The Natural Tension Between Creativity and Constraints

“Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

~ Albert Einstein

“Mathematics is the most beautiful and most powerful creation of the human spirit.”
~ Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach (1892-1945)

“One of the most amazing things about mathematics is the people who do math aren’t usually interested in application, because mathematics itself is truly a beautiful art form. It’s structures and patterns, and that’s what we love, and that’s what we get off on.”
~ American actress and mathematician, Danica McKellar (1975 –     )

Charting e 98 | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Charting e 98 | Yvette Kaiser-Smith | 65″ x 65″ x 4″

Much has been written about the relationship between mathematics and music, and for many, both are equally daunting languages, most accessible, we think, to those lucky enough to enjoy strong left brain dominance. Whereas for the more rule-breaking creatives among us like visual artists or poets, even fiction writers, we don’t expect to find inspiration from mathematical grids. Therein, of course, lies the irony, for what could be more delightful to a rule breaker than to reject this very rule? Recently, short story author, Rachel Swearingen, sat down with multi-media artist, Yvette Kaiser Smith, and fiction writer, Kellie Wells, and asked them to share with us how they had found ways to incorporate mathematical structures into their own art forms.

Rachel Swearingen: I encountered the work of Yvette Kaiser Smith during an artist residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois in 2013. At the time she was taking a break from large-scale, three-dimensional crocheted fiberglass pieces to work on a series of new paintings. She invited me into her studio and explained how she uses an intricate system of numbers to create her work. The rules she created seemed at once practical and elaborate. Fiction writers often use constraints to form scaffolding for their stories, and I thought of one writer in particular ~ Kellie Wells, who once wrote a short story for Third Coast magazine using fragments from “The Gettysburg Address.”

Etudes | Yvette Kaiser-Smith | 72” x 191” x 33”
Etudes | Yvette Kaiser-Smith | 72” x 191” x 33”
Mapping Pi| Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Mapping Pii | Yvette Kaiser-Smith | 12″ x 12″

YVETTE KAISER SMITH & KELLIE WELLS: The Natural Tension Between Creativity and Constraints

Yvette Kaiser Smith larger profile pic
Yvette Kaiser Smith, multi-media artist
author Kellie Wells
Kellie Wells, author

Rachel Swearingen: To begin this conversation, Kellie and Yvette, could you tell us a bit about how you use constraints in your work? I don’t think of either of you as rule followers, but, and I mean this fondly, as more renegade. What inspired you to play with constraints initially? Have you learned anything in the process that you might share with us? Surprises? Drawbacks? Could you walk us through the creation of a specific piece?

Kellie Wells: Working within formal constraints in fiction can itself be perceived as a renegade act. I taught an undergrad seminar in apocalypse literature last year, and one of the books we read was Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life. At the back of the book, she describes the modified abecedarian constraint she used for some of the poems. Once you recognize what she’s doing, there’s another level of engagement, one that, for me, only adds to the pleasure of meaning making.

One of my students suggested that writers only rely on such tricks when they’re low on chops and wanting for ideas. He found the whole idea of exercises and constraints to be frivolous in producing “inauthentic” writing. He objected to these poems and Harvey’s approach as mere “artifice.” This romantic notion about what constitutes authenticity in writing did not surprise me particularly.

It’s uncomfortable for beginning writers to question conventions and naturalized ideas about craft, and it can be very unsettling to think of oneself as being in the grips of the default constructions du jour rather than being a conduit for the inherently artful.

What members of Oulipo have observed is that the problem-solving of form can be productively distracting and allow writers to venture into territory they might otherwise avoid. It can free you up to plumb material whose urgency or darkness or painfulness or honesty creates a block that thwarts the writer.

In my most recent book, Fat Girl, Terrestrial: A Novel, I had a character whose brother believes she is the incarnation of God, and so I wanted a voice that would somehow word that abstraction, was capacious and shape-shifting. The most elaborate constraint I worked with in that book happens in a chapter where God simply holds forth. What would the voice of God sound like? What language would it use? I decided to take excerpts from famous speeches, speeches of impassioned eloquence, and run them through translation machines, which used to be wonderfully inept and therefore produced beautiful corruptions, and then I took those corruptions and sculpted them. This is a strategy that student of mine would have utterly scoffed at, and the text that resulted operates by a lyrical logic he would further have resented, but it had the music I was casting about for. One thing I really like about working within constraints is that they give me permission not to sweat so much conventional meaning.

A constraint allows me to do what lyric poetry does, which is to let meaning issue from sound and suggestion.

Kellie Wells

Yvette Kaiser Smith: Constraints focus specificity; specificity opens up possibilities of fullness and uniqueness within each individual form or expression.

Each material has its own language, its own natural and unique way of translating a set of relationships. My path leans towards minimal abstract expressions which depend on the specificity of a material language, and that voice of a material and its process is much less predictable than I am.

In a need to go beyond the generic forms I was making, I look inside. Specificity opens a less travelled road in the life of forms.  It is not about knowing what the end object will look like, but if you don’t understand what it is, where it come from, its lineage, its DNA one could say, how can you bring this new and original form to life?

Pi in Pascal's Triangle Round | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Pi in Pascal’s Triangle Round | Yvette Kaiser-Smith

Yvette Kaiser Smith: My current practice of creating math generated work and crocheting fiberglass began when I started making sculpture that dealt with abstracting narratives of identity. Identity because I was somewhat newly married and identity felt like a deep messy bag of stuff to riffle through. Within this context, a material and process exploration of fiberglass and resin, asking what does it do and how can this material serve my conceptual agenda, led me to crocheting fiberglass roving.

Etudes in Pi 5 Squared | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Etudes in Pi 5 Squared | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Etudes from Pi in 5 Squared | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Etudes from Pi in 5 Squared | Yvette Kaiser-Smith

Yvette Kaiser Smith: Later, the same pursuit led me to start mapping math sequences to create patterns, a defined structure that creates seemingly random and unpredictable results much like our own internal and external coding,

My specialty has become creating my own fiberglass cloth by crocheting continuous strands of fiberglass into flat geometric shapes. These are formed and hardened with the application of polyester resin and the use of gravity. Traditionally, the resin-wetted cloth gets laid into or over a mold until it hardens. Laying the crocheted cloth over a mold resulted in a flat jagged line and complete loss of dimension within the cloth. Desire for a large naturally billowing wall forced me to build a frame and create the form by draping which created a beautiful round line and allowed the crocheted cloth to retain all of its texture.

Charting e 98 | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Charting e 98 | Yvette Kaiser-Smith

Yvette Kaiser Smith: Also, staying true to the philosophy that all materials and techniques have their own language, I eventually realized that this should include not only the material language of crocheted fiberglass but also the traditional stitches and formats of crochet, including basic geometry and the grid. Starting with basic geometric shaped planes, gravity makes certain forms and gestures naturally. Working with heavy wet cloth and gravity limits scale of certain shapes. These simple gravity-formed modules and a basic grid structure are now my go-to form-library when starting a new project.

Constraints of scale and mobility are also key in the evolution of the fiberglass work.

I was working on a solo exhibition. I had one last very large wall to fill and very little time left to create a new piece. Still bound to an identity narrative, I made 80 or so ten-inch rounds that were same but different with the same subtleties as I would be same but different from day to day. I wanted to hang them on a grid in a random pattern. Tim, my math nerd husband, suggested that I use digits from the infinite number pi.

Math is inseparable from nature, from us; and, as the search for numbers went on for thousands of years, numbers represent the human search for knowledge.

Justifying the use of math within an identity narrative opened up conceptual and formal possibilities I have not considered before.

Pi in Pascal's Triangle Round | Yvette Kaiser-Smith
Pi in Pascal’s Triangle Round | Yvette Kaiser-Smith

Yvette Kaiser Smith: Following that, I began new work for a solo in Alfedena Gallery, which had very large walls. Like a little kid, I see a big wall, I want to fill it. Immediately, I saw a ten by ten foot piece, a nine by twenty foot piece, and more. Monster-sized constructions started rolling around in my head. The initial pi piece opened up my mind to modules. Concepts of modules and large-scale patterns led to an exploration of articulating digits directly, while respecting the constraints of the crocheted fiberglass process and language. I found that the geometry and architectural nature of the math structure provided a necessary balance to the naturally organic qualities of the crocheted fiberglass. All work from that point on has been math generated. 

Kellie Wells is the author of a collection of short fiction, Compression Scars, winner of the Flannery O’Connor AwardSkin, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in the Flyover Fiction Series, edited by Ron Hansen, and Fat Girl, Terrestrialout from FC2. Stories and excerpts have appeared in various literary journals, including The Kenyon ReviewNinth Letter, The Fairy Tale Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been awarded a Rona Jaffe Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writer’s Award in fiction. She is a congenital Midwesterner and currently lives in Tuscaloosa. She teaches in the MFA Programs at the University of Alabama and Pacific University. To learn more, please visit

 Yvette Kaiser Smith is a visual artist who specializes in crocheting continuous strands of fiberglass into large geometric shapes. Born in Prague in 1958, she lives in Chicago, and earned her MFA from the University of Chicago. Yvette has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions at regional museums, art centers, and university galleries throughout the United States and abroad, including Rome, Berlin, and U.S. Embassies in Moscow, Ankara, and Abuja. She creates systems for visual articulation of mathematics as a way to generate random visual patterns through form and color distribution by utilizing the grid, prime numbers, Fibonacci series, Pascal’s Triangle, and sequences from the infinite numbers pi and e. To view more of her work, please visit

Rachel Swearingen’s fiction has appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon ReviewAgniAmerican Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.

rachel swearingen (window)

Further Notes

Yvette Kaiser Smith: To create a new work, I create a system. I chose a sequence from the numbers pi or e, or a section from Pascal’s Triangle; define a specific method for articulating the digits; define colors and a sequence for the colors; and follow the plan to create the work.  Larger works are straightforward, more obvious, interpretations of each digit, while the source math in the small works is less evident.

For “Pi in Pascal’s Triangle Round,” each half is based on the first four rows of Pascal’s Triangle.  Pascal’s Triangle is built by adding the digits from previous row, bookended by 1.

Color sequence follows the first 30 digits of pi.  Each numerical value is assigned its own color.  A deep ruby red represents numerical value 9 and dilutes down appropriately to articulate the odd digits. A deep cinnamon color represents numerical value 8 and dilutes down to articulate the even digits.  During planning, on paper, I try different routes of delivery for the color and they always produce a completely different pattern,

Etudes from Pi in 5 Squared is based on the first 25 digits of the infinite number pi.  The sequence reads from left to right, top to bottom. The grid organizes 25 units into 5 rows and 5 columns.  Here, the value of the digit determines the depth of each individual curved unit.  A unit representing digit 1 is 3.5” deep, pushing the curve out 2” for digit 2, then 2” more for digit 3, and so on. The largest unit, representing the 9 digit, pushes out 19.5”.  Departing from focus on pattern created by color distribution through shallow or flat modules, this group’s similarly colored, curved forms alternate from convex to concave, thereby focusing on the sculptural form and patterns created by spatial relationships.  Each of the 5 columns is 6 feet tall, about 20 inches wide, and varies from 22 to 33 inches in depth.

Charting e 98 utilizes a traditional crochet format based on patterns created on a grid, where squares are either filled or left open.  Using this charting system, Charting e 98 articulates the first 98 digits of the infinite number e.

I am slowly beginning to transition the math to 2D surfaces by looking for new systems of mapping digits and sequences as I get to know encaustics.  The 2D work comes in infrequent small bites, mostly as introduction to new materials and techniques.  Most are anchored in the grid.  Relying on the philosophy that all materials and techniques have their own language, I am slowly trying a variety of media in order to discover and accumulate ways of mapping the math.   Both the size of the surface and marks made by a specific drawing tool will lean towards a specific system of marking or mapping the digits.  So then, my restrains are not just in the math mapping but also in the use of a specific medium and its unique tendencies.

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

Leave a Comment