How things work

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have much interest in the mechanics of things. It doesn’t matter to me how car engines or refrigerators or computers work… only that they do. And it is only when these things break down that I give any thought at all to their moving parts.

A few years ago, I worked with some intellectual property lawyers and a talented technical illustrator who helped them express their ideas. The attorneys would spend hours talking about exhaust systems and machine parts and shoe soles, and the artist would turn out masterful diagrams of these things that were as beautiful as they were precise. What fascinated me about the process was each party’s willingness and ability to cross the great divide between the left and right brain. I’m not sure when I’d seen that level of communication, patience, and mutual respect in the workplace.

Fast forward to last month, when I visited the National Museum of Transportation in Des Peres. I had decided to feature the museum on the June page of my YEAR IN THE CITY calendar for 2021, at least partly because I was drawn in by the intrinsic beauty of machines. I took dozens of pictures of cars, trucks, and trains that day, paying close attention to the smallest details so I could accurately represent them in my calendar.

But back home, I discovered that all those details meant nothing if I didn’t understand their functions. Without a patent lawyer or mechanical engineer to walk me through, I was going to have to simplify my art.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t necessarily think that art needs to imitate technology. And I don’t pretend to be a technical illustrator. (Probably best, given my avoidance of all things mechanical!) But I love the complexity of machinery, nonetheless. Technology can be beautiful.

Steve Jobs understood this. He was a master at disguising technology as art, introducing sophisticated machinery in innocuous-looking packages, so that artists like me wouldn’t run away scared from his invention. By hiding the brains of the Mac, Jobs began to bring together the aesthetic and the analytical. Beauty was in the eye of both beholders.

The Mac has been my constant companion for the last 25 years. Before that, I was a board-trained graphic artist, which meant that I had to ink and cut every little detail before it printed. Much of that process has been simplified by the computer, but others things have grown more complex. Now I bring my own photographs into a vector program and draw over them to create hundreds of shapes, manipulating the angles to capture the critical details. Then I start playing with colors, juxtaposing dull with bright, cool with warm, so that all these shapes play well together. Somewhere in there, I color the background to bring the subject forward. And finally, if the subject matter lends itself, I add in people.

That’s often where the magic happens. Because, for all my focus on craft, my illustrations are less about places and things than they are about people. In the case of the father showing his kids around the train yard, there is this driving curiosity about the workings of the locomotive. What does this do? What is this for?

But for his children, the technology is just a means to something bigger, something more important. Across the great divide of age, wisdom, and experience, comes a memory of a day spent with Dad.

 

A YEAR IN THE CITY calendars and gifts are available at ayearinthecity.com/shop and in several St. Louis shops, including Down by the Station, Union Studio, and The Missouri History Museum Gift Shop. The National Museum of Transportation, pictured here, will be featured in June 2021, in celebration of Father’s Day.

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