Basketmaking on the Island of St. John (Video)

virgin_islands_national_park__virgin_islands_usIf you have been following my blog then you already know that I moved to St. John, USVI in the summer of 1987. As an economist, I was always fascinated by isolated small communities that were able to survive over generations, and even centuries, with very limited resources. I have also had a long-term interest in fine art and fine crafts partly in thanks to Prof. Clemens Sommer, professor of Art History at UNC Chapel Hill. He had a saying that always stuck with me: Art is a product of the culture.

When I got to St. John I realized how important basketry had been to this very small, 19½ square-mile isolated island. They were known for the fine quality baskets they produced for generations. I was fascinated by the baskets and their history. Not only were the baskets sold on the other Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean, they were exhibited and sold in the United States and Europe from the late 1890s and into the 20th century. That is quite an accomplishment when you realize that at the time the movement between islands was by boat under sail, and to the States and to Europe on steamboats.

It didn’t take long before I met and became friends with the Island’s premier basketmaker-teacher, Mr. Herman Prince. When I told him of my interest in writing about St. John basketry, he said, “You can’t write about them without learning how to make them.” I took him up on his suggestion and took his course. Boy, was he right. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the skills required and the culture that gave rise to them.

During my 18 year stay there, I met and worked with many other basketmakers. I helped them showcase and market their baskets and acquired a collection of 25 St. John baskets and related items. One of Mr. Prince’s baskets entitled, “St. John Market Basket” is at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum as part of The Cole-Ware Collection. It is virtually identical to one of his baskets in my collection. I also wrote about “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” for The Clarion, America’s Folk Art Magazine.

To honor the St. John basketmakers, their baskets and the culture that gave rise to them, I have documented my experience with the St. John basketmakers in this video, entitled, “Baskets from the Island of St. John.” I invite you to take a look at it.

I hope you enjoy it. And I certainly look forward to hearing your response.

Thanks to Grace Camblos Media for video production and editing of this project.

Advertisements

A Memo to Pro-Lifers

Rather than take an adversarial position, those who are Pro-Life could adopt a more proactive approach, one that would advance their cause. Their understanding is that life begins at conception. Consequently, from their perspective any induced abortion constitutes murder and is illegal.

It follows that the first thing to do, is to do everything possible to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore, the first step in the Pro-Life agenda would be to promote the use of contraceptives. Make all forms of them available to those women who at this stage in their lives do not want to have a child.

One important way for Pro-Life advocates to accomplish that would be to set up and fund clinics to help women (and men) who do not want to have a child to get whatever form of contraceptive they prefer and to provide the funds necessary to accomplish that objective. In that way, Pro-Lifers would significantly help. Fewer women would be placed in a position where they would choose abortion as their best option.

Since that would not prevent all unwanted pregnancies, the next step would be to provide counseling at the clinics. It would inform pregnant woman about the costs and benefits of various procedures, including one which the clinic provides: to assist her through all stages of the pregnancy and the birth and to make arrangements for the infant’s adoption once it has been successful delivered. All costs, including the support of the woman during the pregnancy, would be covered by the Pro-Life group.

The group’s objective would have been met. Once the child is born it would be placed in a family that wanted it. An induced abortion would not have happened. This Pro-Life approach would have prevented that from happening. Moreover, the pregnant woman would be less likely to be placed in a position where she would consider an abortion as her best option and she would be fully supported during her pregnancy. Along with that she would know that the child would be well taken care of. It has the additional advantage that a family that wanted and would otherwise not have a child, has one. In addition, the Pro-Life advocates were instrumental in making that happen.

It will lead to fewer women who consider abortion as their best option. Moreover, whatever time, energy, resources and funds (TERF) that the anti-abortion advocates commit to the program will further their primary objective. Furthermore, they are less likely to cause resentment and hostility and to alienate others in the process.

Civilians and Assault Rifles: An Economist’s Perspective

Why don’t those who insist on, and benefit from the policies they propose pay for the damage those policies cause?

Let’s begin with assault rifles. Saturday’s devastating attack at an Orlando night club is a classic example: 49 people were killed and some 50 more wounded in attack by a single shooter with an assault rifle — an AR-15 — and a five shot pistol.

It is hard for me to understand the value of anyone having an assault rifle in a civilian setting. I am not challenging the value of owning a pistol for self-protection or a rifle for hunting game or for target and sport shooting. An assault rifle is something else entirely. Yet there are those who are against prohibiting anyone from having one, or placing any restrictions on those who do.

What we saw Saturday, and in the numerous incidents that preceded it, is a civilian using an assault rifle to kill and injure a large number of individuals. The loss is painful to victim’s families, loved ones, friends, the community of which they are a part, and to all of us. Moreover, the community, including those of us who are opposed to allowing anyone outside a military setting to have an assault rifle, must bear the cost of the damage caused to the victims and the injured.

It seems reasonable to me that those who benefit from such policies such as: the manufacturers of the assault rifles, clips and ammunition; the wholesalers and retailers who supply them to the public; the Gun Lobby that promotes that position; and all those in favor of it, should be the ones to pay for any damages.

Those damages include reimbursement for

• The death, pain and suffering of the victims and those, who by their very presence at the time, were affected by the incident

• The first responders; the police, including the costs for the subsequent investigation and prosecution; and any personnel and facilities that provided assistance after the incident

• The hospitals and the medical and support personnel who treated the victims, including those who require follow-up psychological support

• Those who donated blood, including reimbursement for their time

• Any other costs that are the direct result of the shooting incident

None of those costs would have been incurred if the incident had not happened. And it would not have happened in the way it did if the assault rifle and the ammunition were not in the perpetrator’s hands.

Therefore, those who promoted a policy that made the incident possible should take responsibility for it and cover the costs that their position made possible.  The rest of us who are opposed to allowing civilians to have assault rifles should not have to bear those costs.

Aging is Isolating

If These Old Hands Could SpeakAging is isolating. Friends move away, effectively disappear, or die off. Others drift out of the relationship. We spend less time together. The younger ones appropriately have their own agenda. It is their time to take care of themselves. Furthermore, they may have already learned what we have to offer. It’s time for them to move on and build their own life experience. Moreover, things have changed since you and I were their age, in some ways drastically. Consequently, some of the things we have to offer them are less relevant.

So what can we do? How can we address aging? One thing is certain, our time here on Mother Earth is limited. Since that is part of our reality, one thing each of us can do is do our best to take care of ourselves. By doing that we will be less of a burden on others and less of a drain on society’s resources. Another is to pay attention to our limitations. We can’t do everything and certainly not as much as we used to. I can certainly vouch for that.

We can start by admitting to ourselves that we have a finite time left here on earth. Each of us has skills and experience. We can use them to the best of our ability to take care of ourselves and to continue to make a contribution. It is a good time to decide what is important, to figure out what we really want to accomplish in the relatively brief time we have left, and what we would like to be remembered for.

Think seriously about your relationships with others. Do you have any issues with those who are still alive, where by doing or saying something now could make a difference? We can all start by acknowledging our errors. And perhaps saying, “I’m sorry. What I did was inappropriate. I certainly didn’t intend to cause you any pain or harm.” Those are some of the things each of us might consider doing while we are still alive. This is not just good advice for the old, really none of us knows how long we will live.

In that way, when we leave, and trust me we will, our departure will make things easier for those who we leave behind. 8033522652_97090eabda_oAging is part of a larger process called life. If we go through it, we are the lucky ones.

Aging brings along with it some other things. We are less mobile, feebler, more likely to forget and less able to take care of ourselves. That makes us more of a drain on others, on their time and energy. It also makes it harder for us to take care of ourselves. If others choose to devote some of their time and energy to support us, the least we can do is say, “Thank you.” It is important to remember that the care provided in our declining years also places a greater drain on society’s limited resources. For example, it leads to fewer resources being available for children’s education, for developing new ideas, or for anything else. Hopefully, each of us has put enough funds aside to reimburse those for the services they provide.

I find myself sleeping longer, taking more time to do things, and making more errors. How about you? All that takes time away from our limited time — the 24 hours in a day. That includes the time involved in maintaining contact and communicating with others, in maintaining relationships. I realize there may be a time when I can no longer drive. In order to get together, friends must come to see me. That will further limit contact and contributes to the isolation.

It is harder to make new friends. There are simply fewer people around with common experiences. My friend Jeanne is five years older than I. In our phone conversations we treasure the fact we can discuss the “good old times,” including the songs we share. Younger folk often have no recollection of them.

Often us older folks are not familiar with today’s ways of doing things — including the new ways of staying in touch, of communicating. When we grew up we did not have computers, cell phones, iPhones or smartphones. They simply did not exist. When you called someone, either the phone rang and rang; or you got a busy signal; or they answered and you spoke to them saying who you are. You talked to a real person. Today, more than likely, you are talking to a computer. It pretends to be listening and has its own preprogrammed way of doing things. How frustrating and time-consuming that is. It takes away from your limited time and energy, often without successfully accomplishing what you intended, leaving the problem unresolved. Boy, is that frustrating.

Here’s another example. You decide you want to give someone a call. You can’t remember their phone number. The old way of looking it up in the phone book doesn’t work anymore. They’ve moved and kept the old number. The area code tells you they are living in Richmond and you know they live around the corner. Oh, you forgot, they now carry their phone with them. Unlike the old days. Now you know who I am without my saying anything. You know where I am, but I have no idea where you are. Or, the only way some people communicate is by e-mail. That’s no help. You don’t have, or can’t use a computer, an iPhone or a smartphone. Perhaps you call and all you get is their answering service. Apparently they never check it. In any case they never get back to you. Even if you’ve heard about texting, you don’t have the equipment or the know how. It’s all so complicated, so frustrating. From your perspective it is a waste of your time, draining and unproductive. It contributes to the feeling of isolation.alone

Those are just some of the hassles of being an older person living in today’s world. They create obstacles even when you have no infirmities or disabilities. As we get older, as with any other complex machine, the system is likely to breakdown. The longer we hang around, the more likely that becomes. Add that to the mix, and things become even more complicated. It is harder to achieve our objectives or even to take care of one’s self. In fact, that may even become impossible.

All that, as well as the realization of it, leads to one conclusion, “Aging is isolating.”

Stepping back, however, there is a bigger picture. The fewer relationships we have — that is what isolation is all about — the less of an impact our dying will have on others. By pulling back in the relationship with us now, others are effectively going through part of their grieving process. That is only true, however, when they have already dealt with any “issues” that they have in their relation with us older folks who are still around.

“In Retirement”

People often ask me, “What have you done in the 30 years since you retired?” My answer is always the same. I tell them that I’m a nominally retired economist.

For the first two years I traveled around the Country in my Ford Aerostar van. I had reconfigured it so I could live in it or out of 5454351244_55150d2b32_oit. During the day the curtains came down so that I wouldn’t miss any of the beautiful scenery much of which was new to me. As an East Coast kid, I was used to seeing the sunrise and the horizon over water. But I had never seen it over land, the spectacular mountains, or the sunset over the ocean. What a majestic experience!

Whenever there was a craft show in the area I’d be there. I gave up on the economics of the health-care system (that’s another long story) and turned to the Economics of Fine Art and Fine Craft. I specialized in the study of the high-end craft market from an economist’s perspective. Among others, I attended the Baltimore American Craft Council Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, the New York SOFA show and Wendy Rosen wholesale shows. There I met and became friends with a number of fine craftspersons from all over the country. I studied the market’s characteristics, met and worked with the artists, and lectured on issues that concerned them. They included: ‘Pricing your work’; ‘Choosing your marketing venue’; ‘Functional and aesthetically pleasing vs. solely ornamental’; and ‘Your markets and its submarkets’ .

After two years on the road, I decided it was time to settle down. Initially, I thought I would go back to Chapel Hill. That’s not the way things worked out. I spent part of the two years taking care of my mother. She spent the eleven months before she died at the end of November 1986 in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. (Another long story.) When I wasn’t on the road I lived in her apartment and experienced the hubbub the of the Village.

After her death I needed to get away. I’d been to St. Thomas in the USVI with my ex-wife, many years earlier. (Another long bernieonstjohnstory.) But I had never been to St. John. I decided that it would be the ideal place to go. Never did I know! So my son Paul and I took a trip down there.

St. John turned out to be quiet, peaceful, beautiful, warm, sunny, a tropical island with a saltwater pool they called the ocean. But mostly it was the people, the locals, the St. Johnians who I really liked. They were so friendly, so accepting, so welcoming.
On the boat back to St. Thomas to catch the flight up to the States, I turned to Paul. Before I could say a word he said, “Yes, I know Dad.” Six months later I moved to St. John and never expected to leave. For the 18 years I lived there, every time I took the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay I felt like I was going home. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of my story.

Even as a teenager, when we moved from Queens in New York City to Wonderful Western North Carolina, I was fascinated by relatively isolated communities. I called them ‘island communities’. For me it opened up the question, How were they able to survive, often over generations, given the limited resources that were available and with little contact with the outside world? What was their way of life?  What could we learn from them?

Initially I decided to work on a project I called “The Living History of the Caribbean”.documenting the people, their culture and their crafts and products. During earlier times they made a number of important items locally. They included the boats, dwellings, stonewalls, fish pots, baskets and musical instruments. All were made from local materials using simple tools and their fine skills that they developed over generations.  My intention was to find the skillholders who were still around that knew how to produce them. I wanted them to produce the product so I could document and preserve the techniques of production; showcase the quality of their work; and show how their products contributed to the local economy. That way the process would be preserved for future generations. Once the skillholders were gone their process would be lost with them.

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As a starter, after I settled there and developed a friendship with Mr. Herman Prince, St John’s premier basketmaker-teacher, I decided to study St. John baskets.  He said that I couldn’t write about them until I learned how to make them. So taking his advice, I took his class. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the St. John history and culture that made them possible. It led to the article I published in The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine, published by The Museum of American Folk Art entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” (Summer, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 52-59) In it you can see a picture of Mr. Prince. You can also see an image of his fine handiwork in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (p. 144). His basket is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.

Along the way, I put together a collection of 25 baskets. Included are some exceptionally fine baskets made by Mr. Prince, Capt. Victor Sewer and Ms. Louise Sewer. Their other baskets  are more elaborate than Mr. Prince’s St. John Market Basket in the Smithsonian collection. My hope is to create a video that documents the collection and honors the baskets and their basketmakers, all of whom have since died.

Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.
Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.

Working with the elders revealed that an independent, self-sufficient  free black community had existed on St. John’s East End from the late 1700s. That was 50 years before emancipation! It also led to my twenty-five year friendship with Guy H. Benjamin (Benji). He was acknowledged by all as St. John’s elder statesman. Benji and I spent many, many wonderful hours together until his death in at the age of 98 in 2012. We collaborated on a detailed study of the East End community from the 1790s to 1956. 

I promised not to tell you any long stories but I do have to tell you a short one. I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. St. John was home. I never intended to leave there. In January 1999 I was in  the “bush” at Cinnamon Bay collecting hoop vine with my friend, Ralph Prince. Ralph has a sideline — basketmaking. For those of you who don’t know, “hoop” is what St. John baskets are made from. We were gathering it for his dad, Herman Prince.

I developed back pain and went to see my chiropractor, Dr. Alex Politis. He didn’t like what he was seeing and suggested that I go to the Clinic — the Myra Keating Smith Clinic. (Be careful Bernie, that’s another long story or two or more, in fact.) The short of it is that Dr. Barrett suspected I was having a heart attack but did not have the enzymes necessary to test for it. So she sent me off to the hospital on St. Thomas. (I had to get in an ambulance, an ambulance boat, then another ambulance before I could get there.) Their conclusion, at about one in the morning, was that I had a liver problem and they sent me home. After taking a taxi to Red Hook, I had to wait for the next ferry to Cruz Bay. It left at six in the morning. The next day I was diaphoretic, so drove myself to the clinic and was sent back to the hospital on St. Thomas. I went through the same routine all over again. This time they put me in intensive care.

I had had a heart attack. When I was released from the hospital, a friend accompanied me to the States. The long story short, at Duke University Hospital I had a CAB4X, a four vessel coronary bypass operation. After recovering I went back to St. John and split my time between there and Chapel Hill for a while. Although I never intended to leave St. John, I eventually decided to move back to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. The health-care was better there. That’s the short version.

Initially, I intended to continue working on the economics of high-end craft. However, based on my recent experience with the health-care system, I decided to resume my study of it. After returning to the States, I met Erin Coyle, an herbalist, massage therapist, wellness counselor and yoga teacher. Those are just some of her talents, as you will see. We found each other, developed a friendship and a fine working relationship.We decided to work together on a book entitled, “The Imperfect Health-Care Market: Making it work for you”, (remember imperfect markets is my specialty). Along the way we put together a website to let people know what we were doing. Check it out — www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

We soon realized, however, that the health-care system was seriously broken. It was in the control of the stakeholders who had manipulated the legislative process to their benefit. Whatever we had to say would not be heard. So rather than waste our time, we went back to each of our true passion — Art. We have just published “The MiniBook: A Guide to Self Care, Volume I”. It is based on sayings that come from my experience and images to go along with them based on hers. It has been well received. There’s more to come. Volumes II-V are on their way!

Erin also convinced me that I should start “blogging”. My first response was “Blog? What’s a blog?” Obviously, I took to the idea and very much enjoy writing posts and getting feedback from my readers. (Thank you, very much.)

That’s how I spent my first 30 years in retirement. If you’re interested in seeing what I am doing now and planning for the next ?? years, check out my blog post entitled, “At 87”.

Some people say to me, “You call this ‘retirement’?” And I say, “Yes, it certainly is.” Do you know why? Because my definition of retirement is doing what I want to, when I want to do it. Retirement has given me the opportunity to take care of myself and it keeps me involved and engaged. I particularly enjoy working with the younger generations, sharing experiences, learning from them and using my training and experience to help them understand and cope with the world, their world. What could be better than that?

My Career Path

boyscoutsMy dad had an eighth grade education. He took over his dad’s business, New York Drop Cloth Manufacturing Co., which made drop cloths from cotton cloth, twill and drill. He turned it into Diamond Brand Canvas Products Co., a manufacturer of tarpaulins, tents and camping equipment. It was a small company, but any related equipment with the Boy Scout label on it in the 1930s and ’40s, was made by my dad’s firm. He had no understanding or appreciation of academics and expected me, his eldest son, to work in the business — and ultimately to take it over.

From the time I was 13, whenever I wasn’t in school, I worked in the business and enjoyed it very much. Obviously, dad’s expectation did not to come to pass. By the time I was 17, I had worked myself up in the business. I started by sweeping floors, then became a shipping clerk, worked on the cutting table, made the patterns, and used the grommet machine. I had gone through the various other stages of production and office management.

I came up with an idea that would simplify the flow of materials. It was a relatively small change that could be easily reversed if it didn’t work. I presented the idea to my dad. He said, “No!” No explanation came along with it. I mentioned it to an acquaintance of his who had come to visit; He suggested that I ask again, so I did. My father said, “No. Only 60% of the decisions I make are right. If I don’t make them all, I don’t know that 60% will be right.” Even at 17 I knew that I could not work for, or under, my father. There was no chance that I could make a creative contribution. After high school, instead of working in the business full-time, I went on to college.

I came to UNC–Chapel Hill directly from Fieldston. At the beginning of my senior year my dad asked me to leave school and come to work for him. I said no. I was unsure as to what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Initially, I thought chemistry would be my calling or perhaps genetics. Those turned out to be wrong as well. After I graduated in 1949 with a BS in Commerce and the equivalent of a joint major in Economics, I was looking to get a corporate job in purchasing. Another expectation went down the tubes. But that’s a longer story that I won’t regale you with.

What I did do was to go on to Vanderbilt University (Vandy) to work under Prof. George W. Stocking. He had recently completed the third of a trilogy with Prof. Myron Watkins of NYU. The title of the book was “Monopoly and Free Enterprise”. It was an area that had interested me since high school. I went to Vandy with the expectation of getting a Masters and then going to work at the Federal Trade Commission.

After my first year they asked me to stay on for my doctorate. They gave me the position as Dr. Stocking’s research assistant. How could I refuse? I found my calling in economics, specializing in the Economics of Industrial Organization, the study of markets — how do they work, how well do they work, and how can they be made to work better. After my second year, the department changed the requirements for getting the degree. They made them retroactive. (That’s another long story). Over the previous summer I had worked at the FTC on Prof. Stocking’s research on basing point pricing. I called my friends there and asked if a position might be available. They said yes. So I left and took a job as a Business Economist at the FTC in 1952. That was just where I wanted to be. I spent two years there. I loved what I was doing. I was working on merger cases under the newly enacted Sect. 7 of the Clayton Act. Not only did I like what I was doing, my supervisors and colleagues, and both of the economists and the attorneys, liked what I did as well.

A problem developed. The Korean War ended. Prior to it, at any job in the Federal Government, you were either a permanent employee or a temporary employee. I came in under a new classification, “Temporary Indefinite”. How’s that for a title! Although I was in a permanent position and they liked what I was doing, when the government downsized I was fired and replaced by a “permanent employee”. The one who replaced me had worked in the Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) and had no knowledge of or experience with merger cases. Since I expected to be drafted (another long story) I decided to go back to Vandy and complete my degree. Prof. Stocking welcomed me back. By the way, I turned out to be 4F — medically unqualified for military service.

I got my degree. My thesis “The Merger Component in the Growth of a Firm: A case study of General Electric” was later published by the NYU Press. I went on to teach at Northwestern University and Michigan State University. Then I joined the Center for Naval Analysis — Navy’s equivalent of the RAND Corporation. From there I went on to Temple UniversityBy then I had worked my way up the ranks to full Professor. The Department put me up to become Chair on a 17-2 vote. The Dean turned me down after he had previously asked me to take on that position. The reason — I wanted to represent the Department to the Dean and not the Dean to the Department. From there I went on to George Washington University Medical Center, as an economist, and then to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Graduate Economics Program in Northern Virginia as Acting and then Associate Director until I retired in 1985. After settling on St. John in the USVI, I taught for a while at the University of the Virgin Islands.

As an aside, some years after I left the FTC I got a job offer for the position I had aspired to — Head of the Division of Economic Reports. By the way, it was a permanent position! The climate at the Commission had changed and rather than investigating economic activities of various industries in order to determine their economic impact, the higher ups decided that the role of the Division was to support the legal activities of the Commission. They had a separate Division of Economic Evidence tasked with that responsibility. I did not think it was the appropriate role for the one I was asked to head up. So I turned the job down.

My Career path was not a smooth one. I thought of myself as a researcher and never really about becoming a teacher. As it turned out I loved teaching and passing what I learned on to my students. My interaction with them also added to my understanding of my profession.

But by paying attention to what was really right for me and by learning what each step had to offer, I have been able to find out what I enjoy doing. Using the skills I have developed, I have been able to help others see things in a different way, and help them solve some problems they face. In addition, I am able to pass on what I learned by following my own path ,to younger generations, struggling to find their own way. I love doing what I do and hopefully it also makes a contribution. What could be better than that?

You Should Have Been an Architect

After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.

As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.

Orthographic of stairs
Orthographic of stairs

In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.

Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.

Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?

Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri
Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri

Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.

I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.

So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.

I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,  I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Art to learn more about how I have done this.