Ruminations on Generative Art

Exploring the process of creation through play

Spectrogram generated via Audacity

I truly believe great art comes from great play. In fact, I go so far as to say all great human creations come about from the willingness of one small human trusting in the power of play.

Let me define play quickly.

Play is the feeling of surrender when a mind becomes quietly focused and engaged with the bodily senses. Some call this state Flow, others call it Mindfulness, Present Moment Awareness, or Compassion. An athlete may call this ,“getting into the zone.” A religious person may call this, “being in communion with God.” A scientist might say they are, “conversing with the universe.”

I would enter this state as a young child digging in sand. I loved to dig. If we were at a beach, you can be sure I would be digging vast caverns, and watching the water snake and wind along a path of intricate destruction.

This state of mind is where insights live. It is the ultimate home of our human genius.

The easiest way for me to enter into this state is to make up a little game to play. Great creations come from playing great games, and don’t worry, you get to make up the rules of the game. Well, actually, not so much “rules” as the constraints of the game.

Look at Plato, Bach, Einstein, and Newton. They are famous for playing imaginative visualization games to arrive at their insights. The Genius of Play gets it.

Since I so strongly believe in the power of play, I've spent most of this last year playing. I’ve been trying to understand what it is about mindfulness that is so powerful, and how can we use our mindfulness practice as a means of production.

In other terms: I’ve been playing with different methods of generative design.

Since most generative design methods are digital in nature, I decided to start with a digital audio file of an episode of On Being called The Inner Landscape of Beauty (which I just love). The episode is a deep and meaningful conversation between On Being host, Krista Tippet and the late Irish poet John O’Donohue. What could be generated from this simple starting point?

I strongly recommend giving it a listen. Go ahead and take a nice long walk or jog. Or, better, get elbow deep in some mudd.

I really loved the Inner Landscape of Beauty episode, it’s personally meaningful and the two great minds speak to every important issue I feel passionately about: urbanism, importance of nature and play, conscious capitalism, community design, friendship, present moment awareness and on, and on. It’s so good.

Now, when I started this exploration into the connection of embodied play, mindfulness, and our shared capacity for creative insight it was during a time when I was starting to exercise my artistic abilities after a long, long hiatus.

In order to see which medium I would be best suited to, I began a project with two constraints: use and celebrate the natural world around, and create some sort of mandala in the end.

I started with carving.

Sketch carving in plaster

While I found, to my surprise, that I could indeed carve, I now needed a base structure for the base mandala.

Pentaradial and Bilateral symmetries are present in milkweed, so those were obvious constraints.

Seeing as how the #milkweedmandala project is all about recognizing the latent beauty all around us, and fostering a positive view of our native “weeds”, it made sense to make the On Being episode a constraint as well.

So, now I had the outline of a “game” to play:

Create a work of art celebrating the yearly growth cycle of Milkweed


  • Employ pentaradial and bilateral symmetries,
  • Limit use of digital tools to only when necessary,
  • Experiment with Renaissance techniques (because it’s an interesting time period and I’m curious about how they worked back then),
  • Embed the wonderful On Being podcast.
  • Produce a physical object in the end.

Here’s how it’s playing out so far.

I took first took this audio file and had the computer create a spectrogram of its contents.

A spectrogram shows all of the acoustic information from a digital audio file in a visual format by mapping out the various intensities in pitch and tone through time. A computer could take this graphic and decode the original audio content.

It’s a bit like a vinyl album where a 2D surface is encoded with information by making that surface multidimensional.

In the case of a vinyl album, the 2D surface is pitted and scratched so that a needle and amplifier can decode the message.

Now, spectrograms are cool and all, but what happens when you go into Photoshop and superimpose this image onto itself ?


This is a computer generated mandala formed from an audio file.

Different layer orders and tone adjustments yield different mandalas.

This base mandala is quite beautiful. There are some interesting emergent patterns and orders present.

My next step was to see what order I could coax out of this generated mandala.

Then I set to work carving out this “final” design.

But this iteration looked too simplistic. It had none if the rich texture present in the original mandala.

So, keeping with the emergent theme, I simply printed the mandala out and began a mindfulness exercise where I would mindlessly pencil shade over existing dark spots.

I should mention this mindfulness exercise was performed while listening to Walden and The Lord of the Rings audiobooks. I think you can clearly see their influence on what emerged.

An intricate design started coming to life as a result of simply scribbling in dark sections and the gentle influence from my mindful state.

It is also worth noting that this is where I was living at the time.

This work seems to be heading into an interesting direction. It is still a work in progress, but I’m excited to follow it wherever it should lead.

To follow along on the progress, check the project out on instagram by following the hashtag #milkweedmandala where I post all of my #designprocess live.

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