Archive for May, 2010

irons and fire

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I did something this weekend that I hadn’t done in maybe….45 years? I ironed a shirt.

Wash and Wear has been steadily improving since 1965 so I hadn’t really needed to iron but the wrinkles were there as was the iron and board and I thought, “I can do this!.”

Its funny how muscle memory comes back. Its been a long time, but I found myself knowing how to proceed along the shirt, managing to work the wrinkles out of the back, front, and sleeves without “ironing-in” more wrinkles.

I was remembering Mom teaching us to iron. We started on handkerchiefs, moved up to pillow cases and sheets, and once we quit “browning up” the items we were ironing (I stopped moving the iron once when a really compelling scene played by “Bozo the Clown” came on WGN) we graduated to ironing Dad’s shirts.

Like shoe shining, ironing paid a little bit, maybe a quarter or so, but back then, eight quarters meant a new Revell, AMT or Monogram model, and three more meant new paint colors!

I was also remembering, it was one of the few times we could get one on one time with Mom. When she was teaching us, we’d have her attention, until a scream, a crash or a thump would divert her to another part of the house. (who was that thump?)

I remember the ironing lessons, like the bowling lessons (push, swing, glide, release) and the friday night at the fights wrestling events, (didn’t Lori always beat us?) (unless we cheated and tickled) all took place in the “new addition” as we called it.

This strikes me as odd since it was the only addition to the house back in those growing up years. I remember the addition was built by Dad and a fellow named Ted who was a carpenter I think. John and I hammered nails into the plywood floor there and it had some sliding windows that we still call “the andersons” and each of us kids knows which windows they are.

Like a few projects, the addition didn’t finish up all at once, and I think there still is a switch that dangles on some wires over the dryer to turn the lights on there, and the dimmable light in the middle of the room, that we once pulled down low over the card table to work puzzles, now is too low to walk under without clanging my head.

The addition could be reached by either walking through the kitchen, utility room or by walking through the bathroom and dressing room. This whole-house loop became an endless loop for us to chase each other, our dog, and sometimes the rabbit around the first floor.

I’ll be back to see the addition again this summer, will be again amazed at how small it seems, remember the floor fans we’d all lay around on hot summer evenings, watching the first color tv! I think we all watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan there, the tv debut of the Jetsons, and after school with Paul Revere and the Raiders. (What were we thinking?)

All these memories came back to me as soon as the hot iron hit the cotton fabric yesterday. I didn’t have the tv on so I managed not to burn the shirt, and was pretty satisfied with how the final product seemed almost starched, perfectly smoothed and was the most comfortable thing I ever put on. (warmed clothes are pretty comfy)

Amazing the things that triggers memories of out past.

Be good to each other this week!

when you get to the fork in the road…take it

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

“When you get to the fork in the road…take it.” I think Yogi Berra is credited with that little nugget of wisdom. I heard someone say it today on the radio and like most of my odd cascades of thought, it triggered my memories of the people who stood at the fork in the road at some point (that became a key point) in my life.

Its going to sound like I’m not grateful for everything everyone has contributed to my life (remember “people come into our lives for a reason, or a season…” and however it worked out, i learned from every knock in the head from the panchesin brothers, the handgun held to my forehead by that fellow named Marmesh (guns in dorms are a bad idea), mr. t in fargo, not living up to his partnership principles, I’m sure I’ve learned from all of them but I can’t say they were positive forces in my life at this time.

The first person I remembering changing my life direction was my friend Rick. We had shared all kinds of Mitty-esque improvisations, some social indignation (who doesn’t in high school?), some losses (Greg and Dusty) but one day we were looking at the graduation order on the high school counselor’s door and both of us were in about the same place (not tellin…) and he was talking about going to college. I’d never thought of college until then. Rick talked about the process for applying to NDSU and the architecture program and how they were going to pay him to be a dorm resident assistant (but he wasn’t on duty the night of the Marmesh thing) so he encouraged me to apply, helped me with addresses and things, and soon I was sitting up at the kitchen table in the middle of the night waiting for Rick and Mike to pick me up and drive me (with my one footlocker) up to Fargo to go to college! Amazing.

Mom had one more lesson to teach me that night, showing me how to play different poker games, and taking pretty much all my travel money in some game called “in-between.” I thought she was going to give it back and when Rick pulled up in the 66 Bonneville, or was it a Catalina?, (either way I think it was the largest car ever built) I asked Mom for my money and she said “no and let that be a lesson to you, don’t play cards for money!” It was to be one of a series of life lessons that wouldn’t be initially positive, but upon reflection I can see that I learned something….

The Bonneville’s (I’m pretty sure) cavernous trunk swallowed up my footlocker easily and I tumbled into the back seat for the 14 hour drive. I remember Rick had two eight track tapes (and a pioneer player?) one was the Doors, and the other was Carole King… I can still sing most of those lyrics.

I met a second person at a fork in my life during the second year of school in Fargo. Late one evening I was working in the studio, standing up at the drafting board, which I had tilted up to save my back, when I became aware of of someone watching me. I looked up to the top edge of the board and saw two eyes and black hair, then Professor Loh stepped out from behind my board and asked “do you want to be an architect?” It was late, I was tired, and had only known Professor Loh from his fierce reputation. Back then almost every faculty was fierce. I remember walking into a review as a freshman, when a faculty from Australia stood up, took a dime (it was 1971 after all) out of his pocket, leaned down and slowly rolled the dime across to the student who was not looking too confident standing in front of their work. “Pick it up.” Professor Pike said, “go ahead, pick it up, and go call your mother and tell her you’ll be home tomorrow because you will NEVER be an architect.” Holy cow!

When Professor Loh asked, I said “yes, sure” doing my best Fargo accent (should’ve added a “you betcha”) he told me to be in his office first thing the next morning.

I knocked on his door, he invited me to sit (Thonet bentwood chairs I think) and asked me “What do you want to learn?” I told him the courses I was taking, structures, professional practice, studio…. and he cut me off saying “No, what do YOU want to LEARN?” I stammered around for a bit, and realized I had no clue what I wanted to learn, no clue that I had a choice of what to learn, I’d always thought the curriculum was a given, that you had to learn what they taught, here was someone telling me no, that wasn’t enough.

He finally threw me a lifeline and offered that I might want to learn about how to see and break apart a problem. Feeling like Ralphie after he told Santa he wanted a football for Christmas instead of a Red Rider something something bb gun, I nodded to Professor Loh. He gave me some books to look up in the library and read (my first card catalog adventure) and told me to come back in a few weeks. As we met, he showed me how to see a larger problem as smaller and smaller parts, how to map the parts for interrelationships, structure the parts according to ways of moving through buildings (linear, centroidal/radial, field) and how to put it all back together again.

Every quarter for four years he did that….and near the end, I kind of had answers to what I’d like to learn. One day at the end of fourth year, he asked me again. I said “I want to learn the problem solving process for large urban development plans” or something similarly silly. He stopped me cold with a wave of his hand saying “no, it is time for you to learn about mystery in architecture….and I cannot teach you anything about that.” He left NDSU that summer with his wonderful spouse Alice, they went to San Luis Obisbo. Professor Loh is listed as an emeritus faculty on their website. I’ve written to extend my thanks, and hope the message gets to him.

It turned out, learning about the mystery in architecture was really hard. I flailed about thinking it was in the light, or in the scale and then back-burnered it and accepted an invitation to teach. Cecil Elliott was the new department head at NDSU and hired me and Dennis, who’d graduated a few years ahead of me. That first year teaching was one terrifying moment after another. Cecil would take Dennis and I out for dinner and somehow calm us down and get us refocused for the next day in the studio or the classroom. Cecil was the first person to talk to me about how students learn, about letting people make their own mistakes, and being there to help them back onto a path towards success. He also said we had to make each point three times, in three ways, so one of the ways would “stick” with the student. That first year was kind of a mess (sorry to you all who experienced that) but by my third year of teaching (alternating with practice every other year) I was feeling pretty good about my teaching.

Friday, as I was greeting students coming off the stage in graduation, I thought back to a lot of those students from NDSU. Darla is a successful faculty and kind of an academic entrepreneur. Cindy is back teaching there, Dale and most others are architects, having had long careers by now and are almost to retirement!

Back to the point… In my third year teaching, Cecil and I went to dinner, and he told me he wasn’t going to hire me anymore. I was kind of floored, I thought it all had been going well, but he explained. If I was going to keep teaching, make a career in teaching, I needed a graduate degree in architecture, “and not from anyplace in the Midwest, go where they don’t think like people here.”

Summer came and I was back in the office in practice. Deaner, Steve, Harold, and even Rick made up the office team, with Fred anchoring specifications, and David, just back from his Master’s degree. David and I had set up a small business (that folded pretty quickly) where we had lots of time (hence the folding) to talk. He was super enthusiastic about the school he had graduated from and the faculty, Milka (emeritus and still a force), Charles (now a university president!) and like Rick did for me in high school, David connected me with the addresses, and people to talk to about applying. That summer I sold my sports car (you cannot get dual Su carbs to stay in sync long enough to start a car at -40 anyways) and drove around the country touring schools of architecture from Fargo to Boston and down through Virginia. At most of the schools I could recognize what they were doing, functional diagram, extrude, render… no mystery there.

At Virginia Tech, I walked in the door saw a group of students making models that weren’t stylized, inflated boxes but were bones. Very nice bones too, beautifully proportioned, clearly structured by an underlying geometry, I went over and was talking to a student, describing what a powerful entry sequence they had developed. The student said “no, its not a building, its 3 and 7.”

Again I was floored, I had no idea what these people were talking about but, it did seem mysterious enough so I applied, was accepted, sold my sensible sedan for a 300 dollar pickup, (didn’t think to look under it and see the blocks of wood wedged in the broken springs,) and set out for Virginia. As I pulled into the driveway of the apartment in Blacksburg, every red light on the dash appeared, the engine made some bad banging sounds and I coasted into a parking space. I think it was towed away by the person who finally bought it. So I did lots of walking and the day I was walking along the highway, footlocker on one shoulder, chain to lock it to the desk on the other, a car pulled up next to me, slowed, and honked…it was David!

He had moved to Atlanta, and his spouse had parents in Blacksburg! What an amazing moment, well, until you realize Blacksburg is a really small town if someone you know is in town, you’ll see them or they’ll see you before long. But it was great, David introduced me to his parents in law, they let me take a hot shower (no power to my apartment yet…hmmm…and today the hot water heater blew so it was a cold shower for me here…maybe that’s why I’m typing all this?)

The first week of school was also mysterious. Professor Brown gave us all (4th year, first professional masters students and one year post professional students like me all together) a project, told us presentations were on Friday, then left. That Friday, all the students are posting beautiful colored-pencil diagrams and those odd bones models while Tom (another architect in the class) and myself posted dozens of sheets of analysis of the problem. Professor Brown walked from one project to the next, talking about the potential for wonder and architecture in each. When he got to my analysis, he lifted each sheet slowly, looking carefully at my work (I was feeling like Ralphie when he turned in his Christmas “theme”) and then without raising his voice or asking a question said “there is no architecture here” pulled the pins from the wall and let the drawings flutter to the floor. Again, I was stunned. He kept on talking about wonder and architecture and came to Tom’s analysis, same thing happened.

Tom and I spent that evening in the Cellar, with pizza and beer. I remember us saying “we have cards in our wallets that say everything we DO is architecture!” (a clear sign of too much beer.) And I think I said “well, I came here because I had no idea what they were doing so I’ll bite.”

I spent the next 10 weeks on every Sunday morning (exposing my unchurchedness here) photographing the student’s desks, then every Tuesday and Wednesday night watching slides while I ate at home. I finally started to see what Professor Brown meant when he spoke of “the architecture of brick or the architecture of the water’s edge, or the architecture of a wall” and Professor Loh’s words rang in my ears. The mystery of architecture at last!

Professor Brown taught me architecture as Professor Loh had taught me problem solving. After a few years of practice (see reference to Mr. T and his lapse in the early paragraphs) I was fortunate to be invited to interview for a teaching position at Virginia Tech.

I was pretty nervous in the interview. My slides were bad, an even balance of over and under exposed diagrams and pictures, and I was talking like I was at a school board meeting, pitching our firm’s services. The faculty was very polite, tossing me mostly softball questions but there was one that again changed my direction in life, and one that took me up to the day of my interview with the promotion and tenure committee for that all important tenure decision.

The life changing question came from Professor Ferrari, who is credited by many with having built the pedagogical side of the school at Virginia Tech, with Dean Burchard forming the political and organizational landscape. Professor Ferrari asked me to back my slides up to a drawing I had made of the plan of the Pantheon in Rome (a building I hope to see one day.) With the slide up, he asked “so, are you closer to the white or the black part of the plan?” without thinking I said “the black.”

Without really knowing what I was doing, I had just committed to a career focused on the fabric of the building, its structure, its enclosure, its surfaces, and somehow looked past the white part of the plan, which was the space enclosed by the black lines describing the exterior walls. I didn’t know until a few years later, that Professor Ferrari had asked another fellow that question in the same faculty search. Frank and I finally figured it out some years later, it might have been at a memorial service for Professor Ferrari I’m not sure.

The other question, that took me six years to answer, was asked by Professor Rott, who still shapes the graduate program at Virginia Tech with his high standards for clarity in thought and word. He asked, “on what grounds, other than health, light, air or code, do you argue for a window in a wall?”

Six years later, I’m sitting across the granite table top in the dean’s office (a great design by Bob Dunay) and all of a sudden it hits me. Professor Rott didn’t ask, but I offered that I had the answer to his question six years prior. “The presence of the wall.” He knew what I meant right away.

Thirteen years later, a fellow named Cho changed me, but instead of offering a fork in my life path, he forced one. A few years after that a fellow named Tyler, who I never met, showed me another fork in the path of life, maybe the most noble one I’ve come close to.

My daughters regularly teach me about faith and strength. I’m not sure they know that but I think of it every day.

In a tree, the fork in a limb is often a weak point, a place where there is a split, a crack, and a failure waiting to happen the next time the wind comes up. I think these life forks could’ve been that way. Changing ones path in life is always risky, you never know how it will go, who you will meet along the way, but I believe there are moments when people show you a quality, speak to you sincerely, and it hits you just at the right time, when you’re open, receptive and ready to risk.

So, its another “Forest Gump” ending, like a box of chocolates, you never know what that person you’re standing next to might be able to do for you, they almost never know what they’ve done, (unless you tell them) never know that their moment of insight, of sincerity, has entered you because for some reason you were ready.

The flip side of that might be that if we’re not walking around open, ready, sensitive to what people are trying to tell us through their words and actions, we might completely miss the taking the fork in the road.

Soooo, be open, be ready, be respectful of those you meet each day, they might just change your life.

Be good to each other.
Take Care

yesterday’s painting

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Yesterday’s painting happened like this:
elements of the past are stitched around the present to construct a stable future
First I lay out a square, no meaning or intent, just a square with a square inside.

Second, I choose color. I’d been working with dark colors so I choose white for the center just to make a change.

Third, I develop the texture as I apply the color, moving the brush from the centerline to the edge of the inner square. The sun is up now, and bathes each brush stroke in low angle warm light, shadows form, cast from the liquid thickness of the paint.

Fourth, I choose a color for the outer square. I choose blue, mostly arbitrarily and mix it with the remaining white on my mixing paper. I add a bit of mixing media to thin the mix.

I apply this color to two edges of the outer square, mitering the corners as I go. The mitering comes to me as I look at the diagonals used to draw the square on the canvas.

Fifth, I run out of the blue white mix. This happens often, and since I don’t record what proportions I used to make what color, I don’t even try to match it, but take it as a sign that I should change colors.

So both the mitred corners and the two-color outer square comes from me trying to hear the painting as I paint it. Its like seeing every point of resistance, every problem as a proposition from the work to me. There is always a choice, to listen or not, and some days I don’t listen, but I did yesterday and thought about another color.

Sixth, I chose the yellow ochre thinking that when combined with the blue, I’d get a nice green. This painting and a few of my recent ones are kind of “build ups” of color. So in this one, I start with white for the center element, then add blue to the remaining white on the mixing sheet to get the outer square mitre on two sides, then add ochre to the blue to make a green for the other two sides of the outer square. Again, no mystery or intent, just thought it’d be pretty and that by always linking two colors in the mix, that the painting would hold together a bit better.

Seventh, I start applying the green from the miters outward, remembering that I had made a mistake on an earlier painting, and didn’t quite merge the two colors, but let the white canvas show through from below. It really brings your eye to the point where two colors don’t quite meet. So I leave a sliver of canvas visible and paint from the mitre outwards and fill the remaining outer square.

Eighth, I step back and look at what is on the canvas, thinking about some yogurt for breakfast, something isn’t right. the center white square is too independent of the outer square pieces. I start to get disillusioned with the piece and go for the yogurt. A piece of florist wire is laying on the counter, its a cast off bit formed when I was thinking I’d hold the lily up off the bottom of the cylinder of the tabletop pond. I open the yogurt, the foil top tears in half and I dig in the drawer for a spoon to get the rest of the foil off. I’d put the yogurt down on the counter and it made the wire twist up and catch a bit of sun. I pick the remaining foil from the yogurt to open it, grab the spoon, lift the yogurt and the wire falls back.

I’m seeing the wire, thin, a bit curved lay on the tile countertop. The tile is chunky and the contrast with the wire is strong in both the thinness of it, its curve against the grid of the tiles, and its green color against the beige countertop. I pick it up and carry it with the yogurt back to the painting. I’m standing over the painting, holding the wire, spoon, and yogurt, go to fill the spoon and drop the wire into the paint. It lays there for a quick expletive and I snatch it up. As I stand looking at the damage of the wire in the thick paint, I see that it has left a track across the high parts of the brush strokes. The track is thin, the paint is thick, and as I removed the wire, a bit of blue has been dragged into the white.

I’m thinking of how friendships begin now as I look at the blue dragged into the white, I don’t know why, but I see the wisp of blue extending into the white as the first gesture from one to another. We make these gestures sometimes out of politeness, sometimes out of compassion, sometimes as an entree to meet someone and occasionally, each little wisp of effort takes hold, a dialog of little efforts exchange between two people and even more rarely, become a mesh or a netting of efforts that become the shared experiences and gestures that hold friends together. Mostly here I was thinking about when I first met my friend Rick in high school, from that first gym class, we worked on cars, met other friends, took days off from high school, and as a group (Nancy, Diane, John and John) we cooked, saw the auto show, went to the indiana dunes, all sorts of things that bit by bit wisp by wisp bound us together in friendship. Mostly, I’m thinking of this because Nancy and I found each other again on facebook recently and I’ve been trying to think of how to describe my life since we fell out of touch (the wisps snap when you don’t maintain them) during college.

So I pick up the wire and begin dragging thin bits of color from the edge square into the white center square, bits of color across the open white mitre joint, imagining each wisp will bind the parts together just a bit more firmly. After scratching the wire through the paint in rectilinear patterns, I sweep it across the canvas, and curl it into the sweep at the end.

Now I’m thinking of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, one of the “Glasgow Four” a small group (like my high school friends) that changed the art and architecture of a city, a country, and now their few remaining works draw tourists “toshies” from all around the world to come and see their work. Macdonald’s works are mostly feminine motifs, and the continuity of the curved lines she uses seems to be a useful contrast to the rectilinear patterns I just made in the paint with the wire…so I clumsily turn the curve into a very abstract figure, cradling a flower bloom (you’d never guess it to see it) I’m feeling better about the painting now, and bring one more tiny element into it with the wire. I etch the cotyledon, the “seed germ” that architect Louis Sullivan places at the beginning of his ornament into my wisps of color thinking that this painting is a beginning of a new series of studies, and that the seed germ may bloom into something at some point.
elements of the past are stitched together around a present as the seed germ takes root

I take a few snaps with my point and shoot camera, pick up the yogurt, stare a bit more at the lily rising in the glass column on the dining table, and head to the bath to get ready for work.

All this is to say, the paintings I do begin simply, and I’m looking for something to catch me, to speak to me, like walking through a garden. I’m trying to slow my mind down enough to let something pop into my eyes and reach me. Each time that happens, I’m outside of myself, forgetting my calendar, forgetting the past, it helps me to enjoy that moment when the sun is low, the birds are noisy, and the yogurt is still cold.

I enjoy the memories and thoughts that this process brings to me, and somedays, my mind is already too busy when my feet touch the floor to have this dialogue with the work. But somedays it works.

Almost forgot, here is the overall piece.
elements of the past are stitched around the present as the seed germ takes root and the future madonna waits patiently

Thanks for helping me think of this, have a great day, be good to each other, listen to your work!

May Day

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Early May has a number of associations, some being the end of winter in the northern latitudes, some being celebrations of a new season of growth (the dance around the May Pole with each persons ribbon winding around it to brighten and renew it), some being an anonymous expression of affection (the May Basket) and an end to the twelve hour working day.

History records that in Chicago, a labor strike to support the formation of the 8 hour work day would erupt into a chaotic scene with a small explosion in Haymarket Square that would forever be associated with the emancipation of working class Americans (to work only 8 hours a day) from the expectations of the privileged class who lived off the 12 to 16 hours of daily labor of others. The start of May is thus associated with workers in many countries.

A worker labors to live I think (and it could be a professional lives to labor.) In agricultural America, work had been seen as its own reward, a source of pride, something to be accomplished with skill and discipline, and when one is observing the work of a dedicated person, the hallmarks of pride in a job well done might still be observed. Accuracy, on-time completion, a visible ingenuity, and follow-through connect a task well done with thousands of similarly proud workers around the world.

All this comes to mind in early May for me, partly because it was the run-up to my few weeks of work with Dad at the lake. I was remembering tonight that the highest compliment Dad ever paid me was to call me a good mechanic, a worker knowledgeable of the tools, materials, and methods of their trade, and willing to bring this knowledge to bear in the interests of doing good work as part of a life ethic. Garrison Keilor still signs off his radio show by saying “do good work.”

Oftentimes today it’s hard to become knowledgeable about ones work. The software we use changes twice a year it seems, the time allotted to assigned tasks shrinks a bit more each year, and the people we need to coordinate with seem busier and busier each year making it harder and harder to do a job well. The stresses of less time, less support, and less familiarity mount on all of us and seriously challenge this nation-building ethic of doing good work.

A person could rightly ask, “Does something have to be done perfectly?” I remember seeing a tee shirt on a construction site in Fargo once that read “It may not be perfect, but its good enough for you.” I thought it was funny at the time, but today as I read the strain on the faces of the people I work with, work for, work under, I realize that the compression of time-on-task doesn’t just mean jobs don’t get done as well, it more importantly means that the fiber of good people, trying to do good work, because that’s who they are, is being challenged at best, and at worst, undermined, eating away at who they are, making it harder for them to show their children pride in good work. Its a scary thing to nibble away at the fiber of a persons being, one never knows when that fiber will yield under the stress, separating that persons pride in work, pride in self from their daily life.

This is pretty rambling, I know, but that’s what happens when I write late at night. Snippets of the day seem to merge. A conversation with a good fellow who proposes making something look like it’s fixed instead of fixing it, a normally patient student getting testy at the thought of reworking a problem discovered in these closing hours of the studio project, an excellent student expressing the willingness to misrepresent their own thoughts instead of quickly reworking and presenting a more handmade explanation over an incorrect polished-looking computer rendering. This same day revealed snippets of great work, follow through on questions, jumping in to cover (my) calendar misunderstanding (Thanks Mark!), a table filled with people working over the smallest nuances of language to help a struggling apprentice learn from an assessment and proceed to future success.

I really work with good people, which inspires me to do good work, and it reassures me that the privileged haven’t bent the fibers of these people too far, that they will go home with a bit of pride in having done well today (Thanks Ginger, Mallory and Hala) and as a faculty member, I felt good going home knowing I cajoled, lent confidence (and my best pen!), and respected the work of the students I worked with today.

The weekend is on us now. Typically a time when most of us think we don’t work, but really, we’re just working at other things. Working at building families, futures, relationships, and even ourselves. If you get a chance, thank those you work with during the celebrations of workers that is May Day around the world. I’ll slip some donuts into the studio to support the student’s efforts to not just appear to, but to actually do the work to do it right.

“Be well, do good work, keep in touch” says Garrison Keilor each week. To that I’ll add, “thank those who do” (especially remember your Mother’s work next weekend!)

Take Care, be good to each other.