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New events spark creativity across Emory's Finance Division

“Inside you is an artist you do not know about.” — Rumi

As an accountant focused on sponsored research grants and contracts, Valeria Rainey knows her work matters, both in the laboratory and in the lives of Emory researchers.

When she joined Emory’s Finance Division in 2001, Rainey knew she was entering a highly regulated world of numbers, spreadsheets, deadlines and quarterly reports.

And though it can be stressful, she finds it satisfying.

But there is another side to this accountant, too.

In her “imaginary world,” Rainey jokes, she’s an artist brimming with untapped creative potential — talents just waiting to be unbound.

“Oh yes, in my make-believe world I can paint, I can draw, and I am an amazing interior decorator and gardener,” laughs Rainey, associate director of sponsored research for finance grants and contracts. “Accounting is what I do as a profession, but it definitely doesn’t define everything about who I am.”

So it was with an open mind that she found herself joining about 25 other finance employees studying a blank canvas and an array of brushes and paints over a recent noon hour.

“I want you to relax the mind, the imagination, to open your heart and your soul,” urged Jim Peera, part of the family-run HealiUm, an Atlanta-based interactive arts studio. “Art is best when it comes from the heart, not the head. Just surrender and it will come.”

The lunch event opened the four-part Summer Art Series, sponsored by Emory’s Finance Division, which wrapped up Aug. 14 at Café Montage in Clifton Road’s 1599 building.

The purpose of the series was to invite finance employees to step away from their spreadsheets and open themselves to their own creativity. “The immediate takeaway is mindfulness, but the long-term benefit is taking a more creative approach to their jobs,” says Jamie Smith, chief performance officer for the Finance Division.

“I think there has been a very traditional assumption of what a Finance Division does or doesn’t do and what we think or don’t think,” he says. “Finance is more than people sitting in a room crunching numbers — there is actually a lot of innovation happening here.”

Bringing creativity to the world of finance

The summer event is part of a larger initiative spearheaded by Carol Dillon Kissal, vice-president of finance and chief financial officer, to bring creativity to the division and its interactions across the university.

“With a diverse and intergenerational workforce, it’s important to find common ways to team using modern ideas and accepting changing dynamics in productive ways,” says Kissal.

“This is the landscape that our employees need to embrace, and I believe art in all its forms is a great way to achieve that objective,” she says.

In that spirit, the Finance Division hosted an event in May called “Data Pairing: A Metrics Tasting,” in which campus partners were invited to an “interactive” financial presentation. Instead of PowerPoints, data was shared through a new interactive dashboard at individual Finance Department tasting stations where each was paired with a beer or wine.

To help make the data engaging, guests were invited to get a stamp from each metrics station, which married concepts such as Grants and Contracts (“hints of trends, focus, efficiency, alignment and compliance”) with Fernlands Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (“crisp, acidic with hints of tropical fruit and grapefruit”) and a German Hefeweissen (“slightly robust feel and a hint of sweetness”).

Other stations highlighted information on topics including procurement, finance systems and data analytics, with encouragement to spark a dialogue and “learn more about the financial metrics that can pair with your needs.”

The event reflected Kissal’s “commitment to change and redefining how the division collaborates internally and with our stakeholders,” Smith says.

The summer arts event arose from a similar intent.

“Carol really wanted to take advantage of the quieter summer months and do something to rejuvenate and reward her staff,” Smith explains. “We wanted it to be around wellness, but we also wanted to do something different.”

Finance engaged the HeliUM Center, an interactive “art sanctuary” that promotes healing and enriching the mind through art, to develop the program. The weekly sessions, which were free to the Finance Division’s 180-plus employees, included lunch, guided relaxation and creative exercises that employed painting, writing, music and more.

An Emory employee pours a glass of wine at an event.

“Data Pairing: A Metrics Tasting,” hosted by the Finance Division in May, eschewed traditional PowerPoint presentations to convey information through creative pairings of data, beer and wine. Emory Photo/Video

Kindling a creative spark

Though the first session began with nervous laughter, participants soon settled into the exercises: sitting on the floor, eyes closed, for a session in guided relaxation, then expressing thoughts on canvas.

“Be as creative as you can,” urged Peera. “There is no right or wrong way with art. You can use paintbrushes, you can use your fingers, you can use your food.”

Quickly, conversation and laughter bubbled amongst the co-workers. Several couldn’t remember the last time they’d been invited to create art. Some hadn’t touched a paintbrush since elementary school.

Others marveled at the power of creativity and interpretation. While Rainey covered her canvas with textured shades of soothing blue, Joyce Oda-Story created a bright, abstract canvas overflowing with color.

“I call it ‘Come Together,’” Oda-Story explains. “I work in student financial services, so this is one of our most stressful times of the year. So I really, really needed this.”

Rainey was reflective. “I appreciate the opportunity to do something completely different and think outside the box, if only for an hour,” she says.

Anita Paye, director of finance systems support, found that the exercise stirred something that she often pushes aside. “I have an accounting background, but I like to say I’m an abnormal accountant because I have a very strong creative side and a big personality,” she says.

“But I need to make the time to do more of this,” she adds. “It’s definitely a stress reducer, takes you out of the day-to-day and yourself.”

For Todd Smith, an Emory Business Intelligence data analyst, being invited to step away from the rigid rules required in his work for just a moment to create something utterly unstructured was refreshing.

“I love this,” says Smith, who enjoyed painting years ago. “It’s nice to have something spark the creative flow that you can carry over back into the workplace.”

“I still have all my old paintings sitting in the basement,” he recalls. “Painting is very cathartic — it definitely takes you out of your head. I often look at them and think, ‘I should come back to this.’”

In weeks to come, some of the completed artwork will be on display on the third floor at 1599 Clifton Road.

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