Tag Archives: wonder

What the clouds can teach you about imagination and everyday things

A fever, a cold, and a hot afternoon on a New York heat wave aren’t usually a recipe for a good day. But bedridden and staring out my window, I had no idea I was about to give birth to another project.

Looking at the sky, I started to wonder at the forms the clouds were making. Although they were white and formless, they started to remind me of the fantastical shapes, such as dragons, whales, and other creatures. It’s not unlike that scene from the Pixar movie, Up!, where Carl and Ellie were lying down on the grass and pointing out what the clouds looked like.

Cloud pareidolia

It’s a manifestation of pareidolia, where a random stimulus (such as the shape and shadows formed by clouds) is perceived as significant. This is why we see faces in places and things, religious figures on burnt toast, etc. Our brains are hardwired to find patterns; it helps us see things as a whole. Without pattern recognition, every experience would be new to us and we wouldn’t be able to make sense of the world or solve problems.

Rorschach test

During that summer, I was frankly getting burned out from school and my internships, and initially decided, just for kicks, to take photos of clouds and draw what I saw in them. Over the next several months, I religiously uploaded them online, and the endeavor has evolved into a project called Rorsketch. The name itself comes from Rorschach tests, which have been used by psychologists to determine their subjects’ personality characteristics and emotional functioning. In this case, I realize that I see a lot of animals in clouds, as well as strange and often unrealistic scenes.

Geography of thought

When I show the cloud photos and sketches to others, people immediately tell me what they see, which is often different from my interpretations. Professions and culture have a lot to do with this. For example, researchers have determined, unsurprisingly, that Asians and Westerners perceive the world differently. Given a scene, Westerners will usually focus on the main subject while Asians will often take the entire scene in.

More than 100 sketches later, I’ve given talks and workshops on how we see. Occasionally, people send me “re-interpretations” of my cloud photos. I find it funny how one afternoon that summer has led to a project I’m still doing a year later. It has helped me learn about how other people see the world, and has given me a platform to celebrate this diversity of visual perception. It helps me find stories in the skies—a great thing to do when looking for inspiration. It was also part of my MFA thesis, and has thus even helped me graduate.

Wonder in the everyday

The best thing I learned about this project is that it doesn’t take much to be creative. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pining for expensive gadgets one doesn’t have, thinking they will somehow make us get over creative humps. Instead, looking at seemingly ordinary objects in a different light can unleash and sharpen our sometimes tethered imaginations.

Visit and participate in the project at or tweet @rorsketch.

This article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section, 20 August 2012, page H4. With thanks to my editor! Full text in their digital edition here.


If we are curious,

We can enrich our lives because we can purposefully seek meaning, instead of finding solace in empty superficiality.

Relationships can be stronger because each uplifts the other through their passions.

Organizations can work with more intention, go deeper, and become more innovative and impactful.

Cities can have more engaged and concerned citizens who can make things happen with creative solutions.

Countries can have leaders that are more informed and make better decisions for those they are serving.

The world can sustain itself for future generations.

Last Sunday, I gave a talk / workshop about my work at the Intrepid Museum for Camp G.O.A.L.S. (Greater Opportunities Advancing Leadership and Science) for girls, a free six-week camp for 8th and 9th graders in New York City’s public schools. The intention of the camp was to help 50 to 55 accepted applicants build proficiency in math and science.

Excuse me while I ogle this fantastic flying machine:

Sara Chipps, a developer and co-founder of Girl Develop It, gave a great keynote speech about how the population of female developers has dwindled over time, encouraging the students to help build the Internet. (Yes!)

My workshop was entitled, “Wonder, Unlimited: A Speculative Workshop” after giving them a short talk about some of the things I’ve done. I asked them to take a piece of today and to imagine how it would be tomorrow. It could be it a city, an app (if we will still have apps), a piece of clothing, an organism, a gadget, etc. The kids were provided with clay, magic markers, crayons, and some activity worksheets that related to some of my projects so that they can experience them and get their creative juices flowing (which is not very difficult for kids).

The students were intelligent creative young ladies, aged 9 to 15, with some family members. They were prodigious and driven, asking questions on how to engage in science and technology, and professing their dislike for sparkly vampires. (That’s hope, right there.) I wasn’t allowed to photograph the kids, but here are some photos of their work, which included meta-looking apps, new animals, and futuristic flowers:

Thanks to Emma Nordin of the Intrepid’s Education Department, who assisted me through the whole event.

I love strangers, and catching them in states of wonderment.

For the second year in a row, I’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from the (warm) apartment of two friends who have adopted me during the holidays. I love balloons, and I love watching people watch balloons.

Last year, my favorite shot was of Spiderman and Grandma (left) and this year, it’s a photo I caught of Doughboy and Little Girl. I love these because it captures that state of awe you can still get from ordinary objects. I’m sure they, as well as the thousand of parade-goers every year, have seen balloons before. In fact, I noticed that a lot of the balloons this year were repeated from last year, Spiderman and Doughboy included. But still they press their hands on the windows and gape.

If there is one thing I am grateful for this Thanksgiving, it’s this ability to wonder.

To wonder is to marvel; to stare at the world with astonishment. It’s when you can look at a malformed mass of plastic and, despite your knowledge of it being blown for capitalistic ends and annually recycled, still gasp.  It’s when you’ve think you’ve seen it all, yet you still do a double-take. It is these little moments that catch you off-guard, and shake down the protective walls of cynicism you have built around you. To wonder is to be curious, and it is this powerful spark that makes us do big, sometimes unexplainable, things. Wonderment costs nothing, won’t come to you unless you let it, and can be found throughout the spectrum of humanity.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! From one who used to think you could never have pumpkin for dessert. (Yum.)