Just after 8:30 a.m., dozens of people gathered at Paikka, a mattress factory turned event space in St. Paul, to hear from a trio of dancers. To discuss creativity. To weigh the topic of flow.
But first, to drink coffee.
Amy Britt, 50, and Nick Theisen, 26, chatted as they sipped from borrowed mugs that matched their outfits.
“Normally, I pick the ridiculous mug,” said Britt, of Minneapolis, gesturing at a table full of misfits. “But today I just went for the pretty mug.”
Coffee is the first step of Creative Mornings, a monthly speaking series that attracts creative types from across the Twin Cities. The free, Friday-morning gathering is the local version of an event that occurs in more than 200 cities worldwide.
In Minnesota, the venue varies. (The Minneapolis Institute of Art hosted September’s talk, and Northrop did so in August.) The topic varies, too. (One city’s chapter picks the theme for all, complete with a snazzy shared poster.)
But each time, a few hundred people hear a creative person, or a creative team, tell their story.
Those storytellers have been rappers and entrepreneurs, designers and chefs. Photographer Bobby Rogers, known for his regal portraits, wove poetic videos into his talk. Painter Ashley Mary, known for her bright shapes, invited audience members to paint over an old canvas.
Minneapolis has a strong theater community, an amazing screen-printing community, a robust music scene, said host Drew Gneiser. “But they don’t often talk to one another. What we’re trying to do is say: Guess what? You’re a photographer — you should learn from this chef. Hey, you run a vegan butcher shop? There’s a lot you could learn from an illustrator.”
This month’s event, popping up Friday at the Parkway Theater, marks the Minneapolis chapter’s sixth anniversary. Registration, which opens the Monday before, often fills fast.
Britt, a nonprofit fundraiser, has been attending for more than a year, appreciating the reminder that anyone can be creative in any profession.
“I just love it,” she told Theisen, a first-timer. The speakers are “always incredibly different but always really, really interesting.”
Theisen, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer, had considered going for months. Finally, on this Friday, he made it — partly because of the topic. Mother and daughters Ranee, Aparna and Ashwini Ramaswamy, of Ragamala Dance Company, were set to talk about “flow.”
“I have a thing about perfectionism that I’m trying to break,” Theisen said. He hoped that this gathering could help.
Wearing a baseball cap and a big grin, Gneiser shooed the group inside: “We’re going to start pretty soon, so if you’d like to grab a seat ...”
To support, and celebrate
“We’re really, really happy you’re here!” Gneiser told the more than 150 people who had just taken their seats. Then he asked whether a volunteer could read the Creative Mornings manifesto, a short declaration of purpose recited by chapters worldwide.
Sitting at the front edge of her seat, Amy Kay Czechowicz shot her hand in the air.
Gneiser spotted her, pointed: “Yes!” She jogged to the front.
Czechowicz, 34, introduced herself as “a continuous improvement enthusiast” and told the group that in 2017, she attended a talk by Mary Jo Hoffman, who shared her daily photography blog. Inspired, Czechowicz started her own yearlong project: 365 poems. “I am super pumped and honored and humbled to read this to you,” she told the group, “because I really believe it.
“Everyone is creative,” she began. “A creative life requires bravery and action, honesty and hard work. We are here to support you, celebrate with you, and encourage you to make the things you love. ... ”
Before that 2017 talk, Czechowicz would occasionally pen a sonnet. The project that inspired her to write a poem each day started with a puggle who needed a walk.
Hoffman took her dog on the trails near her Shoreview rambler, collecting nature along the way. A pine cone, a pheasant feather. She began photographing her finds against a stark white background and posting them to her blog. The daily habit took five minutes at first, then 15. Design*sponge, a popular home-decor blog, reached out. Then Martha Stewart, then Target.
“It could have felt like a job or it could have felt like a burden,” she told the Creative Mornings crowd. “But it never did. ... It was pure play.”
Hoffman had long been a Creative Mornings attendee. She had followed the Brooklyn-based creator of Creative Mornings, Tina Roth Eisenberg, best known for her minimalist blog Swissmiss. When chapters began popping up in other cities, Hoffman considered starting one here.
“Creative work is solitary work,” she said by phone from southern France. “If you’re really in the maker mode, or creative mode, you’re spending lots of time in your own head.
“So it’s nice to know there’s this organization that, when you feel like you need to step outside yourself, you can come be in the company of others.”
Unlike many attendees in their 20s and 30s, Hoffman, 55, doesn’t attend as a means of networking. She goes to be inspired, to learn about the Twin Cities creative community. Speakers and projects she encountered at Creative Mornings have popped up and proved useful in unexpected ways.
Plus, she likes Gneiser.
“He brings the exact right energy, the right self-deprecating attitude,” Hoffman said. Minnesota’s design creative community “boxes above its weight” partly thanks to a handful of ambassadors. “And Drew with Creative Mornings is doing that, he’s part of that.”
‘‘Who needs to tell their story?’
Tickets are free. Coffee and pastries are donated. Those mugs get washed each month at Gneiser’s house.
“We’re scrappy as hell,” said Gneiser, 35, a social strategist for the Social Lights, a Minneapolis marketing agency.
He’s part of a volunteer team made up of five “curious people who bump into interesting folks,” as Gneiser put it. Photographers and designers, people in the music community and in the mini-golf community. They welcome suggestions, adding them to an ever-growing Google doc. Then they match speakers to themes, to months, to moments — aware that each year, they have just 12 spots.
“We ask ourselves, ‘Who needs to tell their story this year?’ ” Gneiser said.
Recently, the group has focused on finding speakers “you wouldn’t necessarily expect,” said Lauren Cutshall, a photographer who’s part of that leadership team. Speakers who are diverse. Who work in different disciplines. Who maybe have never done a public speaking gig. “We’re thinking of that term, diversity, in a really broad sense.”
Weeks before the event, Gneiser has coffee with speakers as they form their talks, gently coaching them to abandon statistics and embrace storytelling. To show the messy process that led to those clean designs. One of those speakers, early on, was Kate Arends Peters, whose Wit & Delight blog was then a home for curated posts and polished interiors. The theme of her talk was “ugly,” which seemed to contradict her public persona. But while making small talk, she told Gneiser: “You should see my living room right now, it’s a complete disaster,” he said.
He responded: “You should show that.”
The idea of revealing the imperfections behind a staged Instagram post is more common now, Gneiser noted, even a little cliché. But at the time of her talk, it felt revealing, raw.
“She seemed a little uncomfortable,” he said. But “after that moment in the talk, people listened more.”