For landscape architect and Practice Professor of Landscape Architecture Emeritus Laurie Olin, drawing is about making places. An exhibition of many of his original drawings opens Monday, October 8, and run through Thursday, December 20, at the Kroiz Gallery in Penn’s Architectural Archives.
This exhibition gathers examples from seven decades of his work and explores the imaginative ways that he uses drawing to see and understand the world around him. Curiosity, observation and wonder inspire his graphic engagement and have filled the pages of his many sketchbooks and flowed out onto sheets and rolls of many sizes. “Drawing, Professor Olin remarked, “helps you see…what is good about the good…to discern what is really good, and to recognize the subtleties.”
In Alaska, where Professor Olin grew up, “everybody tells stories.” Living at the edge of that immense wilderness, Professor Olin found his graphic mentors on the pages of popular magazines and in syndicated comic strips shipped in by air to his hometown of Fairbanks. Folk stories, like those found in Alaskan Igloo Tales, with illustrations by indigenous artist George Ahgupuk, depicted the landscape, wildlife and culture around him.
Formal training in drawing came during architecture school at the University of Washington (BArch, 1961), and yet, the urge of the narrative tradition remained strong. After five years working as an architect in Seattle and New York City, Professor Olin withdrew from practice and fully invested himself into drawing and painting. It was a deep dive into the surreal, unsettled late 1960s. His drawings ranged between the precise and the gestural. They explored themes of “sex, anxiety, politics….all sorts of stuff,” but mostly they captured in vivid detail the world around him, first, from the interior of a 16-by-16-foot cabin in Amagansett, Long Island, and later, from Agate Point on Puget Sound. He experimented with different types of paper—some made smooth by their clay content—and even tried drawing with broken sticks dipped in ink. His most poignant drawings of the period were made after his return to the Pacific Northwest. His many sketches of Seattle’s Skid Row community depict men, seemingly with nothing to do, living at the margin of society. “I was in a mood and I just started drawing,” said Professor Olin, “and I kept drawing until some other upheaval occurred. I couldn’t help myself but to draw a lot.”
His drawings, thereafter, carry this experience. Beginning in 1972, as he returned to practice and began teaching, Professor Olin found time for intensive periods of drawing in England, Italy, America and China. “You can never teach someone how to draw,” said Professor Olin, but you can teach someone “how to see.” Drawing is a key for him, to pass “through sight and feeling into an understanding beyond appearance, and strive to reach the essence of things.”
He has taught at Penn for more than 30 years and is former chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and recipient of the 1998 Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the recipient of the 2012 National Medal of Arts, the highest lifetime achievement award for artists and designers bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the President of the United States (Almanac September 10, 2013). He also holds the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Medal, the society’s highest award for a landscape architect (Almanac November 1, 2011). In 2006, the long-time Penn faculty member won the School of Design’s G. Holmes Perkins Award for Distinguished Teaching by a member of the practitioner faculty (Almanac May 23, 2006).
Works on view will include over 50 original drawings from his travels and explorations in the United States, Europe and Asia, as well as studies for a number of important landscapes including Apple Park in Cupertino, California and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, DC.
The Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery, Architectural Archives, at 220 South 34th Street, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of the Shedd Endowment and the Friends of the Architectural Archives.
There will be a public event there, on November 28 at 6:30 p.m., Laurie Olin in Conversation.