Magazine On-line [spring 2013]
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Room for Imagination

Creativity finds a home at Transylvania

by John Friedlein

Photo above: Richard Taylor discussed metaphors in the old living room of the Creative House. Also pictured from left are sophomore Ethan Goodrum, first-year student Anna Balassa, and sophomore Perry Ritter.

The metaphor for the sun gave rise to the flower’s name, said Richard Taylor, Kenan visiting writer and former Kentucky poet laureate. As he lectured in the cozy living room, two students sat on a sofa bathed in natural light.

It was early February but warm enough for daisies to grow—and the first time the class had met in Transylvania’s Creative House at 362 North Upper Street. The project recognizes that, as with flowers, the imagination needs a suitable environment to blossom.

Besides serving as a congenial classroom for Taylor’s creative non-fiction students, the brick cottage with yellow trim provides office space for him and three other literary faculty members. Beyond that, it’s a work in progress; possible uses include poetry readings, writing clubs—or maybe just a retreat for students to chill out and read a book.

Maurice Manning, a Pulitzer Prize finalist with an office there, said, “The fact that it’s a house gives it a non-institutional vibe, a little less formal and stiff. That is a good environment to encourage student creativity.” Manning is a writer in residence, poet, and English professor.

One of Taylor’s students, sophomore Ethan Goodrum, said the Creative House’s lack of formal boundaries—as opposed to the rigidity of a traditional classroom—generates space for open thinking.

In front of a large window, classmate Hanna Leatherman sat on the couch with her legs pulled up on a cushion. The junior said the Creative House’s comfortable, personal nature lends to the imaginative process.

And junior Rachel Smith, whose Writing for Writing’s Sake class once visited Taylor’s own house for a reading, said a laid-back atmosphere helps with sharing. “It’s easier to open up in an environment like that.”

This especially could benefit a writers group or poets who’d like an audience but don’t feel comfortable behind a coffeehouse microphone.

While creative possibilities abound, the project began as a solution to a mundane problem: The university needed more office space, said Kathleen Jagger, interim vice president and dean of the college.

It’s likely a temporary fix, though. The university may move these offices when, for instance, a sharable space opens up for creative professors and instructors in a new building. Jagger said faculty members should work in a stimulating environment.

She also said the Creative House has been “a little bit of an adventure.”

Before its current incarnation, the building occasionally housed students.

The offices are in the old back bedrooms and the kitchen, half of which is occupied by Martha Gehringer, a writing, rhetoric, and communication instructor. Accented with wood panels and pale teal tiles, her space adds to the house’s retro feel. “I love this little knotty pine suite,” Gehringer said. “It is so cute.”

She likes the tiles too, but theater professor Tim Soulis has a different take. He says they’re “hideous.”

Lucky for him, his Creative House office is sans tiles.

Tim Soulis in office
Theater professor Tim Soulis is one of four faculty members with a Creative House office.

While Soulis tackles the day-to-day mechanics of his job in this room, it offers a hint of how he envisions a space that fosters imagination. For example, a “Serenity” poster of a mountain scene hangs on one of the walls.

Soulis, who is writing a play, said when he searches for a metaphor or rhythm to the language it helps to turn off the rest of the world. If a writer’s environment constantly and uncontrollably changes, it’s difficult to create another world—one with its own flux.

So to write his play, Soulis occupied a spare bedroom at his own home, painted it, chose the rug. “Once I was in there I thought: Now I can create.”

Soulis—who plans to one day read his play at the Creative House—praised the university for valuing inventive endeavors. This includes housing imaginative people together.

Manning, who has an office just outside Soulis’s door, said he is happy for the others’ company. They enjoy “warm and stimulating conversations.”

Down the hall is Taylor, a visual artist as well as a poet. “I’d like to think all of us wear more than one hat,” he said.

Interweaving different fields is not only a goal of liberal arts education but it also can spark the imagination.

Taylor has noticed a growing focus on creativity at Transylvania. “Creative thinking is an important part of anyone’s education,” he said. And the Creative House project tells students: “We affirm the creative life of the mind.”

While Taylor said the university does a good job teaching writing, he’d like to see more of an emphasis beyond academic papers that are meant to prepare students for professional or graduate school. “Why not extend writing for those who may wish to take their writing skills in another direction?”

The university may, in fact, add a creative writing minor—headquartered at the Creative House.

Along these lines, Taylor and Gehringer teach a course called Writing for Writing’s Sake. Gehringer said she started the class to help cure students’ “academic writing woes.” They incorporate drawing (a talent of Taylor’s) into journal projects.

Having an office so close to her colleague helps facilitate the class, Gehringer said. “We talk and think together.”

Interactions go well beyond that. “You put four creative people together in the house and something is going to happen,” Gehringer said.

She agrees with the others about the impact of physical environment on creativity.

Gehringer once taught a first-year composition class about this relationship by having students meet in a variety of locations—from Christ Church Cathedral to a basement with little natural light—and to reflect on their responses to each space.

The Writing for Writing’s Sake class also travels as far away as Ireland. Gehringer learned through these excursions that escaping the routine bustle of daily life allows students to “sink back and become people again.”

Gehringer also pictures the Creative House yard as a possible retreat space. “A reading out in the back in a flower garden—that would be what I envision,” she said.

Who knows, daisies may bloom there someday.

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