Design and the Value of Education

I was speaking with a designer the other day, a peer in my world of architecture; I was explaining the design logic behind a particular solution I was offering.  I went through the discussion of design “form language”, the elements of design such as shape, scale, mass and plane.  I was speaking of convexities and concavities and how human perception is affected by each of these elements.  His response was “I don’t know what you’re speaking of, this language is new to me”.  My chin nearly hit the floor as this was about like telling your doctor that your “thrombosis was likely caused by restricted bloodflow through lower Ischial tuberosities” and he looks at you with a blank stare and says, “what’s that?”

I didn’t realize how training in the classical arts would become the basis for how I convey crazy ideas, how I articulate concepts and how I nearly bust out laughing every time I think of the shading on the edge of a pear.

The pear I was forced to draw was in reality a human, female breast and I think the only reason I think of it as a pear is through the act of repression.  I know I saw a boob but in my mind all I can see is a pear.  Many a time when the model in the life drawing class took a break, those pears would pass right before me, floating as if somehow elevated by a mystical force.  She was a beautiful woman and when she took her 10 minute break after a long pose she’d usually light up a cigarette, forget the robe and wander around the drawing ponies looking at how others saw her.  She’d lean over and look at the composition, comment on the articulation of the arm, the over-emphasis on the calf, stare in astonishment at the scale that her rump had taken on in someone’s perception – in realty, her observations were quite keen but all I could ever think of as she stopped by me was how dangerously close to my right ear her nipple was.

All those year of drawing naked people…”nipples, nuts and navels” we’d say.  I wasn’t sure if it was voyeurism, hedonism, or some other "ism" that kept us glued to the newsprint but we stayed.  Extra “free model” time on Tuesday nights was a bonus.  You’d think it a thrill but after the first 15 hours of drawing, the thrill mellows and you look forward to funny things of levity – like a loud fart by the fat guy holding a long pose.  “Will he say ‘excuse me’” becomes the bet across the classroom.

At any rate – all those years of drawing taught me the relationship of the human form.  Of proportion, and scale, of light and dark, of skin, tones and hair.  They taught me to see why some people can make you laugh, some can make you cry, some can make you lonely, all without ever opening their mouths.  Their physical form does all the talking when proportions are off or hyper-on.  Colors are mismatched…all the beauty of diversity come alive before you and you little know that one day you’ll critique building design based on those same features.  I’ve learned how to spot the true beauty of people in a way that transcends the outward appearance, its their bone structure that begins the fascination.  Drawing taught me how see.

The time spent in sculpture taught me complexity, taught me structure and planning.  It taught me how to work all ends towards the middle and to have faith that the chaotic mess before you is not yet finished.  It also taught me how to lift with my legs.  I learned this not by any brilliance of my own but in helping one of my professors move his show from one gallery to the next.  Somewhere in between the granite sculpture and the steel multi-media, Joe managed to give himself a hernia.  I still recall the pained expression on his face.  Not quite like that of the drawing model who was suspecting that her rump was indeed that big, but a close second for sure.  Scale and mass…It’ll get you every time.

Photography taught me how to compose, how to see beyond things and how to describe light.  It taught me to love the book of Genesis, the way God described to Moses how he brought the world in to being…classic art language.  “Void, great nothing, separated, light dark, waters beneath”…all great art language, all deeply describing in fine and accurate detail the reality of what was happening.  I think God created all this just so he could talk photo language to someone.  Photography taught me how to see the “whole” of something.  My prof. used to make us shoot “full frame”.  You couldn’t pull a thing over him either as he could smell a lab-worked image from a mile away (unless of course you were smart enough to bring a six-pack of Dr. Pepper, his big weakness, along to your monthly critique).

Lastly, the paint studio taught me about how that beauty of light and color all came together in the smell of terrazzo, covered in oil paint and linseed.  It taught me how to be patient as there was no way to rush paint – it comes due only when ready.  It caused me to be fearless as nothing is more intimidating than spending hours stretching and prepping a huge canvas and then being scared to death of touching it.  It taught me tolerance as well as in the late 70’s the drinking age was 18 and there was no age limit on pot.  Both flowed freely, mingled with marginal talent, bored minds and university-softened moral codes.  You’d have been far better off mentioning to this crowd that you’d been arrested for child neglect than mentioning that you were a Christian.  Tolerance at the university has it limits you know…

All these skills worked to give me a vocabulary that was precise in describing what was being done.  It didn’t matter if you could paint or sculpt or draw, but you had damn-well better be able to describe what and why you did what you did.

I got the impression from my designer friend that his lessons were aimed at something other than description and the more I investigate this, the more I find that few in this field can articulate with any conviction why it is they offer what they do.  I’m amazed, ashamed, and wondering how this could be.  Perhaps for them, being near me when I discuss these things is as awkward as when the model’s “pear” moved so close to my ear.  Perhaps each time I begin to discuss “why”, they get the same butterflies in their stomach that I got the first day the model walked in an undressed right in front of me.  Perhaps my words are as foreign as were her privates, all on display with me to evaluate not as objects of desire or beauty or lust, but merely as objects of shape, diffusion, reflection and juxtaposition.

I value those learnings, as ambiguous as they were at the time, I now see the timeless value of each hour spent and they’ve given me a bold confidence that seems so absent in the world of design.  Most important though is the profound beauty and understanding I have the design of the world around me.  Each leaf, each person, each object is a miraculous wonder to me and best of all, I can tell you exactly why.


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