Winter break has now come and is almost gone already. My first semester as a graduate student closed mostly with celebration, project reviews, and a ceremonial purging of all the scraps of foam core, twisted wire, and carpet remnants that I’d been saving on my desk in studio. I also discarded a pile of paper traces and dismantled my Walker model. I was generally pleased with my grades. I admit that as a student, I’m a little rusty. That said, my current GPA is acceptable and I felt adequately challenged by the University of Minnesota’s MLA program.
I spent most of my break catching up on leisure activities. I think most of the sleep I missed during the first semester has been made up for and I might have even banked some for next semester.
Also, the winter break was a good period to reflect on my interests and to evaluate my commitment to graduate school. Frustration, lack of sleep, and a poor showing on a final exam made me question if school was the right choice for me. “Why,” I asked myself, “at thirty-seven years old, do I want to put myself through all-nighters, cramming for tests, and the accompanying hardships typical of graduate school?” But, even while posing the question, I knew in my heart of hearts that I am exactly where I ought to be right now. I am fascinated with the subject matter, inspired by my instructors, and challenged by my fellow students.
The interactions between landscape and culture have always been very interesting and inspiring to me. My studies in anthropology and photography at the University of New Mexico meant that I was constantly taking pictures of people in places. Before Peace Corps I wondered how I would spend the rest of my life. Working as an organic farmer and exploring my permaculture interests on my own was interesting but I felt I needed some further guidance. During my time abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer working with impoverished people, I realized that this sort of service was something that was important to me. I taught environmental education to students at a local school, I labored with subsistence farmers, and I participated in community development activities. I decided that I should return to school to learn as much as I could about sustainability, heritage preservation, and ecological restoration. Landscape architecture seemed the best way for me to wrangle my various interests into a cohesive life to participate in protecting places and uplifting people. I chose the University of Minnesota because of its emphases on ‘service learning’ and sustainability and I was intrigued by Minneapolis which has a reputation for both state-of-the-art design and beautifully preserved landscapes.
And so I continue to discover things about myself. Who am I as an artist? A scholar? A global citizen? What will be my next contribution? From where will I take my next inspiration?
I’ve been fortunate over winter break to begin my contribution to an oral history project sponsored by the Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the University of Minnesota College of Design. This project will collect stories not only about the rich history of landscape design in Minnesota but will also tell the tales of the people who have directed that process. I’ll be functioning as the photographer and video editor for the compilation which will be donated to the Northwest Architectural Archives.
We have already interviewed Peter Olin, Roger Martin, and Roger Clemence for the project. It is fascinating to listen as these men discuss with Carrie Ann Christensen the evolution of the landscape that surrounds us here. As they recount the moments that have led them– and us– to where we are today, I am inspired for the future and the contributions I might also make. When Roger Clemence talked about the ‘service learning’ opportunities that the University of Minnesota has created for graduate students, I thought of the work I hope to be involved in over the next five semesters. As Peter Olin cited examples of the difference he’s made for researchers in the developing world, I remembered how Peace Corps inspired me to come here. And as Roger Martin reflected on the importance of detailed observation of our surroundings, I looked out the window as a blind man tapped his cane along a snow bank on the wintry sidewalk below.
I am proud to be, as I enter 2011, exactly where I am. I’m certain that I will find new adventures through the Department of Landscape Architecture, in the sleepless nights spent pouring over design problems, and because of the various projects that will inevitably frustrate and inspire me. I am intrigued by my second semester with courses such as ‘Ecological Dimensions of Spacemaking’ and ‘Representation for Landscape Architectural Construction’ and ‘Metropolitan Landscape Ecology’. I’m also looking at possibilities for summer internships and research projects for next year. While the New Year has always been an exciting time for me, 2010-2011 has seen me embark on a remarkable journey.
Finally, for now, let me mention an ‘independent study’ of sorts that I am working on. For the entire year of 2011, I resolve to make at least one landscape photograph a day and post it on my flickr page. (You can view my album Every Day 2011 by clicking here.) After two weeks, I’m already quite happy with what I’ve seen emerge. While the photographs aren’t always of some ‘pretty’ landscape, I think they do illustrate design problems and solutions. Making the shot sometimes is challenging: Frozen fingers, low light, foggy lenses. But it always happens that once I’ve made an image, I make a second from a slightly different angle. And then something in the lens periphery draws me along to get a third, a fourth, and even a fifth. Sure, right now my world is covered with snow. But that only intensifies the hunt for what lies under, or contrasts with, or breaks right through the blanket of white.