What is practical? According to the on-line Merriam-Webster:
: relating to what is real rather than to what is possible or imagined
: likely to succeed and reasonable to do or use
: appropriate or suited for actual use
Who can argue with practical? Suited for actual use sounds useful. Most things I see these days seem practical. After all, people need jobs, money, things.
Nearly 28 years ago after my first daughter was born, I made a transition from saddle making and caretaker of a ranch to return to the University of Utah to complete my undergraduate degree. The plan was to go to medical school, because I had become trained as an Emergency Medical Technician in the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department. Emergency medicine seemed exciting, so we moved back to Salt Lake City, and I started school again at age 26 with one daughter, another soon on the way, a wonderful and understanding wife, very little money, but a strong family safety net in Salt Lake.
The only problem was that I thought that I hated chemistry, and I could only think of one undergraduate major that made much sense to me with my experience in saddle making: Fine Arts. It seemed like the practical choice at the time. Not only would my skills and experience in saddle making contribute to my classes, but I would learn new things in Art School that would enhance my leather work. Since there was no prescribed major for medical school but only prerequisites classes, I signed up for drawing, art history, general chemistry, and calculus.
I had never studied art or learned to draw. It was a completely new experience for me, and I LOVED it. My drawing class lasted for several hours a few days each week, and I had as much or more homework in drawing as I did in chemistry. I developed a sense to know during the day when I would be more productive drawing and when I’d be better off learning chemistry and math. In many ways, the different types of learning and studying reinforced each other, and when I was tired of doing one, I often discovered that I had energy to do the other.
Before too long, I noticed that when I was drawing regularly, I would see the world differently. I was aware of the relationships between objects, the orientation of lines, and negative space.
My drawing teacher was Nate Winters, and he was one of the best professors I’ve had in any subject. I still remember his love of seeing straight lines cross ever so slightly–creating a dynamic to a drawing rather than leaving a gap, which lets the drawing lose energy and stop. He once asked us if we knew to color of a shadow. Virtually all of us (myself included) knew that a shadow was grey, but none of us had ever looked at a shadow and discovered that it was the same color as the underlying object but darker.
Drawing was one of the best things I’d ever tried, and the more I did it, the better I got. I found that chemistry was easier when I looked at molecules in my books the way I would look at objects that I was trying to draw. I could see them more clearly, and that has stayed with me to this day.
Then chemistry and leatherwork started influencing my art. At the end of my first year, I entered 2 of my pieces into the student art show. One was the leather wall phone pictured above. The other was an aluminum cube, approximately 3′ on each edge. I called it “Gas Trap for Artist”, and I calculated the pressure and temperature needed to contain all the gases if I were combusted and became an ideal gas (PV=nRT). The calculations were placed on the floor inside the gas trap. It was fun anonymously standing a few feet away with my child in my arms listening to the puzzled and almost angry comments of parents and friends of the other art students who had made nice paintings.
When it comes to life, practical is a hard thing to measure.