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‘Conversations at the Intersection’ Explores the Nature of Creativity

The panel discussed aspects of creativity, including epiphanies and constraints

Watch “Conversations at the Intersection.”

During the first installment of “Conversations at the Intersection,” McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino moderated a panel about the nature and facets of creativity. The new speaker series aims to provide a broad audience with a glimpse of the creative process across different fields.

The panel featured Bill Baker, a structural engineering partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP and adjunct professor of civil engineering at McCormick, and Saul Morson, the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literature in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The event took place at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8 in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center.

Saul Morson (left) and Bill BakerOttino opened the discussion by explaining the vision behind the event. “We chose creativity because it’s a topic that links diverse parts of the University,” he said. “The goal is to expose different viewpoints from people inhabiting different worlds.”

The trio discussed many aspects of creativity, including epiphanies, constraints, and the relationship between creativity and age. Baker and Morson talked about their shared belief that epiphanies do occur but only happen after a person puts in a lot of work; Ottino disagreed.

“Sometimes something suddenly clicks, and you know it’s a good idea,” Baker said. “But it only happens because you’re really prepared for it.”

“You can’t will the last step of a creative act just like you can’t will yourself to be struck by lightning,” Morson added. “You can, however, put yourself out in an open field during a storm and increase the odds. In that sense, will can make a difference.”

“I don’t believe in epiphanies,” Ottino said. “Usually there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. The one final piece is only different from the other pieces because it’s the last one.”

Baker and Morson also agreed that constraints do more to help creativity than hinder it. Challenges push people to come up with new ideas and solve problems in novel fashions. Baker talked about a new building he is currently working on in London that needs to stretch across eight London Underground tube lines and a subway station. “I have to figure out how to span this building over a huge distance,” he said. “But it’s a much more interesting building because of it.”

Next the conversation turned to the relationship between age and creativity. Ottino mentioned architect Frank Gehry, who was not well known until reaching his 50s, and compared him to writer and director Orson Welles, who was 26 when he made Citizen Kane, which is consistently ranked as one of the greatest films of all time. Welles was less productive later in life, prompting Ottino to ask if it’s possible to peak too early in a creative career.

“If you peak too early, that means you are afraid to experiment,” Morson said. “You have ceased to value the process of experimenting and are looking for a secure result. If you are interested in the sheer joy of the creative process, then you’re willing to keep thinking.”

The next session of “Conversations at the Intersection” will take place at 4 p.m., Wednesday, November 12. The panel will include architect Larry Booth, Weinberg philosophy professor Sandy Goldberg, and contemporary artist Jeanne Dunning, professor of art theory and practice in Weinberg.