I studied architecture my first year in college. In my head architecture was a hopelessly romantic combination of the technical and the artistic – I would graft shape onto these machines for living, and possess the mechanical knowledge to make sure that whatever got built didn’t fall down. But in practice, it was a lot of late nights in front of a drafting table, followed by group critiques where my fellow colleagues would try to come up with the most creative ways of ripping each other’s work apart. On the upside, I learned how to take a punch.
That spring semester ended and I spent the summer working in a historical re-enactment camp in New Mexico. The camp was a replica of a 19th century logging camp, and didn’t have any running water or electricity. All of our food came in on a donkey. Showers were not a frequent occurrence.
I spent the summer reading Walt Whitman, learning to play banjo, and teaching kids how to climb spar poles and cut railroad ties with axes. One day my entire job was to build a fence by hand. I thought about it, dug the post holes, chopped down a few dead trees, shaped them appropriately, and pole by pole, bar by bar, made the fence. It was exactly how I was realizing I liked to work. Jump into the situation, ascertain the skills necessary to do the task, acquire them, and do it. And something more. There’s a Japanese word “shokunin,” that’s clumsily translated into ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan.’ But a shokunin is really more of a lifestyle – there’s no final target, no final “thing” that’s created. You’re engaging in a vocation where pleasure is derived from continually improving doing the task you’re doing. I understood that a little more after building a fence.
By the end of the summer I’d fully decided that architecture wasn’t for me. My time in New Mexico had given me the perspective to more critically think about the architects I’d met and worked with. They all seemed too academic, too elitist. Their concept of buildings was pure and beautiful, but uncluttered by any of the people that had to live in them. The joy of creation remained at my core – perhaps I recognized it more now – but I found myself wanting to apply that joy into the telling of stories, not the building of buildings.
I went back to Florida for a week at the end of the summer to gather my things. It was a blur of visiting friends and family, and re-acquainting myself with the wonders of electricity. One evening a documentary came on. “Half Past Autumn” – a biopic of Gordon Parks.
In him I found how an aesthetic similar to mine – one that merged the narrative and the technical – could be focused and cast into almost anything. Parks was an autodidact. He grew up in rural Kansas as one of fifteen children, taught himself photography and became hugely influential in the 1940′s with the Farm Securities Administration (before being the first African American to shoot for Life). He composed pop and orchestral music, wrote over 15 novels and instructional books, directed the film Shaft, and cofounded Essence magazine.
In addition to an aesthetic, we shared a similar approach. He would dive in, focus on telling the story, and trust that his skill and maneuverability would carry him through the project. His willingness to experiment took him far. He was able to narratively tell stories about gangs in Chicago and the favelas of Brazil. That narrative focus naturally extended into film, and he relayed the story of his life in the Learning Tree, the first major Hollywood film to be directed by an African American (he also wrote and scored it). His work seemed to touch on almost every medium, every genre.
The credits rolled and I felt like I’d been introduced to a kindred spirit. I knew that even if I didn’t know exactly what I was going to focus my artistic energy on, my intent had merit. The intent was the hub of the wheel, and its eventual expression in a medium was the spoke. I knew architecture wasn’t my spoke. But I now knew that a strong core could be applied to almost any media, and that you didn’t have to just pick one.
And I could build my own wheel any damn way I cared to.