Gallery 80 at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., is not much of a room at all. There are no windows to penetrate the whitewashed walls; the wooden floors are nondescript except for the subtle groans under the feet of passersby. Gallery 80, in fact, would be an altogether forgettable place if not for the silent two-dimensional residents who line the walls and, with a sort of otherworldly strength, elevate the space to another plane. In some museums, the architecture attempts to prop up the art. Here, the art itself provides windows with a view as high as the heavens and as wide as the expanses of eternity.
As an architect, I can say that Gallery 80 has its priorities straight. There are few places in D.C. I would rather go; indeed, there are few places in the world I would rather go. To commune with these works and have my heart speak with the hearts of these masters is like fresh water for my soul. Here in Gallery 80, I find Monet and Van Gogh. Here I find Rouen Cathedral, the Bridge at Waterloo, Green Wheat Fields at Auvers, Woman with a Parasol and Van Gogh’s self portrait from 1889. Each of these works is a touchstone for me. Each matters to me. It’s not academic; it’s personal.
My intent in citing these artists and their work is not to discuss the technical value of these priceless works of art; I’ll leave that to better-credentialed critics. My only hope here, is to explain something of myself, of my own struggle with my humanness and my art. My hope in all things is that there resonates something in my children (or other readers) as they read that will shine a light on the absurd notion of earthly perfection, the nobility of the quest for it, and some recognition that being fragile, broken and human is not only honorable but that there is wonder and beauty within their every effort.
My endeavor here is to explain a portion of the internal flame that burns deep within me and finds expression through exploration, creativity and art. When I see Monet paint the Bridge at Waterloo, multiple times, over a series of years, I see beauty but I do not see perfection. I see a man searching for his best self. I see a journey documented through simple postcards from stops along the way. In the repetition, I sense an artist beguiled by the talent he can feel but he can’t quite hold long enough to perfect. I see a fellow seeker. I see a man who loathes those things that come too easy because they have no intrinsic worth, a man who dives deep because he can.
Monet’s late work is all atmosphere and environment. His work is capturing everything that isn’t anything. He sees and tries to capture all the world that we feel and sense around us. Perfection, then, might only be achieved if his viewers actually smelled the smoke, felt the chill in the air and walked away from the painting with the sniffles from the dampness of the morning. The dive, indeed, is far too deep. The quest is impossible! The effort to duplicate what God has made is worthy. To know, in some small measure, while still a man, what it means to create as God: That is the resting place he seeks. Monet was in his seventies, suffering from cataracts and still painting daily, seeking to duplicate the natural affects of light and atmosphere in the world around him. Imperfect man will always seek, but this chimerical haven will remain a distant creative oasis, never to be attained.
I have always seen art, in all forms, as a way to order my world. Drawing, painting and writing help me push back the personal doubts that gnaw at my mind. These doubts are always ready to strike at the foundations of my own self-worth, but over the years I’ve negotiated a delicate peace with them. Art helps me maintain this peace. Without it, my mind is a constant territorial dispute around internal battle lines that were drawn when I was very young. In art I take shelter from the siege of doubt and, for a while, simply struggle with my own talents and and drive.
In this cocoon I fret and fidget with the interplay of light and dark, the gentle fall of a fabric and rendering its various folds, or perfecting a cornice detail. There are so many things to break down, to study, to criticize. For a moment at least, my mind relents in its study of the self and focuses on the work. Often this work, though satisfying, is less I hoped to achieve: Thus gently sown, the seed of self-doubt germinates anew. Yet, I cannot deny the feeling of renewed strength that comes from the time spent “away” from my daily mind. The snarling teeth of madness have no reach into the creative process itself.
Alas! As I consider my work, I feel a sting of remorse: Look at all that I’ve lost between vision and execution! Beautiful ideas and emotions spring from my core only to travel the cluttered neurons of my brain, through the fatty sinews and musculature of my body and finally fall limply onto the page. There they dance for all the world to see as deformed children of my creation, without the glory that I intended for them. Flat forms, muddy colors, created by an untrained artist. Yet, there are corners and moments within each sketch where the intent shines through and I can see a small part of what I intended to say. The essence of the artist somehow remains and there is beauty. Through this yin and yang I continuously feed both sides of a lifelong internal war.
Vincent Van Gogh is known and celebrated for different parts of his work and life. I think I feel a kinship with him based upon a common Dutch heritage and an empathy with his personal struggles. I love the expressiveness of his work, his ability to capture feeling and emotion and freeze it on a canvas. Still, when I look upon his face (as he saw it) I know there is a longing within him to be more than he thought he was being. A longing to squeeze more from himself, to be more, fail less; and, perhaps, to even struggle less with his own demons. Even the fashion he turns his face away from his own self-portrait to hide the ear he severed off his own head (in a fit of madness) demonstrates his efforts to show himself as more complete than he really was.
Van Gogh was prolific and astounding in his talent. But I don’t believe talent was his daily personal concern. I believe his personal fight with his demons, his struggle within was the true daily challenge. Van Gogh’s talent was a simple manifestation of that struggle; his prolific artistic production was a sign of the level of his fight and the all consuming nature of his desire to perfect and order what he felt and saw in his heart.
Gallery 80 is a room with a view. It is a room of reflection and introspection. Clearly, the earliest and most rudimentary work of these two masters far surpasses any of my own; however, my comparisons and conclusions are not intended to be about the end product. The affinity I feel for the work is driven by a sense of who these two men were and what was happening within them as they worked. This is the lesson. The two men were contemporaries and traveled in some of the same circles, although Van Gogh was an unknown and Monet was considered far more successful during his lifetime. Each man had his own crosses to bear. One of these men never knew he was a success because he was unable to win the internal war with his own demons and his life was cut short by a revolver fired by his own hand. It was the struggle for a fullness of expression—or perhaps sanity—that drove their excellence.
Sadly, we do not choose all of the circumstances in our lives. Each of us will be forced to reckon with moments, limitations and losses that we would not desire. But dire circumstances can lead to some of our greatest work. Van Gogh himself, produced some of his most enduring art from within the walls of an asylum.
A question floats to my ears from somewhere within the temperature-controlled banality of Gallery 80. It is little more than a whisper: “Who will you be?” I peer quizzically at the elderly couple seated to my left: They are engrossed in the audio tour; the question didn’t come from them. Far across the room to my right, a jacketed docent docent stands next to a large Degas painting: He didn’t ask the question either.
The question comes again: ”Who will you be?”
This time the voice is faintly familiar—a mixture of all of the the voices of me. A chorus of friend and foe alike. Although some of them sound different without the sneer of accusation and doubt, they are undoubtedly my own.
The question hangs before me like a cloud of summer gnats, unable to be ignored and insistent. I look out the window and contemplate a response.
I have heard it said that growing old is nothing more than the slow decay of abandon giving way to expediency. The thought of losing passion and abandon makes me cringe at the prospect of an expedient existence where life is spent in the thick of thin things. My fear of expediency—my fear of an existence bleached of the passion, whimsy and wildness of youth—leads me back to a relationship with my own madness and doubt. The self-loathing is a companion of the creativity, and they never visit alone. For this reason I give myself willingly to the madness. In my mind, I leave the door slightly ajar and set him a place at the table. I do this willingly. I choose the suffering and the self-doubt. It is a choice I have forgotten how to unmake.
This is not a place without hope. I can prepare, as can any other, who deal with self-imposed expectations and perfectionism. In my personal journey, the mental madness has but one standard when it pertains to my art and it goes something like this:
To be able to express fully and completely what is within us, wholly and without error. For just the briefest of moments to be one with God through line, space, shade, shadow and paint. Using those abilities and talents bestowed upon us by the creator to replicate this world. His world. Our world. We replicate emotion and atmosphere and excite in others feelings they feel when they experience God’s creation. This is the only perfect art and the only expression worthy of pursuit.
I will fail. I can only fail when any effort is held up to the standard of the madness. Still I can prepare. I can accept that I am on a journey and that, while imperfect, there exist moments of perfection in my postcards from the journey. There is worth in the pursuit of perfection in anything that we do, even if the final result is far short of the goal. It is a fool’s errand to require perfection in this life as a precursor to happiness, worse yet to stake our self-worth on our ability to achieve it in any one thing. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, it lies in us…” We should set reasonable goals for ourselves, be more gentle and kind with ourselves in our humanness and fragility. There is a beauty that lies within each and every human being that we may or may not realize in our lifetimes. We should not snuff it out in ourselves simply because it doesn’t arrive on our timetable.
When I think of the subject matter chosen for these great paintings that I love I can’t help but think that each subject is so ordinary. They are just normal objects or people that have been animated by the touch of a master. I hope we find more time to celebrate the normal in our lives. There is so much of it, and there will come a time when the madness will make us wish for its return. I am reminded of a poem by Mary Jean Irion called “Normal Day”
Normal day, let me be aware
of the treasure that you are.
Let me learn from you, love you,
bless you before we depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest
of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may,
for it may not be always so. One day
I shall dig my nails into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut,
or raise my hands
to the sky and want, more
than all the world, your return.
Gallery 80 is indeed a room with a view. This is a place I hope to return and report throughout my life. How am I doing? Is the madness at bay? Have I remained fair and kind with myself? Am I working on my art and remaining true to my mission? Is my art expressive and emotive? There is so much to be seen within these simple four walls. There is an old bridge in London, an old church in France, a field of wheat, a woman and her son dancing in the sunlight, and the self-portrait of a man long since dead by his own hand (in the aforementioned field of wheat no less). Most importantly within that room there is me, and there is possibility.
Deep breath. Time to stand up and go. Floor groans. The windows close and the white walls return; but the mind, once expanded, does not retract so easily. I take one more look around, wipe my eyes and make for the door. As I pass, the docent gives a knowing wink. I look back to where I sat just moments ago and I swear I can make out a plump bearded man in a beret fidgeting over two or three canvases. Unbeknownst to him a gaunt, red-bearded man sits with his back to the canvases; his attention consumed by a charcoal sketch he is working on held just 12″ from his nose. I smile broadly and step from Gallery 80 eager to continue my journey.
One of my passions is sketching. I don’t like “drawing” or “painting” per se, as I would attribute each of these to a much more rigorous and structured endeavor; yet, sketching has become one of my favorite outdoor pastimes. There is nothing like spending a few moments creating a sketch of an actual place, with actual people and things to help us remember a time or a moment. As I look through past sketch books I can still remember very vivid details about the day and place the sketch was made. I can remember the smell of fresh cut grass or the feeling of a cool spring breeze as I look at my sketches. I don’t have that experience with photographs, no matter how many dramatic images I take – I really can’t remember the place after a month or two.
An interesting article by Natalie Wolchover was written in 2012 about the ability to draw. See it here (http://huff.to/1E7eRNG). Drawing has an interesting connection to how our brains work, according to the study. One of the critical factors demonstrated by people who can “draw” is the ability to triage information. People who draw actually see the world better than those who can’t – they can see things as they are rather than allowing their minds to override visual evidence (a scary thought, no?) The researchers state: “Drawing seems to involve focusing on both holistic proportional relationships as well as focus on detail isolated from the whole.” The greatest part of the article is the hope driven conclusion – that all the great mental attributes associated with the ability to draw can be learned over time. It seems the only requirement is repetition and practice to build the skill. Not that I needed any prodding, but this article encouraged me to spend more time enhancing my budding sketching skills.
One of my professors at the University of Idaho – Matthew Brehm – was a founding board member of an organization called Urban Sketchers. This is a global group of individuals who share their work with each other in the hopes to “show the world, one drawing at a time.” I decided to start a Las Vegas Urban Sketching group and quickly set up a series of sketch meetings with some friends. We are a growing group (and welcome your attendance!) that meets every month to sketch together at a location around the Las Vegas area. You can see some of our work here on our Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/1LeDo5w)
I was asked recently about the value of a sketch. While it is easy to say that a sketch captures a portion of our community and our lives; what can we say about the value that the sketch has to the community? If there are a myriad of “sketchable places” within a community, does that say great things about its architecture, its neighborhoods and even its people? The side of me that views sketching as a problem to be solved by teasing apart the light from dark and the solid from the void, says that all neighborhoods have a location worthy of a sketch. Still, I don’t know that people are racing to suburbia to sketch tract houses as quickly as they have been racing to Rome for centuries.
It is always an interesting conversation as we try to decide on where we would like our group to meet every month. We discuss the value of sketching in many locations around the region and why people would or would not want to sketch there. I think it is interesting to step back from that conversation and look for the deeper meaning behind those words. As an architect, I am always trying to create great places and spaces where lives are enriched and somehow the world is made a better place. That may sound like an over-simplified view of an architect’s daily task list; but there remains a vibrant truth to that statement. We seek to make great places as architects, but as a sketcher I often critique many places as having nothing great that is worthy of a sketch. It is an interesting creative dichotomy that, as an architect, I try to create community; but, as a sketcher, I seek to place myself in places where community is happening. Each practice has the ability to influence the other and through the work of sketching I become a glass through which my community is weighed, measured and ultimately put to paper.
Because of these two hats that I wear, I am quite interested by the value systems that each sketcher brings to our monthly meetings. These value systems are the forces that lead somebody to draw the couple having coffee while I, conversely, spend an hour drawing the empty tables and chairs in the corner. Each sketch different, both sketches valuable. Why do we gravitate to different scenes? Is it our internal perception of what is memorable that drives our selection or is it simple aesthetics and composition? A sketch can say a lot about the sketcher as much as it can say about the subject being sketched.
I recently stopped by the house that my mother worked her whole life to build and where she ultimately died. I captured a rainy winter day of a non-descript house that isn’t very different from the other homes on the block. I would never look at this house as a place with much redeeming architectural value or “presence” that would make it a remarkable place worth a spot in my sketchbook. Regardless, it is as special to me because of what it means as much as for what it is.
Ultimately, I think that is the true value of sketching is the logging of memories. Some memories are personal and some are communal but it is up to the sketcher to triage the information within our communities. What he or she captures, they capture because they see beauty, or meaning or depth or humor or any number of values that cry out to be remembered in ink and watercolor. As a sketcher I try to listen as I visit new places and old. I listen for the beauty that whispers from the buildings that surround us. I look for the uniqueness of a shadow or the vibrancy of a stone wall shining in the sun. Sketching not only allows me to capture my world, it allows me to make a statement about who I am and what I value. A sketchbook then becomes something much more visceral as it explains the way a person sees and how they describe value. My sketches are more than a place, or a series of lines, they are an on-going struggle to truly see the world and as I see it as it really is – to capture it in all its beauty and present my world, one drawing at a time.
A guest post from Lee Lefever:
You probably know the famous scene in the movie Glengary Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin’s character tells his team to “Always be closing.” I wish it were that simple. These days closing the deal, or even getting close, comes with more prerequisites — the biggest of which is understanding. People will not buy what they do not understand. Quality explanations are the key to getting prospects to become customers. I suggest a new motto for today: “Always be explaining.”
We rely on explanations so often that we rarely consider how to make them better. Our explanations just… happen. Unfortunately, these organic explanations can fail, especially when we’re explaining a complex idea. Often the problem is what Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, call “The Curse of Knowledge.” We ourselves know so much about our product or service that we can’t imagine what it’s like not to know. The curse causes us to make inaccurate assumptions about our audience’s level of understanding. The terminology and references that sound right to us come across as confusing jargon to others, and our explanations fail.
Understanding the basics of explanation can serve as a remedy for The Curse of Knowledge and help us think differently about how we explain ideas. This is especially true in the sales process. Whether it’s on the convention floor, in the executive suite, or during a product presentation, honing your explanation skills convinces your audience that you understand their needs.
As a professional explainer — I’ve worked with LEGO, Ford, Intel, and Dropbox to make ideas, products, and services easier to understand — I’ve spent the last decade digging into why business explanations so often stymie customers and send prospects running. What I’ve found is that most people have never considered what makes an idea easier to understand or how to approach the process of explaining ideas.
To help, I’ve provided seven tips to create effective explanations that will work for prospective customers:
1. Make Your Audience Feel Smart, Instead of Making Yourself Look Smart
We want others to think we’re smart because in most cases that’s rewarded. But when it comes to making an idea easy to understand, simple trumps clever. Fancy vocabulary and extensive background information might impress customers — but, more likely, will just confuse them. Stop trying to look smart and start making your audience feel smart by building their knowledge and confidence. Dazzle them with clarity; it’s another kind of brilliance.
2. Explain the Forest, Not Just the Trees
Focus only on features and you’ll miss an opportunity to invite your audience to see the big picture. Prioritizing the details of this year’s coolest product features isn’t an explanation. Customers won’t care about the bells and whistles if they don’t understand why your product exists and why it matters to them. By zooming out and focusing on context at the beginning of an explanation, you can build a world around your product that enables it to make more sense.
3. Add Details Sparingly
Has this happened to you? You’re meeting with prospects about a new product and it’s obvious that they just aren’t getting it. They stare blankly and stop asking questions. No problem, you think, you can still bring them around with a few more points. It’s a tempting move. After all, sometimes one small detail turns that lightbulb on, right? It may seem counterintuitive, but more information won’t help someone who’s already confused. Imagine being lost and having someone give you directions that include every possible route and landmark to your destination when all you want to know is north or south, left or right. The antidote to confusion is often less information. Don’t add detail; come back to one or two big ideas you know they’ll understand. Once their heads are nodding again you can proceed, but with caution.
4. Write Less Copy, Use More Visuals
Prospect not getting it? Write more marketing copy, right? No. Jon English said it best: “words are not enough.” We’re communicating in the YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram era to audiences who are more visually literate than ever. Though often more difficult and expensive to produce, infographics, videos and diagrams can do the heavy lifting of making explanations work. For example, the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter encourages every new project to use a video to explain their idea. The company has established that projects with video have a better rate of success (30% vs. 50%). Videos offer potential funders a simple and compelling way to understand a new idea and why it matters.
5. Remember Your Audience is Human
If you think stories are for campfires, not your state-of-the-art product, then you’re forgetting that your audience is human. Stories provide a way to see how a product works in the real world, with real people. And you don’t have to be a storyteller to make stories work. In fact, the most effective stories simply illustrate a person in pain who found a solution and now feels relieved. These simple stories offer a way for the audience to empathize and imagine themselves solving similar problems.
6. Focus on Why
The best explanations answer one question: why? Why does this idea, product or service make sense? Why should I care about it? Why does this matter to me? By answering the “why” early in a meeting or presentation, you create a foundation for understanding on which to build more complex ideas. Think of an explanation like a recipe. Recipes are usually focused on “how” to create a dish. The list of ingredients and instructions work, but you may not know why. By understanding why yeast and baking powder are used, for instance, you can start to see the process from a new perspective and make the next dish your own.
7. Your Job is to Inform Smart People
No one likes to be talked down to, and if you approach explanation with the wrong attitude, it can be destructive. Science writer Steven Pinker once shared advice he got from an editor concerning condescension. She told him to treat his audience as if they are as smart as him, just not as informed. Use this important point to set the tone of your explanation. Your job is to inform smart people, not help the slowest people catch up. Remembering this will help you achieve an informative, not condescending, tone.
Follow all of these steps and you too can enlighten clients and win prospects. The first real step in creating great explanations is realizing that improvement is possible. You can become a better explainer and use explanation skills to solve problems and motivate others to care about your message. By employing the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to making explanations that work.
There are great civic and religious structures in Salt Lake and the surrounding communities. I have wanted to capture as many as I can into my sketchbook. Each has a different story or a different character to reveal. Each of them are an important part of the community they serve.
I love to sit and sketch them and to study the way in which the light changes them throughout the days and seasons, they are very dynamic places!
Washington DC is one of my favorite places to visit. I have had the opportunity to visit with my service to the American Institute of Architects a number of times over the past few years. It is one of my favorite places to sketch. There are great buildings and great details at every turn. Too often, I find myself in Washington when it is too cold to spend extended periods of time out of doors and I am not able to sketch as often as I would like to do. Still, on those sun-filled spring days when the sun warms your back, there is not experience quite as great as sketching in Washington DC.
Here are a few sketches from the last few trips.
My wife and I took a trip with our good friends, Ryan and Susie Carson, to San Francisco in 2009. I brought my sketchbook along to hopefully capture some images of the city while I was in town. We did the standard tourists things and saw a good part of the city together. I would try to find a few minutes while we all sat on a bench or had a snack to sketch some portion of San Francisco. These images are the moments I was able to steal…
I travel to Salt Lake for work quite a lot for my work. When I travel I often fill the time between meetings by sketching in a 3″ x 5″ moleskin sketchbook that I keep in my travel bag. Since I grew up in the Salt Lake Area I know of a number of neighborhoods and buildings that I want to include in my sketchbook. I am never far from an opportunity to put 20 minutes of sketching down into my sketchbook before moving on to the next meeting. Sketching some of these buildings opens my mind and eyes to the neighborhoods and portions of the community that I knew so well as a youth, but never really saw. It also helps to clear my mind as I process through all the work issues floating around in my head. These issues somehow find resolution as my pen creates lines and shades.
Many of the residences were built with pioneer hands and labor as families fought to create a community high in the mountains of the Wasatch. They brought ideas from the homes they knew back east or in Europe and set them down among the aspens and scrub oak of Salt Lake. Some are passed down from generation to generation like heirlooms. Some are homes to new families that long for pioneer values to hopefully become instilled in their children through proximity to pioneer craftsmanship. I think they are beautiful.
Sometimes opportunities to sketch just happen. Sometimes we plan to sketch and the opportunity never presents itself. Some of these sketches were happy surprises in a time or place that I had no intention of finding time to do anything. It seems that when these opportunities arise, I am more prepared to truly draw what I see in front of me. It is strange how our eyes and hands do not always see or feel the same things…
We have had a few sketch crawls in Las Vegas now with our Urban Sketchers group. It is fun to see parts of the community in a different way. Normally, we zoom around Las Vegas in cars without ever stopping to notice the details and character that makes Las Vegas. Here are a couple images from our recent work.
I have had a number of great teachers and professors in my life. I have been quite lucky to be associated with passionate individuals who love to teach. I would like to talk about two of my favorite professors today; Bob Scott and Matthew Brehm. The former was the first professor to convince me that I could draw. Not that I couldn’t pull off a decent dog or race car drawing before I met Bob Scott, but he showed me I could create professional level drawings and renderings. He taught me tips and tricks to get my hands to depict what my eyes actually saw, he opened a whole new world of possibility to me. After one semester with Bob, I was able to produce the drawing below:
When I decided to attend the University of Idaho for my degree in Architecture, I did so because the education at Idaho was based in the “Art of Architecture” and I had a strong desire to acquire that skill-set for my career. Matt Brehm was a professor at the University of Idaho that helped me refine my sketching techniques and introduced me to watercolor, and some solid pencil and pen techniques. In one of Matt’s classes we spent a couple mornings a week actually walking around campus and sketching what we saw. We would then reassemble as a group and talk about our drawings. I was able to see what others had done successfully, hear tales of what was “tried but never worked” and heard some great feedback about my own work.
I have been able to keep in touch with Matt since I left school and was excited to hear about an organization that he was a part of: Urban Sketchers. This group apparently did exactly what we had done in our course at the University of Idaho by sketching on-site and then sharing ideas with one another. I had always carried a sketch book with me when I traveled the country or when I want to meetings; sadly, the only real time I spend sketching was when I was actually far from home and wasn’t pulled a million directions by the daily grind. I missed the association of like minded sketchers and artists. I missed the feedback and new ideas from others; but I didn’t yet know how to “scratch that itch.” Learning about Urban Sketchers was like a north star breaking through the clouds, I had a direction.
I was able to find a small but committed group of professionals that were interested in starting a Las Vegas Urban Sketcher group with me. We are still a fledgling group and we are hoping to gain more friends over the coming months, but we are committed to getting together to sketch our world. As part of this group’s mission, I will begin sharing my sketches here on my blog. I often regret not being able to write for my blog as often as I could, but by adding these sketches I am hoping to share another creative side of myself that you might not be acquainted with yet. Feel free to leave feedback of what you like or don’t like, or even to offer tips or tricks that you might know. I also invite you to come out and join us during one of our monthly “sketch crawls” around Las Vegas. You can follow the Las Vegas Urban Sketchers Facebook page by clicking HERE.