What Sparks Creativity?

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February 09, 2019

Human creativity — whether it’s solving a tough problem or writing a novel — is one of our defining traits. It’s also deeply mysterious. Where does that creative spark come from?

The creative mind

Novelist Siri Hustvedt knows how the creative process feels. Neuroscientist Heather Berlin knows what it looks like in the brain. Together with Steve, they explore the emerging science of creativity.

Left to right: mathematician Georg Cantor, mathematician, and philosopher Kurt Gödel, mathematician and political activist Evariste Galois, and  mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.

There’s a well-documented link between exceptional creativity and mental illness. Philosopher Jim Holt recounts stories of some of the most beautiful minds in math and science. Were their achievements worth the personal costs? Absolutely.

The many Alma Mahlers

Alma Mahler inspired symphonies, poems and paintings. She was lover and muse to some of the most celebrated artists of the early 20th century. Novelist Mary Sharratt thinks she would have been a great artist in her own right – if she hadn’t been born a woman. 

Photo Gallery

Nathaniel Mary Quinn was abandoned as a child. Today, he’s a celebrated painter, exhibiting around the world. He tells Charles his remarkable story about talent and perseverance in the face of enormous odds.


Show Details 📻
February 09, 2019
September 21, 2019
May 09, 2020
January 16, 2021
October 16, 2021
September 24, 2022
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:12):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. A writer sits down at a keyboard and somehow, some way characters appear. They walk and talk, drink bourbon, mow the lawn, have children cry, laugh, yell, die. How does that happen? What sparks? All that?

Siri Hustvedt (00:50):

Writers are often very distressed by a question that comes our way all the time.

Anne Strainchamps (00:57):

Novelist Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt (01:00):

Someone in the audience after you've given a reading, stands up and asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" And most writers are annoyed and stumped, but this is in fact, a profound question. Where does it come from? What is all this about?

Anne Strainchamps (01:25):

Well, we're living in the age of science. So surely by now science can figure this out. So let's go to our favorite science geek. Steve Paulson.

Steve Paulson (01:34):

Well, the question is there actually a neuroscience of creativity? How far can science drill down to that moment of creation?

Anne Strainchamps (01:45):

I knew you'd have a thought.

Steve Paulson (01:47):

The moment when something new happens, a new character pops into the novelist's head, there is a sudden plot twist. Where does that come from? Every creator, every writer thinks about that and is also something that neuroscientists are starting to look into. Siri Hustvedt is not just a fiction writer. She also writes about brain science. She actually lectures in psychiatry departments and she says in her experience, writing is not a completely rational process.

Siri Hustvedt (02:20):

For example, think about it. So you're writing a story and as often happens, in my case, I do not have them all worked out in advance. I suddenly realize that one character is going to hit another character over the head with a book let's say, and I think, "That's it. That's right." Now, it's not because in my life someone hit me over the head with a book and I'm just retelling the story. No, this has never happened to me, but somehow I know it has to happen in the book. And my question is, why do I know? Why am I so sure?

Dr. Heather Berlin (03:03):

So as far as we know consciousness, it's very good at doing very specific things, but it has a limited capacity in terms of how many items can be held in consciousness at any given time. Whereas the unconscious has an unlimited capacity. At least we haven't found its limit. My name's Dr. Heather Berlin. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. And I also see patients at Cornell Medicine.

Steve Paulson (03:41):

Heather's very interested in what's happening in the brain during the creative state. This is actually a different brain state. It's not the normal rational mindset that you're in when you're emailing or chatting with a friend. Those activities use the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that suppresses our unconscious urges so that we conform to social norms. Otherwise we'd be unleashing our inner four year olds onto the world.

Dr. Heather Berlin (04:07):

But during sleep, during certain types of meditation, when you're intoxicated-

Steve Paulson (04:13):

When you're in the shower.

Dr. Heather Berlin (04:14):

When you're in the shower and you know no one's watching, when we're in these other brain states where you decrease activation of the prefrontal cortex or your filter system, it allows those things that are normally being suppressed under the surface to bubble up.

Steve Paulson (04:29):

And that's when you're creative. Are you in a particular frame of mind when you're writing well? When you're in the zone?

Siri Hustvedt (04:37):


Steve Paulson (04:38):

There's a particular mental space that you're in?

Siri Hustvedt (04:41):

Yes. And one becomes deeply aware of the physiological character of writing because it's essential that one be relaxed. You have to be relaxed and you have to be open. And that doesn't mean you're not concentrated.

Steve Paulson (04:58):

It almost sounds like you're channeling something that is coming from within.

Siri Hustvedt (05:03):

Yes. Listen when a book is going well, I like to say the book knows a lot more than I do and I just follow it. And also that the characters will take me to places that I was completely unprepared for.

Dr. Heather Berlin (05:20):

The more you actually try to think of something. If you sit down and say, "Okay, I'm going to try to be creative now. Now be creative. Now think of something novel," that actually is having the opposite effect, because you're turning on the prefrontal cortex. You're limiting your capacity in many ways. So you have to take in the information consciously and then leave it alone, let the unconscious mull it over. And that's what I think a novelist should do. If you have writer's block or whatnot, just walk away, do something else. Think about something else. Your brain will still be working on it, but you don't have to do all the work. You don't have to put in that effort, because that actually is counterproductive.

Steve Paulson (05:50):

So where does that brand new original idea come from? Something that no one has ever thought of before?

Dr. Heather Berlin (05:57):

That's just like saying where does a thought come from?

Steve Paulson (05:59):

I've wondered that. Is there a science ...

Siri Hustvedt (06:03):

So have I.

Steve Paulson (06:03):

... of where one individual thought comes from?

Dr. Heather Berlin (06:07):

No, I'm fascinated by that. And I think it's like asking the question where in the brain is the self? The self is nowhere in the brain. I can't point to one place in the brain or one circuit and say that's where the self is. It's an amalgamation, but I would say that whatever creative thought you might have, whatever character it may be, it's going to be based on something that you've come across, that your brain has experienced within its lifetime.

Steve Paulson (06:38):

In other words, there's no such thing as absolute novelty. It's playing off of something that your brain has already thought about.

Dr. Heather Berlin (06:45):

Right. But I think the novelty comes in the way you put the pieces together. So when people talk about genius, genius I think really is about creativity. It's about taking in all of the data, all of the facts and then putting them together in some novel way that nobody else did before.

Steve Paulson (07:05):

That's how the neuroscientist puts it. What about the novelist? Siri thinks originality is actually closely connected to memory.

Siri Hustvedt (07:16):

Memory is the foundation of creativity. Think of it this way. People who have injury to the hippocampus are not only bad at remembering, they're bad at imagining, okay? When they are asked to call up, say a scene of a beach or a jungle, their scenarios are extremely one and lacking in detail. So memory and imagination are not two faculties, but a single faculty.

Anne Strainchamps (07:55):

Steve, you started by saying that what really fascinates you is this emerging neuroscience of creativity. So where does it go next?

Steve Paulson (08:04):

That is a really good question. And people have a lot of different opinions about this. There is what the neuroscientists want to study and there's also what the novelists want to know. Is there any kind of a science experiment that you could imagine that might shed light on what happens during the creative process? What would be your dream experiment to try to explain some of the stuff that you've just been saying?

Siri Hustvedt (08:27):

Well, yes. So the ideal experiment, I have thought that it would be extremely interesting say if you ... Multiple personality disorder, which is a very strange disorder now called dissociated identity disorder, where people have been monitored and it's shown that for example, one personality has asthma, but another personality doesn't. Have you these studies?

Steve Paulson (08:55):

No, I haven't.

Siri Hustvedt (08:56):

Anyway, I've wondered if one could monitor a writer and see if when you move from character to character or if you are writing a book as someone else, your narrator is someone very different from you yourself, if the writer displays different physiological signs.

Steve Paulson (09:21):


Siri Hustvedt (09:21):

That would be a very interesting experiment.

Steve Paulson (09:25):

And what about the neuroscientist? What would her dream experiment be?

Dr. Heather Berlin (09:29):

You mean a pie in the sky ideal?

Steve Paulson (09:32):


Dr. Heather Berlin (09:33):

What it would be is that if you could have, let's say one of the greatest artists or creators of our time, just hooked up to, maybe it's an EEG, something that's portable that they can just wear and we can record. Almost like when you wear a Holter monitor, the recording for your heart to see when you're having an arrhythmia or something. And you want to catch the moment when the sudden inspiring thought comes to mind and see what happened in the brain end. But you want to see the whole process that's leading up to that as well. The techniques we have right now are pretty primitive because they're all outside of the skull. So I'd love it if we can actually have implants in those creative people's brains where we're actually recording from the cells themselves, because you said pie in the sky, obviously that'd be cool. I'd like to do that, if that makes sense.

Steve Paulson (10:18):

It does. You're demystifying this in a sense. You're pouring cold water on the romantic notion of there's something-

Dr. Heather Berlin (10:27):

Where do you think it comes from?

Steve Paulson (10:29):

I don't have a clue. That's why I'm asking you.

Dr. Heather Berlin (10:31):

Well, I think that's still something almost magical and mystical about how amazing it is that this three pound piece of matter can process information in such a way that it can come up with novelty and be creative and that we humans can create things in the world. I think that's all really exciting. And I don't know that there needs to be any further explanation than that other than it comes from like the spirit gods. But as a scientist, I can't really point to that.

Anne Strainchamps (11:01):

That's neuroscientist Heather Berlin novelist, Siri Hustvedt, talking with Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (11:16):

So what I think is that we're all creative. We just use it differently. Writing novels, making beats, cooking, dinner, raising kids. So if creativity is a power and ability that we all have, then the issue is how do you choose to use it? And what impact is that going to have on your life? The philosopher Jim Holt is interested in extreme creativity, what we call genius. He's got a new collection of essays called When Einstein Walked with Godel, it's about beautiful minds in science and math. I told Steve that being a truly original thinker is rarely easy or even comfortable.

Jim Holt (12:01):

I think that whenever it's a matter of truly transcendent human achievement, there's going to be a lot of suffering. There's going to be a lot of struggle, struggle and suffering that the fragile human psyche often can't take it. This is not peculiar certainly to science and mathematics. It's also found in music and art. Beethoven had a pretty turbulent life. It's hard to find a great visual artist who was a nice guy. Yeah. It goes with the territory of being a genius and being a great original figure. It's also true in philosophy. Figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Nietzsche had very, very turbulent lives. I would maintain that these lives are objectively better than the happy lives that ordinary people like us aspire to because they're making contact with something that's objectively valuable.

Steve Paulson (12:56):

Even though they might be miserable in the process.

Jim Holt (13:00):

Of the many figures that I write about in this book, there are two or perhaps three suicides. One of whom is of course David Foster Wallace, who like me gravitated to these beautiful ideas, particularly the idea of infinity.

Steve Paulson (13:14):

Right. And we should just point out that a lot of people who were even David Foster Wallace fans may not realize that he actually was very knowledgeable about mathematics and wrote a whole book on infinity.

Jim Holt (13:24):

Yes, yes. Yeah. It's like reading a beautiful [inaudible 00:13:27] poem to me, but tragic figure David Foster Wallace and also Alan Turing, who of course in solving the greatest problem logic over the centuries, managed to invent the computer as a byproduct of that. And to cap it off, he cracked the enigma code of the Nazis in the second world war thereby saving countless lives, shortening the war by a couple of years probably. And he too committed suicide under very mysterious circumstances.

Steve Paulson (13:56):

Let's just talk about that for a moment.

Jim Holt (13:57):


Steve Paulson (13:58):

He done all these amazing things, as you say. He was also gay. It was illegal to engage in homosexual acts in England at the time. This was shortly after the second world war and he was actually criminally prosecuted for that.

Jim Holt (14:13):

And at the time it was not known, his heroic role in the second world war was still top secret. So nobody knew that he was instrumental in saving Britain during the dark days of the early part of the war. He was prosecuted and he was given a choice between a brief prison sentence or chemical castration submitting to injections of female hormones. He chose the latter, it had a terrible effect on his body. He was a long distance runner and it caused his breasts to grow and that sort of thing. And a few years after that, he was found dead by his housekeeper. And there was a cyanide laced apple by the side of his bed. When I think about the way touring was treated, it brings tears to my eyes.

Steve Paulson (14:56):

Yeah. And there were others who, it wasn't so much that society cracked on them, but they just fell apart themselves. Tell me about some of the other people.

Jim Holt (15:07):

Well, one of these figures is in the title of my book, Kurt Godel, the greatest logician since Aristotle, perhaps the greater logician than Aristotle. He's famous for having proved Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which was a very shocking and profound result that said essentially that mathematics transcends logic, that no logical system can capture all the truths of mathematics. This hit the mathematical community like a thunderbolt. So Godel was an Austrian. He came to America in the 1930s when the Nazis took over Austria in the Anschluss and he came to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton where Einstein was already the most famous fixture. And everyone was quite intimidated by Einstein at the time, but not Godel. Godel and Einstein immediately became very close friends. And every day they would walk to the Institute from their homes in Princeton and back and talk about all kinds of profound and beautiful things, particularly the nature of time.

Steve Paulson (16:06):

And we should point out that Einstein didn't do this with other people. He was actually a total snob, but Godel, he considered an intellectual equal, right?

Jim Holt (16:15):

And Godel was his intellectual equal. When I talked to mathematicians, my friends who were in higher mathematics at Harvard and Berkeley and so forth, they maintained that Godel was one of the 10 greatest mathematicians of all time. We think of him as a logician, but what he did in logic was essentially show how the theory of numbers, the theory of arithmetic could be made to talk about itself, saying, "I am not provable." And so he was very friendly with and very close to Einstein and practically, no one else. Kurt Godel lived in a little house in Princeton with his wife and they put a pink flamingo out on the lawn, which Godel was very, very fond of. He and Turing actually were slightly obsessed with the Disney movie Snow White.

Steve Paulson (16:57):


Jim Holt (16:57):

Which is an odd thing about him. Godel Also believed in ghosts. He had a morbid fear of refrigerator gases, but he was quite paranoid. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1974 when Gerald Ford was president. And he refused to go to Washington to accept it from Ford because he thought that someone might be trying to assassinate him. And he began to think that there was a plot to poison him and that everyone was participating in this plot. And so his reaction to that paranoiac fear was to stop eating food, right? So you think there's a plot to kill you and you stop eating food, and so you kill yourself.

Steve Paulson (17:35):

So he basically, he started starving himself then.

Jim Holt (17:38):

This great logician died of a paradox. We're laughing about it now. Comedy equals tragedy plus time, but it was very, really sad. He weighed something like 70 pounds when he finally was taken to the hospital in Princeton, the diagnosis was self starvation. He died in 1976. And then there are other cases. My favorite, a very special figure to me because it was through this figure that when I was young and in college, I was introduced to the idea of abstract intellectual beauty was Evariste Galois, G-A-L-O-I-S, who was a French boy, I should say, because he died before he reached his 21st birthday in 1832 in a duel.

Jim Holt (18:21):

He died in a duel with a man who was probably a government provocateur of the Orleanese royalty in France because Galois was a bit of a political fire brand and subversive figure as a student. And on the eve of the duel Evariste Galois wrote a letter to a friend in which he laid out all of the essential points of what we now call group theory. And the idea that this absolutely foundational, deep, profound, beautiful discovery was due to a teenager essentially who died in a duel.

Steve Paulson (19:00):

Let me-

Jim Holt (19:00):

By the way, if there's a movie ever made about Galois, he should have been played by the young Leo DiCaprio. That's what he looked like. I'm trying to make him seem even more romantic.

Steve Paulson (19:09):

Let me just get this straight. So he's what, 21 years old. He knows he's about-

Jim Holt (19:12):


Steve Paulson (19:12):

20 years old.

Jim Holt (19:13):

No, didn't make it to 21.

Steve Paulson (19:14):

He's about to go fight a duel. And just in case he dies, he decides, "Oh yeah. I better tell people about this amazing theory, this discovery that I've made and just leave it for posterity there. And that's what we know of him."

Jim Holt (19:28):

Yeah. Yeah. By the way, he was trying ... There was a longstanding mathematical problem that mathematicians had been grappling with for centuries. It really goes back to the Greeks. The young Galois was trying to solve a higher version of that, that had stumped mathematicians for centuries. And as one of my friends put it, he didn't solve this problem. He hacked it. He came up with this beautiful theory that showed that the problem was insoluble.

Steve Paulson (19:55):

Yeah. I just want to try to make sense of some of these stories that you've just outlined. On the one hand, there's something, we could put a romantic gloss on some of these stories, the connection between genius and madness, or maybe these are stories of intellectual mavericks, renegades whose minds just simply ran away from them. They didn't know when to stop. They needed a reality check, but couldn't because no one else was there to do that for them.

Jim Holt (20:24):

Yeah. And they're communing with a transcendent reality in a way. A good example of this is the figure Georg Cantor, who was the discoverer of the theory of infinity in the late 19th century. And Cantor was a figure who was of very strong, mystical tendency. He was very interested in the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. He tended to be morbidly depressive. He actually died in a mental asylum, but he singlehandedly created the theory of infinity that underlies modern mathematics. And this is a figure that I mentioned earlier also made a very powerful impression on David Foster Wallace and David Foster Wallace wrote an entire book about Cantor and the theory of infinity. But Cantor, he proved that not only is there a single infinity, there is actually an infinite hierarchy of infinities, of greater and greater infinities. In his mind, they culminated in the idea of the absolute and he believed this vision of a infinite hierarchy of infinities had been vouchsafed to him by God. It's quite interesting, the way mathematics, which you think of as the ultimate rational pursuit is so akin to mysticism.

Steve Paulson (21:43):

Right. Jim, I can't think of anyone else who quite does what you do. You are a philosopher who writes a lot about some very heady subjects in science and mathematics. And as far as I can tell you do not have an academic position, which is pretty unusual for an American philosopher. So I'm curious, how would you describe what you do?

Jim Holt (22:03):

I used to say I was a journalist and now people keep calling me a philosopher and I'm not so self effacing that I won't accept the label. Many of my friends are philosophers here in New York at Columbia and NYU, particularly philosophers of physics and cosmology. And I like the idea of bringing esoteric ideas and contemporary philosophy to a larger public. So I see that as my service. I have very few original ideas, perhaps no original ideas. That's not so bad. Einstein only had two original ideas, so I'm only two behind Einstein, but I tend to gravitate to other people who have original ideas and are sometimes not as lyrical in explaining them as they might be. And so that's my humble function in this culture.

Anne Strainchamps (22:58):

And that's Jim Holt talking with Steve Paulson about his book, When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought. Why do we celebrate some people's creative genius and malign others? Well, sometimes it's all about gender. Coming up, Mary Sharratt discovers a woman who could have been a great composer, Alma Mahler, in her own words.

Mary Sharratt (23:30):

Her diaries, I fell in love with her diaries. What I discovered in those pages was completely unlike this femme fatal stereotype. What I discovered in those pages was a very talented soulful woman, just brimming with passion to really live and to compose great symphonies and operas like no woman has ever done. She said she was just so on fire with enthusiasm and idealism. When Gustav Mahler, who was 20 years older than her proposed to her, he had her give up her own music as a condition of their marriage. That puts her in just this whole new light. She was always in Mahler's shadow and some Mahler fans have this negative view of her. It just puts her in a whole new light. And I really wanted to make her the center of her own story.

Anne Strainchamps (25:00):

And we'll hear that story after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (25:25):

We're talking about what sparks creativity in this hour. Sometimes it's a time and place. Take Vienna at the turn of the century. Think what it would've been like to be alive then. Gustav Klimt was painting erotic golden canvases. Gustav Mahler was writing symphonies. Schoenberg was inventing atonal music. Psychoanalysis was in the air and in the middle of all of it was a woman who is usually written about as a muse or femme fatal, a woman who inspired a lot of those artists. Her name was Alma Mahler. A novelist, Mary Sharratt thinks she could have been an artist herself if she hadn't been a woman.

Mary Sharratt (26:20):

She was the who's who of Vienna 20th century is associated with her. Klimt chased her across Italy to give her her first kiss when she was just a teenager, Gustav Mahler met her at a dinner party. She was 22. He was 41. He saw her fell madly in love and proposed only a few weeks later. She had first an affair and then later married Walter Gropius, the architect who founded the Bauhaus Movement. She had this passionate affair with Oskar Kokoschka, who immortalized his passion for her in his painting Bride of the Wind that shows the two of them locked in an eternal embrace. And then her third husband was Franz Werfel, the poet and novelist. She loved genius more than anything else. If she thought you were a genius, she would fall in love with you.

Anne Strainchamps (27:19):

Well, so she was really attracted to genius and to these brilliant men, what attracted them to her?

Mary Sharratt (27:27):

She was beautiful. She was on fire with enthusiasm. If you read her diaries, it's just full of this effervescent passion, this joy of life, of wanting to experience everything life had to offer. She had so much energy, so much enthusiasm. And if she believed in you, she would do anything for you.

Anne Strainchamps (27:53):

You paint her as so much more than this woman who catered to and supported famous brilliant men. You describe her as an early feminist and of course a composer in her own right.

Mary Sharratt (28:10):

While she was an incredibly talented young person, she was studying composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was also the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, but she really, really longed to be a composer. And we know from her diaries that she composed over a hundred liter or art songs, several instrumental pieces in the beginnings of an opera.

Anne Strainchamps (28:35):

Wow, is any of that music left?

Mary Sharratt (28:37):

The music that remains are 17 surviving songs. We don't know what happened to the rest of her music. When she fled Austria during the Nazi Anschluss, she left her music behind. So it could have been lost or maybe she destroyed it herself for whatever reason, we don't know.

Anne Strainchamps (28:59):

She fell in love with Gustav Mahler, and he with her. And he was an established, famous composer, quite a bit older. And he told her that if she married him, she had to give up composing. Why?

Mary Sharratt (29:12):

I think it's really hard for us to understand the enormous wall of misogyny that women in turn of the century Vienna were up against. Vienna was even backwards compared to other places in the Western world. The university had only barely opened its door to some women and women who did strive for a livelihood in the arts were mocked and ridiculed as the third sex. The pseudoscience of the day said if you did this you would damage your uterus and you wouldn't be able to have babies. And it's also the age of Freud where women who push against the status quo are diagnosed as hysterical, literally perceived to be mentally ill.

Anne Strainchamps (29:58):

Was Mahler threatened by her?

Mary Sharratt (30:00):

I can read a passage from his letter if you want me to.

Anne Strainchamps (30:03):


Mary Sharratt (30:10):

Before we speak again, you must renounce everything superficial. All vanity and outward show concerning your individuality and your own work. Would it be possible for you to regard my music as your music from now on? As for your music, I prefer not to discuss that in detail right now, but how can you imagine both husband and wife being composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and degrading such a rivalry would become? You must become the person I need if we are to be happy together, my wife and not my colleague.

Anne Strainchamps (30:55):

Did anybody in her circle or her family say, "Alma, what are you doing? Don't marry him."

Mary Sharratt (31:03):

Well, her mother actually advised against the match, but she was still under very strong pressure to marry. So if she didn't marry Gustav, it would have to be some other guy, maybe some boring guy who wasn't a genius.

Anne Strainchamps (31:17):

On the one hand, this seems like a sadly familiar story of male egoism and the repression of a woman's creative life. But it also seems like the story of a woman who maybe didn't have the courage to claim her own life and a woman who sabotaged herself. How do you see her?

Mary Sharratt (31:36):

Shortly before she married Gustav Mahler, she wrote this passage in her diary that I thought was so moving. And it really says so much about her. I'm just trying to find it.

Mary Sharratt (31:48):

January 16th, 1902. I have two souls. I know it. Am I a liar? When he looks at me so happily, what a profound feeling of ecstasy. Is that a lie too? No, no. I must cast out my other soul. The one which is so far ruled must be banished. I must strive to become a real person.

Mary Sharratt (32:13):

She wanted to be a composer. That was her passion. And that was her greatest regret when she married that she lost that part of herself, but that part of herself never died. She was never able to resign herself to be that, just a house frau, that kept burning inside her. And I think the pivotal moment for her when she just couldn't go on in this kind of self-sacrifice anymore was when she and Gustav Mahler moved to New York.

Mary Sharratt (32:52):

It's a long story, but he had to step down from the Vienna Court Opera due to an antisemitic smear campaign against him in the Viennese press.

Mary Sharratt (33:03):

Suddenly Alma is in New York, surrounded by these really powerful, liberated women like she has never met in Austria. And that made her realize that all the conflict she felt inside herself was not because there was something wrong with her, but because there was something wrong with the whole life she was meant to lead. That she wasn't sick, that the life she was meant to lead was sick. So then you see her taking back her own power. Even within this marriage to Gustav Mahler, she has her own declaration of independence. She takes back her own creativity and also the freedom of her own sexuality. And she returns to composing.

Anne Strainchamps (34:06):

This book is part of a larger project, which you've called Writing Women Back Into History. First of all, thank you.

Mary Sharratt (34:12):

You're welcome.

Anne Strainchamps (34:13):

What are some of the ways they've been written out?

Mary Sharratt (34:17):

Well, because a lot of history focuses on things like wars and land grabs this litany of great political rulers that is very, very male centric. And for women's history, what really strikes me is the women who do stand out and claim their power are often the most maligned. Traditionally Alma almost appears as this evil woman, this evil femme fatal. You can think of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's famous observation that well behaved women's seldom make history, that could have been written about Alma. If she had been a good little house frau who behaved herself, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Anne Strainchamps (35:13):

Mary Sharratt's historical novel about Alma Mahler is called Ecstasy. Sometimes the best revenge for being passed over, ignored, abandoned, is art. Taking what hurts and turning it into something original. That's the story of Nathaniel Mary Quinn. When he was a teenager, he was left at his boarding school, abandoned by his own family.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (35:52):

In Culver, there was something called parents weekend. I remember this like yesterday.

Speaker 10 (36:02):

Good Afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We welcome you to the Culver Military Academy fall Parents Weekend Sunday parade.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (36:07):

Parents would come to the school and my parents obviously didn't come because they were not around, or they were dead. And I remember sitting there thinking like, "Man, I have better grades than them. My scores are higher than theirs. I'm outperforming them. And yet they get to relish and bask in the joy of spending time with their parents. But God took my parents away from me. How come I can't get that?" I remember that. I'll never forget that. And then a part of me started to feel like, "You know what? Someday they're going to know what this pain feels like. They're all going to know. They're going to know someday, some day soon."

Anne Strainchamps (37:13):

And today, Nathaniel, Mary Quinn is a celebrated painter. We'll hear more of his story next. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (37:33):

You know that saying what doesn't kill you makes you stronger? Well, when Nathaniel Mary Quinn was 15 years old, his family disappeared. He was a scholarship student at a boarding school. And when he went home on vacation, his family was just gone. He never found them again. Today, he is a blockbuster artist who's exhibited all over the world. His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. And he was in town recently for a solo show of his collage style portraits at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. And since we can't show them to you, Charles Monroe-Kane asked Quinn to describe them.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (38:15):

You may see the torso of a man, and maybe there's a arm of a gorilla and the legs of maybe a woman wearing stiletto shoes and the other arm may have been borrowed from the arm of Superman, that kind of thing.

Charles Monroe-Kane (38:33):

That is a good description right there.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (38:33):


Charles Monroe-Kane (38:34):

I want to quote something that you wrote. You say that we are all broken in some way. And in the midst of being broken, we find ways to embrace our brokenness and then carry on life. Is your art broken?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (38:47):

I wouldn't say that my art in it of itself is broken, but I do believe that my work is a reflection of humanity. And as it turns out, humanity is broken. And so I try to highlight that through my work. So I like to think that I am painting the internalized world of humanity or a particular person. So I'm painting that which is not oftentimes seen, but that which is oftentimes felt.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:23):

Which is interesting because a lot of your portraits are portraits of people you know, like your family, like your father. And if you don't mind sharing, there's a backstory with you and your father that I'm like, "How do you find empathy in that? In him?"

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (39:37):

Oh, of course I grew up in Chicago in poverty and my parents were illiterate. I was the youngest of four older brothers. And that means by the time I was 15 years old, the next brother may have already been 23. And then the brother from there was probably 26 and on and on. So I was the baby. I had this great opportunity to go to this private boarding high school called Culver Academies. And I went. I got a four year tuition waiver, academic base scholarship to go to this really cool school.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (40:16):

It was academically rigorous and we lived on his campus and dorms. It was like paradise. Shortly after being admitted into the school, my mother passed away. A month later, I returned to Chicago with the expectation of enjoying Thanksgiving with my father and my four brothers. Upon my arrival home I opened the door and I was confronted with an empty apartment, no furniture. There was articles of clothing scattered across the floor. There was left in the refrigerator, a two liter Royal Crown Cola, a half a loaf of bread. And that was it. And that was the last time I actually saw my family.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:10):

Jesus. What do you think happened? You must wrack your brain about that.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (41:14):

Well, you have, you have to understand my mom was the bread winner. Now what that means is that my mother was the only one in the family who was the recipient of state aid. So she was a welfare recipient. And of course my dad, he played pool. So he would work in the restaurants and make the little money he made there. And he would go to the pool hall and play pool in order to try to generate extra money. So my mom died, her name was the only name on the lease. So the rest of the family could not stay in that apartment. It's just as simple as that. And my father, come on. This guy had no means by which to survive without her. Of course years ago, I didn't understand. I was just frustrated.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:09):

No. Of course not. Oh my God. It's terrible.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (42:11):

Yeah. Clearly that this is a pure form of abandonment and separation at its best.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:19):

What did you do?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (42:20):

I went to my next door neighbor. Her name was Diane, Diane Easton. And I asked Diane, "Do you know where my family is? They're not home." And she sat in response, "Oh, they didn't tell you?" I said, "Tell me what?" "Oh baby. They left two weeks ago." I said, "What?" And she says, "Yeah. They left two weeks ago. And I'm so sad they didn't tell you." And I knew I could not stay in that apartment because if they left two weeks ago, that means that apartment had already been turned into a drug den. The local drug dealers were using that space now to conduct their drug transactions. So it wasn't safe being in those projects at night, being outside. I left and I went to another part of Chicago, 79th street or something of that matter. And I found a Graystone. I just slept inside the vestibule.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:21):

I'm sorry. That's terrible.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (43:23):

That night, when that took place in my life, something clicked in my head. It became crystal clear what my options were. And they were very, very simple either. I stay in this community and die young, which was a guaranteed inevitable fact. If I stayed there, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have lived past 25. Forget about it.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:51):


Nathaniel Mary Quinn (43:52):

Or I go back to this school, this boarding school, I have a full scholarship. That means that as long as I maintain a very high GPA, I can stay in this school and this school will be my refuge and my roof. And they feed you three, four times a day. So I have food to eat every day. You have to wear uniform. So I don't have to worry about buying clothes. So I have clothes or my back. So the conception of school shifted for me. And that compelled me to work extremely hard.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:27):

I bet.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (44:28):

I had created for myself a weekly study schedule. I lived and slept and breathed by that schedule. And I had rules by which I lived. One of them being to never get a GPA underneath a 3.5, because if I get a GPA underneath a 3.5, then I'm in the red zone. That means that I run the risk of losing my scholarship, losing my scholarship meant that I will be homeless.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:01):

Wow. Geez. The pressure that you were under grieving for your mother, your family's loss and the abandonment and how that must have felt. How did you keep from just being consumed by grief?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (45:14):

Well, I stayed in a dorm called the band unit and I played in the band. Every Sunday there was a parade and people from around the country and the world would come to Culver and watch the parade. And we would March in the field. And after every parade, when everyone headed back to have lunch at the mess hall, I stayed on the field and I went to the golf course and I sat on a golf mound and I had my Walkman, and I would play Al Green's How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (45:53):

I would listen to that song. And during that time I would mourn the loss of my family and my mother. And I would just pray. And I was just in my own way sit in God's grace. And then after listening to the Al Green song, about 10 times, I will go back, go to lunch. And I did this every Sunday for four years while I was at Culver. I had a lot of hard work ahead of me and I was in a lot of pain, but I just worked really hard. I was very determined because I didn't want to be homeless.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:32):

Fair enough, man.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (46:33):

It was simple for me. I didn't want to be homeless. I didn't want to be on the street.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:38):

Did you try to find them? Did you ever go look for them?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (46:41):

Yeah. I did ask Diane if she knew where they had gone and she did not know, but she did say this. She said that my father sold my mother's clothing in order to generate money, to take a train to leave Chicago. I do remember that. And I went to the pool hall, because remember my dad played pool and I asked some of the fellas in there if they had seen my father. Course none of them seen him. "Oh, we haven't seen rabbit man." They call him rabbit man. They say, "Yeah, we haven't seen rabbit man in a long time. No, we don't know." And at that point that's when I gave up. I even went to the cut rate liquor store on the south side of Chicago, because my brother Eugene was an alcoholic and I went looking around the area, hoping that I would see him on the street somewhere, homeless perhaps. And I didn't see him. I didn't find him. So I then gave up on the prospects of ever finding them. And I continued on with my life. Yeah.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:47):

When you paint your mom or your relatives, your father, when you make these portraits of them, are you working through your trauma, through the abandonment while you're making them?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (47:56):

Yeah. I still work through the abandonment and the trauma, but also just with losing everything, losing my family, my home, my very foundation in my life, I'm still here and I made it. You know what I mean?

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:16):

Yeah. Totally.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (48:17):

And that gives me a lot of fuel.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:20):

Have you ever considered what would've happened if on that fateful day, your father and your brothers would've been there?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (48:28):

Oh yeah. I wouldn't be where I am right now. I would've ran into their open arms and the stuff that they embraced. I would've stayed with them. I would've continued to be a part of the family fabric and probably would have never realized the sort of dreams that I've come to realize now. And that's a good question because I believe that everything in life is designed to help you to get closer to becoming what you were meant to be. And as it turns out, growing up, the way that I did has now become the bedrock of all of these stories and experiences that play a pivotal part in my work. You see what I'm saying?

Charles Monroe-Kane (49:20):

Yeah, totally.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (49:20):

It's like the universe of God placed me there for a reason. Come on. One's imagination is not vast enough to orchestrate such a plan. Think about it. Imagine God says, "Okay, Quinn listen. Your mother's about to die. So I have planned for you. I'm going to put you in this school and it's a rich school and you going to be surrounded by good people because I'm about to take your family from you. But I must do this because I have a plan for you." Imagine if that was the conversation, who could orchestrate such a plan? That is a pitch perfect blueprint.

Charles Monroe-Kane (50:05):

Nathaniel. I want to thank you for some truly amazing art. I see the light in it. I understand exactly what's coming through there. Good and bad. And I really appreciate it. So thank you for your story today.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn (50:15):

Oh, thank you for having me.

Anne Strainchamps (50:28):

That's Nathaniel Mary Quinn talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Quinn was in town for a solo show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. And if you want to see some of the images, you'll find them on our website at ttbook.org. To the Best Of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, Shannon Henry Kleiber and Angelo Bautista. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Until next time.

Last modified: 
September 23, 2022