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Spring 2000

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Linguist explores “creative capacity”

Leonardo da Hulst
Visiting scholar Harry van
der Hulst in the guise of Leonardo da Vinci, with stepson Nicholas McGee
as his sidekick Francesco Melzi.

     I f studying the nature of creativity in science and art is a job for a Renaissance man, then Harry van der Hulst certainly fits the description—right down to the doublet and tights on the day he impersonated Leonardo da Vinci for a public lecture. But acting that role was more than just a lark. Van der Hulst’s entire year at Skidmore could be described as da Vincian in its energy, eclecticism, and intellectual voracity.

     A linguist from the University of Leiden in Holland, van der Hulst is the last in a series of distinguished visiting scholars whose Skidmore visits have been funded by the Henry Luce Foundation for the past three years.

     Van der Hulst began his residency by delivering four public lectures that touched on creative aspects of language—everything from describing how sign languages go beyond gesture by using a genuine grammar that can manipulate words infinitely to create new expressions; to arguing that even complex systems of calls in the animal world fall short of true language because they’re emotional reactions to outside stimuli rather than spontaneous creations whose meanings may be far re-

     moved from the immediate environment; to considering how the invention of pidgin languages relates to the primordial, perhaps in-born “universal grammar” that seems to underlie all human language acquisition. In the spring, he hosted two guest lectures and a symposium and served as “medium” for Leonardo da Vinci to give a lecture called “Why I’m So Creative.”

     Between lectures, van der Hulst mounted an exhibit of his own artworks, which range from hand-made knives, with carved handles and shaped metal blades, to interesting bits of branch or stone either mounted as is or slightly embellished with, say, a painted eye. In trying his hand at primitive art, he says, he can identify with “prehistoric hominids who explored their emergent creative capacities.” He adds, “It’s one thing to look at creativity as an academic, but I wanted to live the creative process myself.”

     Van der Hulst also put in plenty of classroom hours. Along with participating in Liberal Studies l, he was a guest teacher in courses ranging from religion to English to anthropology. He participated in a genetics course, where he presented a paper on “Cellese”—the “language” of cells. This spring he took a biopsychology course and also taught his own course on visual communications, including sign language, writing systems, gesture and body language, dance and pantomime. And he even stayed on to teach a summer-session course on language acquisition by animals.

     “I have a tendency to make my agenda very full,” admits van der Hulst, whose stint at Skidmore has also included a new baby and a decision to settle in the United States permanently. Next fall he’ll join the University of Connecticut as professor of linguistics.

     From family life in Saratoga to academic life on campus, he says, “I couldn’t have wished for a better way to spend my sabbatical.” In his usual teaching and research he hasn’t found much room for interdisciplinary work, but at Skidmore, he says, “I enjoyed the opportunity to ‘play’ intellectually. I’ve added lots of new books to my library, as I’ve been reading in genetics, brain science, the psychology of vision, and other areas. And there are always people here to talk to. I’ve been struck by the quality of the students and the expertise and friendliness of the faculty.”

     Now that the three-year visiting scholar program has run its course, Skidmore and the Luce Foundation are exploring possibilities for following up with further interdisciplinary initiatives. —SR

     
“I see shapes and beauty in almost every piece of wood, metal, or stone,” van der Hulst has written. “Changing the found materials . . . I use my hands and simple tools only, curiously working and waiting for a clue that tells me when the object is ready. Sometimes even, I just use my eyes, and in the way I see it, I change the object.”

 


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