Does an artistic education ever end?

I started my college education majoring in architecture. This made perfect sense, really. I’d been spending hours upon hours, of my own accord, after school and during the summers drafting floor plans for houses since the sixth or seventh grade. While my friends went to parties or played ball (granted, I loved to play football or tennis or ride bikes with them too), I was often in my room, at my desk, putting to paper some sort of ingenious home design.

After two years pursuing architecture formally, I ended up changing majors for tangential reasons — reasons not related to my love for architecture, which had only grown. I switched to fine art, largely because it seemed like a logical step at that point in time (as much as college students are able to deduce such a thing).

I started studying graphic design, since it was the practical course within the fine arts degree and since my father, like many others before him, asked regularly how I was going to make a living in life. However, the graphic design professors at my university were positively awful teachers. One fell asleep in the middle of class on multiple occasions while beaming Wolfenstein onto the screen in front of the class, another had a fetish for magenta (among other things, reportedly) and a third took an independent study approach to teaching and our class only met about four times during the course of a semester. Needless to say I didn’t feel as though I was going to learn all that much more from them in the upper level classes.
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Perspective on place

Character talking about a building she plans to purchase:

This place had a long history before us, has a long future after us. I keep thinking it’s apart of our lives, but, really, it’s the reverse. For a little while. . .I don’t know. . .it’s like we’re apart of its life.

Gilmore Girls episode 69

Small silvery living spaces

In the past year or so I’ve become somewhat fascinated by the idea of owning an Airstream travel trailer. This is new for me. At some points throughout life I may have given brief and cursory consideration to owning an RV, but until recently never serious consideration. They cost too much, you have to store them, maintain them and so on.

This began to change last summer when friends visited on their way home from Washington state. All of the camping sites near town were full, so they parked their little camper on the slab in our backyard for a night. Something clicked at that point that allowed me to more seriously consider life with a camper.

Backyard shed with potential

This new thought was furthered this summer as I started a backyard project, building a shed, in order to gain room in the garage for a wood shop. As I got into the project, I began to imagine the possibilities in the lumber I was using. The possibility for a tiny house, living in a tiny space. Or a studio.

I’ve always loved the challenge of designing for small spaces (as do most architects, apparently, smaller than skyscrapers anyway). There’s so much less room for error than in a large space. It demands a higher level of organization — not that larger spaces shouldn’t also aspire to a high level of organization — and the client and designer have to know exactly how the space will be used.

The shed project — combined with Facebook photos from a friend refurbishing an Airstream, milling his own lumber (mesquite) for the flooring — brought me back to these sleek, aluminum houses on wheels this summer, to living in small spaces.

I still don’t know what I’d do, exactly, if I owned an Airstream trailer though. First off I’d have to buy a vehicle to pull it, then have somewhere to go often enough to warrant ownership. The practicality of it still nags at me when I remember some RV parks charge as much to park your trailer as it costs to stay in a hotel.

But the idea of being able to take your house with you somewhere, sleep in your own bed when you travel (to a degree) use your own kitchen on the road instead of having to eat out so much, these are happy thoughts (even considering how often I lament the transient nature of our American culture).

And of course, come Scissortail it could function as artist quarters as well.

Are small towns worth saving?

Abbot, Albaville, Burkett, Berwick, Cameron, Easton, Home, Junctionville, Loyola, Marengo and 10 more. These were the towns in Hall County, Nebraska, that didn’t make it. Each one had its own post office. Some were personal ventures, other cooperative and still other were business related. Many were around for a very brief period of time, hoping the railroad would come through. When it didn’t, they died off. Some were around for 50 years.

In the scheme of the developing western United States, the challenges small towns face now look a little different. The rails have already been laid for the most part, trucks allow people to live in remote places without growing all of their own food. The internet allows people in rural America the option of living with the same luxuries, if they have the money, as the people in large cities.

Small town America as a charity case
Last week, Damaris at the Internet Monk suggested the church in America make small towns a new mission field. She lives in a small town that just lost its grocery store. The owner retired and there was no around to replace him. “Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project? . . . running a doctor’s office or grocery store in rural America isn’t typically considered missions by many Christians. But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here?” That in itself is an interesting question, but it’s not the question that really prompted this article.

In the comments following Damaris’ appeal, a few people began to question the validity of saving small towns in the first place, let alone with church monies. Some people were suggesting we should, perhaps, just let them die — maybe even help them close up shop.

Should a small town try and be revived, or should it die?

Life in a small town — and by small here I’m thinking 2,500 people at the very most — wasn’t something I ever really wanted in life. My idealized space was always the countryside outside of a large city or the actual core of the city. Living in Siloam Springs, Arkansas for more than six years (not exactly small by rural standards at 14,000 people, but half the size of anywhere else I’d lived at that point) probably opened the idea up to my subconscious. Giving serious consideration to Hazelton, Kansas was the first active step in my considering life in a small town, very small. The past month I’ve been pondering a property for the arts center in the even smaller Kansas community of Ada, which appears to be made up of all of 8 named streets.

Who makes the call?
If we say that we think small towns should die, who makes the call? How small is too small? Do some small towns have cultural value that gives them precedence over their peers that might not have a museum or small college?

The debate over the value of rural America is actually already underway. A few weeks ago I heard a news bit about whether or not road maintenance in some of the more the rural parts of Nebraska should continue to be funded, or simply be forgotten at the state level. Fuel taxes are among the highest in the country in Nebraska and they still don’t cover the cost of highway maintenance.

Even if current sentiments and economics seem to suggest certain small towns are not worth keeping around, these may not be the best way to place value on rural communities. Some things about rural life can and have been argued for even as the world becomes more and more urban, and these ideals are worth fighting for.

When I was in college I took a community planning course — unfortunately I only had time for one. One of our projects was to anticipate the growth of our own city, Lincoln, Nebraska. The projects were then evaluated by a professional planner, and after the critique our professor pointed out that we all assumed the city would get larger. Why do we always assume our communities will grow?

What happens if we decide we need to shut down small towns now and then in 100 years see a need for them again?

The new small town
Is there an in between, does it have to be all or nothing? Is there a new look for small towns, can they persist, indeed flourish in a new way that hasn’t necessarily defined yet?

When thinking about Hazelton and Ada, I’ve realized quickly that the internet presents business opportunities that were formerly not an option in rural communities. Hobby farms or organic farming might work as Americans (thankfully) continue to become more and more aware of where their food comes from. Rural places will have to find ways to leverage their less-considered natural resources in order to attract outsiders. A good example of this is the Star Party in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Some sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but I believe creative individuals — people who think outside the American lifestyle box — will be able to make it work. How would you make life in a small town work?

Similar syntax does not an artwork make

Fay Jones on his Thorncrown Chapel in Northwest Arkansas:

“I saw opportunity here to create architecture. The distinction I am making is that all building isn’t architecture, just as all writing isn’t literature or poetry, even though the spelling, grammar, and syntax might be correct. There is something in architecture that touches people in a special way, and I hoped to do that with this chapel.”

Fundamental flourishing

Creativity is fundamental to our humanity and a beautiful space is fundamental to our flourishing.


Via Transpositions.

Shopping for a Car: At least there’s the internet now

Yesterday we bought a car.

When I learned the old gray Toyota, which we’ve driven for the past four years, had a couple more confirmed issues I knew it was time. At 258,000 miles the car wasn’t worth putting another $2,000 into, even though it still runs well.

I loathe the process of shopping for and buying a car, although admittedly the internet has made the process much less painful. Yesterday’s adventure, ahem, still became a four-and-a-half hour ordeal. The car we wanted to test drive was at one of the dealer’s Lincoln locations so it had to be transferred. Just before they drove it to Grand Island, however, someone in Lincoln wanted to buy it. The local salesman and his manager fought for us (and their own commission) and in the end the car made it to our town, albeit two hours late.

Here's hoping the new car lasts us 10 years.

Regular readers will know, moreover, I loathe the fact that I have to own a car at all. I would rather walk or bike to work, and to the grocer and post office and church. I would rather spend the money that goes towards a car on a table saw, donation to charity, new kiln or trip to China than petrol, insurance, tires and then after it all, another car. I won’t go into more depth here since I’ve talked at length in the past about New Urbanism, community planning.

What was most interesting throughout this two week auto purchase process was that three people in the car business told me they also disliked the fact that they had to own a car, had to pay for an automobile. Two people at the dealership said this, as did the manager at the shop that changed the oil in the old car. I don’t know how sincere they were; the salesmen may have simply been commiserating with a potential customer. The oil change manager was easy to believe though.

James Kunstler’s book The Geography of Nowhere pointed out (if I recall correctly, it’s been 10 years since I read the book) how visitors to places like Disney World often can’t articulate one of the reasons they are so happy to be there: There aren’t any cars around. You walk around the park, take the ferry or monorail to your hotel. What will it take for us to realize how ingrained the automobile is in our culture? In our community design, our architecture, our economy, etc.?

The car we bought yesterday is a 2003 Toyota Corolla. It’s in fabulous condition and was a great buy. It should get twice the gas mileage of our old car — and it has a radio, and a working door handle.

I plan on it lasting 10 years. Or more.

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Intentional Observation: Antique furniture

Helping my dad out the past week in The Milestone Gallery I noticed a few intriguing things about some of the old furniture. Some cameraphone captures:

S P R A W L in Jersey

A fun (albeit slightly depressing) read from the Curator about life in the New Jersey suburbs includes the following:

The protagonist in Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L says that the suburbs are a place of “apocalyptic foreboding.” We have seen the end of the world, and the end of the world is when all the earth has become suburbia.

There is hope, I think, in the realm of McMansions and manicured turf, the place where house cats are the leading predator. The place where sidewalks just decide to stop, as if to say why are you walking? These are the suburbs. Get in your car.

To which I respond by reminding people that — as the article does — that the problem with suburbs is that they are unwittingly designed around a life predicated on the automobile. Yes, McMansions, spaghetti-string streets and strip malls create some of their own issues, but most of suburbia’s blind philosophy relies on automobile.

Indeed, there is hope. There are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints. There is community-supported agriculture on small lots. People are hiding chickens in their backyards. The number of people I see riding bicycles has tripled in the past year.

Read Thomas Turner’s Suburbs and Sprawl and Sidewalks! Oh My! via this link.

Interstate rail is OK, planned cities are better

Apparently a number of Republican gubernatorial candidates have stated they would reject federal funding intended to establish high speed inter-city rail lines in the U.S. according to Grist. They claim the money should be used to repair existing roads and worry about cost of upkeep to the states after such rail lines are built.

First off, if state and federal governments were planning in a responsible fashion, shouldn’t there be money to repair roads already allocated in an existing fund (not that I actually believe they are planning in such a way, but they should be)? Secondly, in theory rail will lighten the load on interstates meaning there won’t be as much money needed to maintain the roadways.

The article, which starts with a quote by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — also a Republican — found on Twitter, also includes some interesting words from a LaHood blog entry:

We’re talking about nothing short of transforming transportation much the same way the interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower. Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said, “No, thanks — we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere?”

If you think the United States can afford not to compete with the European and Asian nations who have embraced high-speed rail and other innovative infrastructure . . .

While I’m all for more public transportation options — I’d gladly take the train to the in-laws for Christmas if I could, making that trip so much more productive than being behind the wheel on that seven hour drive — competing with Europe or Asia is an irrelevant point when it comes to interstate rail. Not applying a potentially useful technology in the context of our own country is silly, assuming we can come up with the funding in a responsible manner, but the context is key here. Just because something is good for other countries doesn’t make it good for America.

And as much as I’d like a high-speed interstate rail system in the United States, I’m personally more interested in seeing time and money invested in transforming our addicted-to-automobile communities. Travel via interstate is a much more logical use of a car than in town anyway, where we could actually be walking or biking to the grocery store and post office if we planned our communities in a way that was not wholly auto-centric.

Adding: Why can’t high-speed rail be a private venture?