by Lisa Casey, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP BD+C
During a student visit to the landscape architecture firm OvS in Washington, D.C., one summer day many years ago, the strongest impression came from hundreds upon hundreds of slides from images of van Sweden’s travels in Europe all perfectly organized in a room. Travel is often touted as an educational tool in the profession of landscape architecture, but exactly how to benefit from it is often left unexplained. In a series of essays on The Art of Travel the philosopher Alain de Botton takes a critical eye to these aspects of travel. One essay in particular on “Possessing Beauty” reveals a connection between touring and creative work.
De Botton observes that after experiencing a moment of beauty, inspiration, or truth, it is a naturally human impulse to want to keep it and to give it a sense of respect within our life. One option is to take a photograph with our phone, but such a casual tool often fails to capture the essence of what we found so uniquely inspiring in that moment. Another option is to purchase a postcard, tchotchke, or T-shirt. De Botton draws on the perspective of the nineteenth century British artist and poet John Ruskin, who exhorted the British people to take in beauty through sketches and ‘word-painting’ instead. Through identifying the sources of attraction to a beautiful space, we can own it within ourselves.
With touching vulnerability de Botton shares with us about his quirky adventure in sketching a hotel window and composing a word painting of an office park. He does not share the results except to assure us that they are both quite bad, but that is not the point. Ruskin preferred the thoughtful seeing behind a poorly executed sketch more than the reverse. De Botton presents himself as the average human with a desire to appreciate the beauty around him and demonstrate that we can all do the same.
De Botton does not dwell on the failure of his childlike drawing and only makes a passing comment of gentle self-deprecation. However, as a professional creative, I have noticed that landscape architects often assume they should already be consummate sketchers. Actual practice may reveal gaps that can cause some debilitating self-consciousness. Even if you know that the seeing is what brings the real value to your creative work, performance anxiety can be a barrier.
One ploy when feeling less confident about sketching is to ask yourself how you have failed today. In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman relates the story about an entrepreneur who grew up with her father asking the same question every day over dinner. “What did you fail at today?” She later went on in her late 20s to invent a new product and establish a highly successful apparel company. Creative growth comes from trying new ways of seeing. Sketching is a great way to feel like you have accomplished that objective of failing at something for the day. Another approach is to recognize that you may not like your sketch today but may like it another day. Such frameworks can counter an overly critical eye in the moment.
What to draw? De Botton sketched a hotel window and in the process observed the many nuances of a window to which he had hitherto been blind. At first there is value in drawing anything that you would like and almost any subject can be turned into a nice sketch with appropriate composition, line weight, and so forth. But after a while you may find yourself disengaged. Another tool to approach sketching is to see it as a form of truth. You are sharing a particular way of seeing the world. It can be lighthearted and joyful or insightful and profound. In de Botton’s essay “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh realized that even with the countless paintings made in Provence, no one had noticed the farm laborers and set about revealing the truth of them on canvas. One idea could be to capture the essence of a city that you visit with only three to four sketches or some other quest that captures your imagination.
De Botton’s essay points the way to something that is of great value to our profession. As we observe the world around us with what works well and the why behind that, we can bring better solutions to our work. It is a way of sampling broadly to strengthen our specific work. It aligns with a quote that Friedman has in The Best Place to Work on Steve Jobs’ perspective for creativity:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
We can connect the dots of creativity one sketch at a time.
Lisa (Horne) Casey, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP BD+C is an associate at Studio Outside in Dallas, Texas and past chair of the Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network. She may be reached at lcasey (at) studiooutside.us.