Minneapolis architect Michael Plautz sums up his years in a new book of sketches.
At one time drawing was the essential skill that separated artists from the rest of us, but no more. Now some big-buck artists can barely scribble. Still, there's something mesmerizing about the ability to make faces and places appear on a page using nothing more than a pencil, a chunk of chalk or a wash of tinted water. To some it comes as a gift, like a musician's perfect pitch or an athlete's superb coordination. But it's also a skill that can be learned and improved through a lifetime of practice.
Somewhere in that continuum from innate talent to bloody hard work stands Minneapolis architect Michael Plautz, 68, whose marvelous drawings were published this month in "Draw: Quotidian Lines" (Octane Press, Austin, Texas, $40).
Spanning more than 30 years, the book includes the 1967 drawing of a New York building that won the Wisconsin native a year-long sojourn studying drawing in Paris and the French countryside. The rest is a lifetime of handwork, from sketches of Rwandan gorillas to lithographs of fish and ravens, pencil sketches of family members, watercolors of exotic flowers and European villages.
The dominant images are of places and spaces -- architectural renderings in pencil, ink or charcoal of buildings, passageways, arches, alleys and plazas from Plautz's grandmother's house in Slovenia to the fountains of Versailles, hilltop Tuscan towns, African villages, Greek monasteries and Cambodian temples.
European vistas -- the Coliseum in Rome, a dusky interior of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, the towers of San Gimignano, Italy -- recur as mementos of the decades Plautz has spent teaching drawing to American architecture students studying abroad.
"He's one of the best of his generation, I think, absolutely one of the best," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design. The college plans to do a show of Plautz's drawings in 2012 because "we think it is important to put an incredibly talented person such as Michael Plautz in front of the students" as a reminder of architects' tradition of "hand drawing the world around them," Fisher said. Dates for the exhibition have not yet been set.
Architecture students at the university are still required to take a drawing course, and watercolor is an elective option. But given a choice, most students opt to work out their ideas on a computer, Fisher said. While computers are terrific tools that can speed the design process and enhance accuracy, they alter the way people think and express their ideas. Drawing remains a core value in architecture because of the "very subtle and complex" connection it makes between the eye, the mind and the hand, he added.
"Drawing is a concentrated way of seeing that forces you to look and to think," Fisher said. "It also forces you to slow down, which is really important in understanding and shaping space."
From Wisconsin to Paris
World travel must have been an unlikely dream for Plautz when he was a 1950s farm boy attending a three-room school in Willard, Wis., 50 miles east of Eau Claire.
The rural landscape of checkerboard fields, weathered barns and glacier-carved valleys settled deep into his psyche. He remembers the light and lay of the land and had the good fortune to meet in first grade "a sweet, strong-willed, brown-eyed girl" named Gloria who became the love of his life. Still married after 46 years, they have a daughter and two granddaughters who appear in his sketches. A poet in words as well as pictures, Plautz recalls from childhood "the tug of home life's yoke 'twixt cow and Art, field and Picasso."
After graduating from architecture school at the University of Illinois, he co-founded RSP Architects in Minneapolis and developed a wide-ranging practice that included private residences as well as public buildings. The Guggenheim Building, a 20-story research facility at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, was a high point of his work in the 1970s. The rustic Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, overlooking Lake Superior north of Silver Bay, Minn., remains a favorite.
Since 1983 he has spent several weeks each spring or fall in Versailles or Tuscany or the Greek islands, teaching University of Illinois architecture students drawing and what he calls "habits of seeing."
His favorite medium is pencil, an expressive tool that allows for deep shadows, fine lines, delicate shadings and brushy textures. His pen drawings are crisper, toned sometimes with colored pencils. And his watercolors sing, their pristine white bits perfectly planned amid delicate washes of wavering color.
"To me, pencil is like a piano -- you can really dig into the paper," he said. "A pen is like a harpsichord -- you have to crosshatch. And I love watercolor because you only have 80 percent control and have to celebrate the accidents, but you get this lovely luminosity."
Nineteen months ago doctors discovered, quite by accident, that Plautz has "a slightly more vicious version of what Steve Jobs had," a neuroendocrine cancer of the liver that is not curable, he said. He compiled and wrote "Draw: Quotidian Lines" between chemo treatments. "I have taken advantage of the energy I do have and am just plowing forward."
And each morning he wakes up and draws the new day.
"I draw in reverence of raw paper, unfound caves and the ascending fragrance of a moist garden," he explains in the book's introduction. "I draw because it is the most joyful thing I do."