13 Ways of Looking at Creativity

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

How do you distill and communicate the essence of a person? As a guest lecturer in Anthony Brandt’s Creativity Up Close class, Anne Chao ’05 challenges students to inject creativity into the work of oral history. 

Chao, co-founder of the Houston Asian American Archive, is engaged in the work of collecting oral histories that detail the contribution Asian-Americans have made to the Greater Houston area. So far, the archive has amassed more than 200 stories. The assignment for Brandt’s students was to choose a subject, conduct a five- to six- minute interview, and make a presentation that succinctly and creatively conveys the substance of the individual. “We were pushing the students to think outside of the box while staying true to the idea and purpose of oral history,” Chao explained.

Chao’s favorite project depicted an interview with Christine Hà, a best-selling author and blind chef who took home top honors in season three of the MasterChef competition. “The team dimmed the lights in the classroom to simulate blindness,” Chao remembered.

“Then they gave us three food samples that corresponded with important moments in her journey.” The sample foods were a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — one of the first “meals” she made after losing her sight; an apple pie — a symbol of a pivotal moment on MasterChef; and a cup of Vietnamese coffee — which represented her heritage. “In just a few minutes,” said Chao, “they communicated the story and spirit of Christine.”

Chao’s own work at Rice often focuses on amassing the historical creative output of individuals or groups. She oversees students who are collecting recipes alongside geographic and familial details from oral history subjects. Chao is also interested in tracing the growth of the civic organizations of immigrant communities, identifying ways these populations banded together to ensure mutual success. “Pulling together different elements of history into functional forms,” Chao said, “is in itself a creative endeavor.”