My research and original creative work progress along two separate but frequently overlapping paths: first, the analysis of and instruction in hand-sketching skills through the cognitive framework of expertise theory relative to the idea of thinking through drawing; and second, drawing as a means to access memories and confirm moments – the attempt to recover the ephemeral visual links of a past connected to the soul of a place once occupied. My collaborative research with colleagues addresses design thinking based upon empathy and emotional intelligence as measuring devices to determine degrees of emotional investment in both the act of drawing and the drawings themselves as evidence of creative ideation.
Rural References and Re(Collections)
“I knew tobacco. On family car trips, we sang out the names of the crops we passed. Corn was the easiest, of course, and the most prevalent. Massed and low-growing dullards such as soybeans were a disappointment. But oh, tobacco, with its dramatically changing appearance: deep green in the summer with symmetrical broad, fleshy leaves; then crowned with yellow-white heads; and finally stripped and plucked in fall, with pathetically naked stalks.
From the backseat I’d vainly try to fix my eyes upon a single row before it blurred and vanished, swallowed into its whole. In the middle of this vast nowhere stood a lone wooden structure — tall, gabled, unpainted, windowless, weathered, and as instantly recognizable as the crop itself: the tobacco barn.”
— The Story of Tobacco Barns in North Carolina, Susan Stafford Kelly
“The barn is a vernacular architecture. It is a reflection of the people and history of the region. Few of us can determine the age of a barn or its specific purpose at a glance, but we admire the classical proportions, the honest design and sturdy construction, and the use of native materials, and we can imagine how the building represented the aspirations and success of its first owner.”
— Barns, Charles Leik
The place I grew up in was constructed of an architecture rural in its roots and eternal in its existence: the barns and outbuildings of small tobacco farms. The visual backbone of many a rural North Carolina tobacco farm, the tobacco barn is a most fascinating building as it positions the farmer as accidental architect. It preoccupies a vivid childhood memory of mine of a summer picking tobacco in Randolph County — “priming baccer” as we called it.
Tobacco farming was a huge family affair in our town that involved several generations coming together during harvest, curing, and selling. The largest family in our town was the church family. Turns out that the head of that church family, my dad, had two young boys available once school was out. I guess we were fair game for summer labor since they were paying dad’s salary. So during the summer of 1975, Mr. and Mrs. Flint thought it would be good to have the preacher’s kids work on Mr. Flint’s brother’s tobacco farm.
The very first morning we had a choice of hanging the leaves in the barn with the girls or going out in the field and picking the stuff with the guys. Clearly, we made the wrong choice. We picked tobacco in the early morning heat and humidity of a piedmont, North Carolina summer. We loaded the tobacco in a decaying wood sled Mr. Flint pulled behind his tractor. The rows were never-ending, but the day was. Mr. Flint worked us hard but fair and didn’t let us broil too long.
Mrs. Flint would bring us homemade peanut butter crackers and cold Cokes in those little glass bottles when we were done. Mr. Flint would hand us a $10 check, load us onto his flatbed truck, and haul us into town to the local bank when the day was over.
“The aroma of tobacco still clung to the barn’s interior, a scent at once acrid and comforting, deeply masculine, and of the earth. Amid dust mites lit by the daylight that slanted through chinks in the walls, I tried to paint a picture: of workers, often women, standing in the open-air tying shed adjacent to the barn, pulling cotton twine from a spool to skillfully string the three aligned stems, or “hands,” of leaves to a one-inch- square, six-foot-long tobacco stick.
Workers loaded the sticks on a V-shaped structure, then passed it person to person inside the barn, where someone straddled a network of parallel, horizontal rafters, or “tiers,” strategically placed so the sticks would fit between them. Hence the tall, narrow shape of the barn. One by one, the laden sticks were positioned across the tiers, leaf stems tied to the stick, leaf tips pointing downward.”
— The Story of Tobacco Barns in North Carolina Susan Stafford Kelly
A barn sketch can become an act of reclamation – an attempt to recover the ephemeral visual links of a past connected to the soul of a place we may have once occupied. A simple drawing of a simple rural building can give us a much needed measure of high touch in a world bound by high tech. Today, they are backgrounds to my adult transience. I see similar places now but only from a distance and always in motion. I am drawing, literally and figuratively, on my past to remember a measure of my present.