Walls and bridges

Opening the creative process

The Third Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Walls are much in the news ever since the Big Cheeto bagged his latest real estate conquest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Big Orange One has diverted focus onto a wall of drastic exclusion — a wall as a barrier. Of course, walls aren’t intrinsically bad. They have been fundamental structures offering support and protection since humans first figured out how to construct abodes outside of caves. Bridges, however, always connote connections. Of the two structures, they own the better rep.

Creative Class’ March column examined the art of bringing down walls and building bridges to essential arts funding that has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca. Such bridge building has been accomplished through the unique cooperation between legislators and lobbyists working together with grassroots artist activists in our state.

April seems a perfect time to explore the walls and bridges of creativity itself.

Walls and creativity

Wall idioms are often used in reference to the creative process, as in “to hit a wall” or to feel “walled in,” both signaling blocks and barriers to the free flow of inspiration and ideation. Another wall argot touches on everyday individuals being “walled out” of the creative process — as if creativity is gift of birth or a DNA imbued trait.

The world-renowned Hungarian author and distinguished professor, with the tongue-twisting name of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Mee-hahal-yee Chick-sent-mee-hahal-yee), is a creative thinker who has gained recognition for addressing “the psychology of discovery and invention.” Well before I came across his internationally acclaimed 1990 bible on creativity, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” I had bi- and dissected his mind-smacking 1994 tome, “The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium.” His works stay fresh, vital and are a worthwhile read for anyone seeking a better understanding of innovation.

Csíkszentmihályi describes the spark that I call the “almost holy drive to create” in the recurring preface to this column as “flow,” meaning to be “completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” He asserts certain individuals do indeed possess authentic autotelic personalities —“performing acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals.” And yes, these are some of the artists whose efforts stoke our infamous Creative Vitality Index.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, when such creators are immersed in this peak moment, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one … [their] whole being is involved,” and they use their skills to the utmost. This flow, this trajectory towards creation, is a component in almost each author, photographer, painter, dancer, sculpture, director, actor and other member of the creative class.

But is the creative class an exclusive club? Is creativity limited to individuals with a certain psychological temperament? Is there an actual creative personality? Is it possible for anyone to flex innovative muscles? And what happens to artists in fields that require high creative output when the imaginative consciousness grinds to halt or hits a wall?

Let’s take the latter question first: What is a wall in creative process? Csíkszentmihályi identifies that wall, that blockage, as a fundamental part of the entire process. He insists it’s necessary, that by breaking the wall artists pass through a stage he calls arousal, a sexually charged term that comes just before that peak experience of flow.

Csíkszentmihályi designed an elegant “flow model” with components lined up along an axis where one edge represents “challenge” and the intersecting side “skill.” To achieve true creative flow, a balance must be struck between a high level of challenge and skill. But, even highly skilled creatives encounter worry and anxiety that can cause a block. Breaking these barriers allows flow.

Like many sister creatives, I frequently hit walls and seek ways to unplug — ways to spark my imagination anew. For me a few techniques work. Photography allows a different type of creative chemistry to percolate for me than writing does. This verbal and visual storytelling gel nicely — one informing the other releasing my creative juices.

Crossing bridges

Another flow exercise I engage in is merging meditation, photography and walking. A few years back I took a workshop at Philadelphia’s Shambhala Center in the healing art of Miksang Photography. Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning “good eye” and represents a form of photography practice based on the dharma art teachings where the eye is synchronized with the contemplative mind. This intentional harmony provides powerful inspiration.

To this essential centering practice I’ve added a signature element — I seek the many bridges, monumental and hidden, that dot my chosen walking trail along the Mississippi River. Combining the meditative state with walking, crossing, observing then photographing bridges frees my inspirational being. Even on a merciless day this custom lifts the mists.

Another bridge worth crossing is immersion in learning. Workshops and classes have many benefits, from honing and brushing up old talents to learning and developing new ones to sharing peer experiences, maybe even forging a new creative community. Individual tutoring and classroom and retreat explorations can shake out the cobwebs formed by the sometimes too solitary nature of creation. Crossing this bridge begets new ideas and stimulates imagination. Best of all, it’s open to everyone.

I’m a lifelong student. I take classes at the Loft, am a registered continuing education student in the University of Minnesota’s Fine Art Department and just last weekend I steeped myself in a workshop with a national treasure, the poet, essayist, novelist and writing coach, Deena Metzger, who was in town to launch her new book, “A Rain of Night Birds,” at a reading event hosted by Kenwood’s Birchbark Books. In a world where the small and the independent are rapidly fading, both Metzger and Birchbark are fiercely and lovingly independent, offering creative outlets for works that often escape the commercially dominant world of corporate writing and corporate chain stores. Birchbark is one of many metro locations that offer opportunities to learn and grow.

Membership in the creative class is not at all exclusionary. Almost anyone can learn a creative skill. All you need to do is cross that bridge.


Our metro area is blessed with learning opportunities. Be brave, be bold — help expand the creative class. Spring is the perfect time of renewal and new beginnings. Here is a partial list to start your journey: