the wild force of creativity. “Discovery and invention” says Leski, “happen outside the existing tracks or matrices of thought within a discipline” (161).
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