Illustration by Andrew Presutto


It Lies in the Making

Humans can’t help but create — the evidence is in our books, our gardens and even in our gods. And in enacting our creativity, we define our humanity

By Lisa Szabo, ’16 BA

August 09, 2022 •

Greek legend has it that nine sisters once challenged the muses to a singing contest. 

Not wanting to appear threatened by lesser mortals, the goddesses of the arts agreed. What ensued was an epic battle of song and story from which the muses emerged victorious. Enraged, the sisters rushed to attack the muses, but as they stretched out their hands, they saw their nails turn to claws. Their shrieks became squawks and feathers sprouted from their arms. Their punishment for challenging the gods was transfiguration. And so, magpies were born.

Creation stories are staples in mythology. They explain the existence of pretty much anything you can think of: the sky, humans, magpies — even practices and values, says Kelly MacFarlane, ’02 PhD, a teaching professor in the classics program at the University of Alberta. In these myths, it’s often the gods doing the creating, but behind the scenes humans are at work, and they make a case for our collective need to create.

“We create our gods in our own image,” she says. In Greek myths, that means gods often look and talk like humans and they embody human imperfection. It also means the gods themselves are creative. “We ascribe to the gods the creation of the cool stuff, like the universe,” MacFarlane says, “and then we create stories about them.”

At the heart of it, she says, is the desire to remember and be remembered. 

Consider the muses: Each one is the goddess of an art form — epic poetry, hymns, dance, comedy. They’re also the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The muses are the wellspring of the arts, the source of human creative ability. And what they’re doing, MacFarlane says, is “inspiring you to do the things that make it possible to remember.”

Modern storytellers have their own reasons for creating. For author Gail Sidonie Sobat, ’83 BEd, ’91 MA, nurturing creativity in her own life is good for the soul. And she’s passing on the benefits to the next generation.

Twenty-six years ago, she started YouthWrite, a camp to cultivate creativity and writing skills in kids. But the seeds were planted much earlier, when her Grade 3 teacher called Gail’s mom one evening. “She said, ‘Do you know that your daughter is a writer?’ ” Sobat recalls. “That validation buoyed me up through the awful junior high years … and assigned me an identity.”

Now, she helps youth find that same encouragement through her camps. For a week, a community of young people make art, take risks and love words. In her experience, they head home with a lot of self-confidence, facility with language and the feeling that they have a voice.

For Sobat, writing does even more than that. It allows her to contemplate life’s challenges and to consider everything she thinks she knows about humanity. “The arts teach us to look up from our lives, and to look to others,” she says. “To look out at the world beyond, to develop empathy and compassion for others, but also to ask those big questions.”

There’s also the simple joy of telling a story or creating a character you didn’t know lived in your head somewhere, she says. “You look up and you see this character on the page who’s developing and struggling and finding ways through, and showing courage that maybe you don’t have.” While she’s not keen on happy endings, she offers readers slivers of hope. And she finds that the act of writing brings her some, too. 

“It’s a joyous endeavour to create,” she says. “And then I can face the fact that the world is in dire shape. I can face that, somehow, through the act of creation.”

For many, experiencing a world created by someone else can be just as powerful.

If you’ve ever visited the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, you may have noticed the symmetry at the centre of the space, the presence of still and running water. You might have felt wholly serene.

“It’s supposed to reflect heaven or eternity,” says Emily Neis, former senior horticulturist for the Aga Khan Garden. Based on Islamic gardens from the Mughal empire, the Aga Khan Garden leads visitors through a peaceful space separated by stone walkways, rectangular pools and lowered beds filled with grasses and colourful flowers. Guests sit on the lawns to sketch or watch for wildlife. For the botanic garden’s 100,000 visitors each year, the Aga Khan Garden is a taste of paradise.

“A lot of people come just to see something beautiful,” she says. “They want to spend time outdoors and escape a hectic, busy life.” But they also get a cultural experience. Not everyone can visit South Asia, but visitors to the garden can connect with Islamic culture through the architecture and planting style. 

People familiar with Muslim traditions might notice that the geometric patterns in the concrete fences symbolize eternity, but you don’t need to know the meaning behind every symbol in the garden to appreciate it. “If you’re doing a good job creating an environment,” says Neis, “you can really make people feel things.” 

Working with the garden is not always straightforward. When you create alongside other living things, such as plants, insects and animals, your work of art is bound to turn out different than you imagined. Such as when Neis buys a bunch of irises for a display and one is the wrong colour, or her tulips get gobbled up by deer. The imperfection, she says, is just part of creation. “A lot of times as humans we try to be perfect in our creative endeavours, but having those little mistakes — I think that adds beauty.”

Imperfection is in our gardens and our gods. But that’s just the human touch. MacFarlane, Sobat and Neis all agree — to create is innately human. 

Creation doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be.

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