Its been seven years since I was last expected to sit all day in the classroom. I graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2003 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology. My emphasis was on Human Evolutionary Ecology & Ethnography and I minored in Studio Art- Photography. Following graduation, I went from working as an archaeologist for the State of New Mexico to owning my own organic farm business– A Growing Sense– to finally adopting an entirely unplanned daily existence as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. As the years have passed, I’ve become increasingly accustomed to an enjoyable absence of structure.
Tomorrow though is the first day of school. Both dreaded and exciting, first days are usually imbued with mystery and revelation. These same attributes are also considered important in designing successful landscapes.
Actually school has already begun for the Class of 2013 Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. I just returned from the intensive Landscape Analysis Workshop at the Itasca Biological Station at Lake Itasca, the (accepted) headwaters of the Mississippi River in northwest Minnesota.
According to the syllabus, the Itasca Workshop was designed to “…introduce students to the ecological, artistic, and social lenses employed by landscape architects as they create meaningful and evocative places…” Thus we studied coniferous and deciduous forests, prairies, rivers, and lakes. We looked at both the designed and natural habitat (or at least as close to the ideal of “native” as one can still find) and thought about the differences between “go to” and “go through” spaces.
We speculated on geological events such as glaciation and climate change and considered how such processes have changed– and continue to shape– our environment. We discussed cultural constructs of place and some of the social impacts upon our surroundings.
Who uses this place? What are they seeking? How is this space modified to make it more habitable? What types of manipulation are needed to make this– or any other environment– a stable and usable place?
One of the primary components of landscape architecture study is the communication of our ideas from abstract thoughts to modeled expressions and- eventually, hopefully- to real designs on the ground. Through the study of plant books I will be able to identify the best trees and shrubs for a landscape. With enough attention to ecological principles, I will learn how to design sustainable spaces. And by reading theory and history, I will eventually be prepared to carry on the tradition of graduates from my, and other, landscape architecture programs.
But how does one learn to draw? By what process can a reasonably creative person become an artist?
It is this aspect of my new career as an aging student that frightens me the most. It is with great anxiety that I place my sketchbook of scribbles on the dirt next to all those other works of art. My next three years will see many opportunities to present my ideas alongside those of my cohort. Its the anxiety of creative expression that intimidates me the most as I enter graduate school.
This then was the first lesson I really learned at Itasca. I don’t mean so much the actual process of pencil to paper. That is something that has developed from sketching in the margins of notebooks in classes as an undergraduate, from drawing plans of archaeological sites, and from scrutinizing the masters in books and museums. It is something that I will inevitably become more skilled at and I will develop my own style over the course of the next few years. The lesson though: As a student, I do not have to be an expert. This is after all why I’m here. I can allow myself to be next-to-the-best. I don’t have to compete with my peers. I just have to allow myself to grow, to learn, and to accept my own limitations. That is the only way I will truly become better at expressing myself and my ideas. One of my professors, on the last day of the workshop, pushed out his chest as he mocked the notion of the LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: HERO. We are, at our very best, collaborators. Forget the idea of being the all-knowing, all-doing designer and accept that as individuals we will best serve the art of design by working with others. Let my drawings be seen alongside those of my cohort. Whether or not I’ve used the appropriate density of charcoal, applied my watercolors with artistic fluidity, or rendered the world with any semblance of precision is, at the end of the day, not the goal of this process. These are only the means by which I will work with the world around me to create, if I’m any good at all, a space to be in.