“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
Happy Monday, friends! Last week, not only did I return to the U.S. from Uruguay — where I’ll be spending the next two months, happily soaking up the Northern Hemisphere summer — but I also had the honor of teaching a sketching workshop at the AIAS Grassroots Leadership Conference, organized by the American Institute of Architecture Students in Washington D.C.
My dear mother Janell drove up from Virginia and met me in D.C. on Friday afternoon. After a delicious al fresco dinner that evening, we spent the rest of the night going over my plans for the workshop the following day. The two-hour workshop would be broken up into two parts — one hour before lunch, spent in a classroom-style meeting room, and then another hour after lunch, when the students and I would actually get outside the conference center and do some sketching together.
The workshop was called, “Connecting with the World through Art,” which you might even recognize as this blog’s tagline and the subtitle for my free eBook, Travel Sketching 101.
It’s a theme very close to my heart, and I couldn’t wait to share it with the students at the conference.
As my mom and I went through my slides for the first hour, we came upon a photo I’d included of myself and a French sketch artist named Pierro, whom I met in Paris in 2015. I’d been sketching in front of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop when Pierro walked up to me, pointed to my sketchbook, and said, “I do the same.” It was one of my first serendipitous sketching encounters in France, and I’ve remembered our conversation ever since.
In my talk for the conference, I was planning to share about my encounter with Pierro to illustrate how sketching on-location in a new place can also help us create connections with the other people around us. But as my mom and I came to that slide in the presentation, she noticed something I’d never seen in the photo before: That behind Pierro and me holding up our sketchbooks, the photo also shows a man sitting on a bench outside the bookstore, a camera around his neck and a smartphone in each of his hands.
Most striking of all, his head is lowered and his gaze is completely directed down towards his pair of phones.
“I feel like that’s the main point of what you need to share tomorrow,” my mom said. “Sketching just helps you pay more attention — it helps you look up.”
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The next morning, the first classroom-based half of the workshop kicked off, and the hour truly flew by — I loved sharing my passion for connection and sketching process with the students, and then hearing their questions and being able to connect my journey as a sketch artist to their own journeys as architects and designers.
But what was even more exciting was finally leaving the conference center together after lunch to do some sketching. As it just so happened, the historic Carnegie Library was just across the street from our hotel, so all 30 students in the workshop and I had the perfect subject awaiting us outside for our sketching session.
While the students sketched, I walked around and made myself available for any questions they might have during the process. It was also a great chance to get to know the students more individually — I loved learning their names, finding out what schools and universities they’re from, and especially hearing more about their plans and ambitions for once they’ve graduated.
Many of the students shared with me that while they took sketching and drawing courses in the first year of their architecture programs, they’d since switched to using digital drawing software and haven’t drawn by hand since — a few students even said they’d never sketched by hand at all.
This was something I’d already read about while preparing for the conference, in a 2012 article for the New York Times titled “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.” In the piece, late postmodern architect Michael Graves writes:
“The referential sketch serves as a visual diary, a record of an architect’s discovery…These sketches are thus inherently fragmentary and selective. When I draw something, I remember it. The drawing is a reminder of the idea that caused me to record it in the first place. That visceral connection, that thought process, cannot be replicated by a computer.”
All year, I’ve been fascinated by drawing’s ability to help us create stronger memories — so I loved stumbling across Graves’ article, learning about how drawing and memory relate to the field of architecture, and then seeing the students in my workshop reconnect with drawing by hand this weekend.
But what struck me most of all during the hour we sketched on Saturday, was simply seeing how the students kept looking up at the library as they captured it in their sketchbooks.
It felt like such a powerful testament to what my mom and I had observed in the photo of Pierro and me in Paris:
That instead of looking down at our devices and missing the world around us, sketching draws our gaze upwards and out into the world, where beauty and discovery await us.
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I couldn’t be more grateful for getting to connect with such an inspiring group of students in this weekend’s sketching workshop in D.C. 🙂 Thank you, AIAS, for the chance to join you all!
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