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Balancing Creative Challenges

One of these days, Leen-Kiat Soh will finish the historical novel he’s been writing since he was 12 years old. He has already written 65 chapters, all in his native language of Chinese. It has more than 1.5 million Chinese characters so far. It is painstaking work to create this work of art—one of the most difficult challenges of all of his creative pursuits—but it’s the kind of work that brings balance and renewal to his professional life as a faculty member.

At work, Soh teaches classes in computer science and engineering and conducts research in multiagent systems, intelligent image analysis, and other applied artificial intelligence areas.

After hours, you might find him writing a song, doing calligraphy, taking a photograph, or painting a nature scene. He is a member of the Lincoln Artists Guild and has exhibited his photographs at the Milestone Gallery in downtown Lincoln. He has written more than 300 songs, recorded a music CD, and performed in restaurants, coffeehouses, and other places in Lawrence and Topeka, Kan.

Woven together, his creative works tell the story of a dreamer who is disciplined enough to work toward realizing those dreams—even if he is too stubborn at times.

“I’m quite stubborn, actually. I’m stubborn enough to say, well as long as there’s any chance of fulfilling my dreams, I’ll stick with it even though I know the odds are not good,” he says. “If you don’t do something to kindle the dreams you have, they’ll die.”

As a child, growing up in the cities of Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru on peninsular Malaysia, Soh was inspired by his parents to be creative and to teach. His mother was a teacher who loved to write; his father was a longtime elementary school principal. The family made a lot of their own home décor and engaged in other creative activities.

“I started writing music when I was 12,” Soh says. “But I wasn’t serious about it until six or seven years ago, when I bought a keyboard that allows me to digitally record my compositions.”


Keen-Kiat Soh poses with several art pieces. The sculpture on the right was done in memory of the victims of 9/11.

In his music, Soh draws inspiration from historical and contemporary events and figures as well as personal experiences and emotions. His two most recent collections, “Trail of Tears I” and “Trail of Tears II,” were inspired by a book he read about Native Americans. Some of his compositions are instrumental pieces, others are accompanied by poetry he has written.
When he paints or takes pictures, Soh is drawn to themes of nature. “I love the natural,” he says. “It speaks to me. It is very graceful and beautiful. A friend once told me that I see beauty in many things, even the small, ordinary things. For example, I just took a whole roll of pictures on dandelions.”

Soh isn’t sure that his creative pursuits make him a more creative thinker at work, but that’s not the point. “Knowing how to apply knowledge creatively is more important than knowledge itself,” he says. “The dictionary has all the words you need, but knowing how to use them to write something creatively is more important than just knowing what they mean.”

—Deb Derrick