Kyna Leski on the Storm of Creativity

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Photo by Ira Garber

I wrote the The Storm of Creativity from the inside, from my observations as an architect, an artist, student and teacher. It is about the workings of the creative process, the cycles within cycles that bring about creative discovery.  By “workings” I mean stages of a process one navigates in knowing, making, or discovering something that does not yet exist. These stages are not really something one can schedule or impose externally or follow as a recipe; rather, they are stages one experiences internally. Even though a stage may quietly commence internally for the creator of a work, it can be empowering or debilitating. Simply put, the creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you — if you are willing to let it.

By storm, I mean meteorological storm, not storm, as in brainstorming. After WWII, Alex Faickney Osborn coined the term brainstorming to refer to storm in its military sense: a barrage of existing ideas thrown at a problem. I see it very differently. I think that the source of creative discovery comes from the disturbance of existing ideas and the absence of a preconception; or in other words, from a realizing that you don’t know something that you thought you did know. It is like the beginner’s mind. This can happen when something fails, or different perspectives clash, or when you really ask questions. Dutifully running down a list of previously composed questions is not enough; the questions must confront the knowledge that you rely on and make you uncertain about what and how you think you know. The uncertainty of what you thought you knew opens your mind to what is ahead of you. The absence of what you thought you knew produces a negative pressure that draws in the new energy and material of the field, a territory that was previously overlooked. The eddy of negative pressure starts to gather the new energy and material into a storm.

Although I am writing from my perspective in the design field, I think that this beginning holds true for all fields, as all the stages are universal. American physicist Murray Gell-Mann (b. 1929), winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles, made remarkable contributions to human scientific understanding. In his book The Quark and the Jaguar, he explains just how central this notion of getting rid of preconceptions is to the creative process, no matter the discipline.

“A successful new theoretical idea typically alters and extends the existing body of theory to allow for observational facts that could not previously be understood or incorporated. It also makes possible new predictions that can some day be tested. Almost always, the novel idea includes a negative insight, the recognition that some previously accepted principle is wrong and must be discarded.”[1]

How is the creative process like a storm? Both begin from what appears to be nothing. Both arise out of a disturbance and act to displace and destabilize. Both gather energy, material, force and direction from its particular situation. Both are dynamic: starting, stopping, raging in one moment and abating the next, with ebbs and flows of activity. Both propel and are propelled. Both creativity and storm can be of the scale that brings great generative consequences or be too weak to continue and peter out. Neither storm nor creativity has a discernible beginning or end.

Although each instance of creativity is singular and specific, I see the creative process as universal. Artists, architects, poets, inventors, scientists and others all navigate the same stages of the process in order to discover something that does not yet exist. All of us must work our way through the empty page, the blank screen, writer’s block, confusion, chaos, and doubt.

Unlearning can be taught or be an intentional way of ridding ourselves of preconceptions; only when we realize what we don’t know can we pose the problem that we need to solve. We gather new information or evidence—with notebook jottings, research, the collection of objects—propelling the process. We perceive and conceive; we look ahead without knowing where we are going; we make connections. We pause, retreat, and stop, only to start again.

Creativity is a path with no beginning or end; it is ongoing.

[1] Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, Chapter 17, “From Learning to Creative Thinking.”


❔ Whois

Kyna Leski is a designer, an artist, a teacher, and a writer who seeks creative discovery. She is a principal of 3SIXØ Architecture, a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, and author of The Storm of Creativity, published in 2015 by The MIT Press. 3SIXØ’s work includes a house to dwell in – in awe, a church that inspires and expands, a store that contracts into a restaurant bar, a salon that extends the life of the city inside and a pedestrian bridge that connects a historic past to today. As part of her research, Kyna keeps a journal of her painted dreams. She most recently delved into storm as a metaphor for creativity, through Storm’s eye View, an animated drawing of water in its turbulent and generative journey. Kyna has given talks across the country—from a main-stage presentation at POP!Tech in Camden, Maine in 2009 to an “Aquacast” at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California in 2016.

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Published by kynaleski

As Principal (of 3six0 Architecture), Professor and Department Head (at RISD), and human being, I explore, witness, and practice the creative process. As a child, I was reprimanded for "getting bored easily," and now I see that weakness, like all "weaknesses," as a strength. (It keeps me moving.) I watch the sunrise almost everyday from a rowing shell, am moved to tears by honesty, and take dreams very seriously. I live in a city whose roots, ("pro-videre") signify what creativity is: a process of "seeing ahead."

43 Comments

  1. I’ve never thought about creativity being similar to storms. I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Reply

    1. Thank you writermindnow. I wish I knew more about storms than I do. I would like speak to a meteorologist! But all of this has led me to study chaos and the edge of chaos, like the one molecule thick surface of the ocean. This reading on chaos has enriched the metaphor for me.

  2. Interesting theory and partially true in some instances for some creative artists

    – my creativity is less a storm or hurricane and more of a tide ebbing inside to reveal first an outline and then the song structure … as though mermaids gathered and started to create something out of sand and seaweed, leaving it for me to find and bring out onto land

    Other times my creative works feel as though they are a gossamer entity in a field, that must be approached with calm and steady footsteps, less the intricate webbing be disrupted

    to me, creativity is about the external storms and my inner core being finding a way to remain grounded as the storm circles .. after the storm passes, time to open the cellar doors slowly and release butterflies into the sky

    collaborative creativity is another different situation, much more of an overt conversation in the medium. Improvised conversations in music say, that builds a collective narrative on stage or in a recording

    Reply

    1. describesound, I very much like the different natures of the different creative works you describe. It is particularly interesting that you mention “field” which is something that I include in my teaching (but didn’t yet focus on in my writing) but am currently playing with: field as in an open space (The Making of the Pre by Francis Ponge is a great source for more on fields, beginnings and creativity) or “field” as in one which is formed by forces, (like electrical field). The field is not a fixed place but has a temporal as well as spatial existence. It comes into being and can close up. And as you talk about approaching it with calm and steady footsteps, it requires vigilance.

  3. As a #scientist by day and an #artist by night, I can really relate to this. My art teacher in college once said that he refuses to show us how to draw a tree, because then we will always draw it like him. In science, it is even more difficult to break long standing dogmas, and show something in a new light.

    Reply

    1. YES! I wonder what you think of a drawing exercise that the RISD Prof, painter, Nicholas Evans-Cato gives: On the coldest day of the semester, he takes his students to a court yard where a tree is and asks them to draw it. He says that they should not return to class until they have or they can draw every single branch and twig. This means that if each student can conceive for themselves what that tree is, they can draw from memory and come back inside where it is warm. But one can’t draw from memory until a clear principal of what you just observed is formed.

  4. Wonderfully written, great ideas often require challenging the accepted norm. This reminds me of the quote: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

    Reply

    1. Thank you niftyhive. I can use that quote by Arthur Schopenhauer. We all could, no? It makes so much sense. Truth as it appears is foreign, unfamiliar, uncomfortable. After it passes into the third stage it is very hard to unknow.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article! The style is more formal than I usually read but the vocabulary was still in my range of understanding. The paragraphs are much longer than I use myself but not too deep for me to follow. The topic is common to anyone who creates anything but insightful enough as to not be a waste to read. It helped me understand my own journey as a new writer…a Bible inspired writer: annotating hundreds of passages that challenged my understanding of spirituality, getting occasional insight above my simplemindedness, feeling almost a compulsion to share as many of the thousands of principles I’ve used myself with others.

    Reply

    1. I appreciate your comment. There is something about making, writing, or drawing something that demands right size and level of detail. Like a map: if it is too detailed it needs to be big and then it is too cumbersome. If it is small and portable, it doesn’t have enough detail. I guess digital maps have solved this size problems with maps, but with writing and speaking, we still need to find a good size that fits.

  6. Hi Kyna, Thanks for this reflective piece. Although I understand this was written from a design field perspective, it so speaks to the journey with me as a human too! I notice much of the same dynamics colliding within me as a new psychotherapist trying to navigate myself, my practice, and my life. I appreciate hearing how the energies spark and fizzle and reignite and burn out. So beautifully illustrated. Thank you for this…

    Reply

    1. Dear Jeremy, I have heard that these ideas resonate with an oceanographer, artists, government official, an engineer, a doctor, but not yet from your field. That is very interesting that you find a similar journey as a psychotherapist and human. That is very cool.

  7. Yes, yes…the storm. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I hold things in my minds eye and look at them from all angles, I listen to something else … sometimes something happens, a blade of grass moves, a breeze from nowhere…a single raindrop. A storm is brewing.
    oracleofeerwah

    Reply

    1. oracleofeerwah, succinctly and well put. There is an essay by John Berger, called “The Field” (in About Looking) which speaks about the event that begins, as you say, when one notices “sometimes something happens, a blade of grass moves. . . “

  8. A very effective stance on creativity. Thank you for sharing. I found this an interesting and thoughtful read..

    Reply

    1. Thank you Cacey.

  9. What an awesome post! Love the comparisons you draw between meteorological storms and creativity in this very well-written piece!

    Reply

    1. Thanks!

  10. “Both begin from what appears to be nothing. Both arise out of a disturbance and act to displace and destabilize. Both gather energy, material, force and direction from its particular situation”

    The statement is absolutely true.

    Creativity is like a dormant seed lying buried in soil and germinates in certain favorable environment and suddenly grows to a very big tree. Just as the storm cannot be controlled, the growth and development of creativity, whatever be the field of activity, also is powerful beyond easy control. It is just like NATURE. None can precisely know its begining and its end.

    Yours is an ARTICLE well crafted with words specially chosen for powerful expression, a rare harmonious combination of theme, wordings and meaningful expression reflecting the “STORMY” creativity of a TEACHER, that LEAVES a mark in the READER’S MIND. It did so in my mind; remaining as sediment, unfiltered.

    Congratulations!!!

    By the way, If you ever find little time to go through my poems, I shall consider myself very lucky. . .

    Reply

    1. I consider myself very honored to have a poet appreciate my words! Where are your poems, somspranav?

  11. Storm and creation are related. wonderful insight.

    Reply

    1. Thank you atalefromyesterdayfortomorrow

  12. Beautiful writing, beautiful photo.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for both thoughs. I will let Ira Garber who took the photo, know.

  13. Useful explanation about the creation process. I think it’s just one side of all that process, the other side must be the sentimental experiences. I mean it’s not just a brain affair, felling either. Creation needs both idea and esthetic.

    Reply

    1. Most definitely. Uncertainty, doubts, surprise joy are all a part of this and storms.

  14. Great! This post took me as a storm. Surprised an shaked me. Thanks

    Reply

    1. wow.thanks

  15. Indeed🙂 I’ve found the same indescribable process you allude to has impacted me in my martial arts. I go about thinking I was right for ages when suddenly a new idea creeps in and changes the way I do everything, proving my old idea false. What is most intriguing is when these new ideas prove wrong old conceptions we didn’t know we even had….. Thanks for the read!

    Reply

    1. I see this as being related to the Zen idea of the “beginner’s mind.” I wonder if you ever came across this notion in martial arts.

  16. Elegantly written, and the last line sums it all.

    Reply

    1. thank you authorpradeeps

  17. Thanks for writing this article. I enjoyed reading it and it gave me a different look at creativity from your perspective. I’ve always thought, “some people got it, others don’t.”

    Reply

    1. thank you patrickbidwill. I also think “some people got it, others don’t” but then I started teaching and by necessity this thought had to be expanded upon and spoken about. I had to start finding the words or way of reflecting upon it. I am glad you appreciated it.

  18. I like the lines “I think that the source of creative discovery comes from the disturbance of existing ideas and the ABSENCE of a preconception”

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the affirmation.

    1. Keep photographing and observing and asking about your relationship to the world. In other words keep doing your art.

  19. Very interesting and fascinating take on creativity!

    Reply

  20. appreciated

    Reply

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