Self-education on a Cocktail Napkin
In late summer of 2018, architect Bill Tripp of Portland, Oregon was driving westward across the country. He was mid-way in St. Louis when I reached him by phone and asked if he wanted to add anything to our conversation about inspiring creative impulses, especially about his accomplished and prolific practice of drawing on cocktail napkins.
He paused with an introspective and relaxed breath and answered, “Drawing is like breathing. It is how we express what we see and experience spatially.”
Drawing is a beautiful transport when we create space to draw as concentrated practice. It is a state of mind where ideas and answers can arrive unexpectedly midstream. Tripp wants us all to reach this state by just moving the pen, pencil, and paper wherever we are for the mere joy of seeing what they like to do, listening to where they want to go. He wants us to abandon our preconceived notions about beauty and ugliness, about acceptability and shame, and especially about pressure to perform. Tripp says drawing works through muscle memory, both accessing experiences stored in the body and developing new ones. Embracing the physical aspects of drawing helps us to meld the rational and subconscious mind.
The rational mind tells us, no one keeps drawing like this night after night. No one puts themselves out in public where other people are occasional voyeurs, in an open lounge with friends, drawing on impermanent cocktail napkins, and then freely proselytizes it to the world.
Tripp would laugh and agree, yet the suspension of a static state and the relaxed environment of drawing for pleasure is exactly what keeps him thoroughly engaged in this form of learning, doing, and teaching. There is a willful abandonment in illustrating with ball point pens and markers on 5x5 tissue squares sometimes inter-exchanged with barstool neighbors. One sketches profiles, people, and protrusions to activate the imagination, to charter the waters of the unknown, to remain open.
Tripp knows something we don’t; quantity develops quality. Drawing on cocktail napkins teaches us about mark making, technique, and traditional modes of expression in architecture and art. More importantly (and non-traditionally), the physical activity of drawing can teach us about mastery of fear. If we can move beyond our dis-ease, we mystically approach a portal or transport for memory; a non-automatic channel for looking and remembering. Tripp explains, “The visual language of drawing is as rich and complex as spoken language.” This visual language reaches around words into the amorphous abstract. It is a communication method that can equally be applied as a guide for whole brain thinking and also functions as a vehicle for connection.
The Language of Drawing and the Mastery of Fear
These learning pathways came through years of foundational discovery work. Tripp’s navigational skill is accumulated from his architectural practice (some in ritual spaces and memorials) combined with his present teaching post in architectural design, theory, and freehand drawing at the University of Oregon. In watching his Instagram account @tripp_arch and his blog, A Drawing a Day (both established in 2015), one understands the close link between the profession, the pedagogy, and the creative off-hours practice. Together, they total a relationship of cultural explorations in new creative thinking, innovative drawing methods, and a constant boundary-pushing of the possible.
What makes Tripp unique as a mentor and a consummate teacher though, is his direct hand-to-hand combat with fear issues. “A well-honed visual literacy,” he says, “provides a fundamental lens for understanding the world.” Drawing should be held with the ease of a conversation. Our fear over our qualifications and skills are our biggest obstacles. Many of us believe drawing can only successfully be achieved sporadically, if at all. Tripp doesn’t want us to stay away from drawing because we fear the outcome. He reminds us, “No line is so sacred that it cannot be erased or drawn over.” It’s not the end products of drawing, it is the process of drawing that is most important. Tripp’s theory of drawing outlines a continuum, including: drawing for seeing; understanding; imagining; designing; and communicating.
Describing Tripp's methods, ideology, and how they relate to a state of being is to fully understand the word “absorbency.” For him, the "sacred" folds in with disposable and transient ephemera in a magical journey to an unknown destination. This is a boat ride requiring an expert seaman, one who steers the course of nights of generating works while carefully avoiding the craggy or predictable precious. One simply just continuously moves their moderately controlled hand without set destination, and then one waits. Does the drawing want more of us?
This openness and willingness to engage in the present are states of being where one allows the destination to come to them. Sailing these waters requires a spark from an impetus stemming from a need to “know” mixed in with work ethic and relentless curiosity. Tripp’s internal drive for exploration is fully and wholly self-directed while he recognizes the thirst is simultaneously, wholly and fully expedited by an outside entity unto its own. To draw is not to draw something. To draw is simply to draw. The idea of tapping into that voice along with the opportunity of achieving real authenticity, that is a true drawing education.
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