Letters from Las Vegas & BeLoose Graphics Workshop

I look out my window at the parched land and see jutting mountains that peer back in this direction; with their jagged ridges more like furrowed brows, they are baffled observers of  the neon bustle that is the heartbeat of Sin City.  Dark circles under my eyes, I’m on a plane out of Las Vegas.  I’m not the only one looking a bit worse for wear: most of the motley crew aboard this flight look a little sleep-and-vitamin deficient.  It’s far more the rule than the exception to have flown high on excess, dismissing a host of indescretions with such catch-phrases as “What happens in Vegas…”  Most likely there more tattoos and piercings aboard this departing flight than there would have been if we were arriving.  Although a little tired, I’m leaving with no tattoos or piercings and a memorable experience that exceeds the typical good Vegas story.

I was honored to be a teaching assistant for architect and hand-graphic guru Mike Lin in his BeLoose Graphic Workshop.  It’s not your normal workshop, and Mike Lin is not your normal instructor.  Long hours—often 8 am to midnight—coupled with unique tricks and instruction distinguish BeLoose from other similar courses.  Mike’s marathon days demonstrate not only his devotion to these specific techniques he’s perfected over the last 37 years, they create a bit of a bootcamp feel that sends participants home with a transformative experience.  His entire method hinges on a somewhat unorthodox style, peppering his curriculum with plenty of irreverence, endearing catch-phrases, "Linisms" and real estate sagacity (his other love).  He teaches a series of tricks and principles that make hand graphics accessible to almost anyone.  I first came to the workshop with essentially no experience in the discipline, so it was gratifying to return as a teaching assistant and find that I had absorbed and retained much from my original workshop experience (though I have so far to go!).  Mike’s often acerbic feedback is tempered by his palpable desire to teach as much as possible in a relatively short period, in the simplest manner, for his student’s maximum success; thus the 14 and 16 hour days, in which he is tirelessly performing demo and instruction.  It’s well worth the expense and time if you’re at all interested in developing niche design skills; it’s also a great place to meet and be inspired by designers in overlapping disciplines.

Back to Las Vegas:  this was my first trip here.  I had never really sought out a trip; it simply hadn’t been high on my list of places to go.  I thought I wouldn’t be that impressed by the pomp and circumstance of it all, and since gambling and strippers aren’t top among my particular vices at the moment it never made its way into my travel repertoire til now.  I imagined it to be the tired, washed-up-hooker version of an adult Disneyland, and in many ways that description remains apt, but I have to say I was wrong in considering it to be devoid of culture and appeal.  It just happens to be the case that the appeal is heaped with a generous portion of cheesiness (Frankie Avalon and Crystal Gayle were both performers in our hotel—like I said: Cheese. Sauce.).   In many ways there is an embracing of all the spectacularly foolish ingenuities that our species has borne from its creative powers, for better and worse.  So I'll admit it: I loved the Strip.  It’s more dazzling and throbbing than I imagined, full of verve and innovation in technology and design—sometimes idiotic, but never without commitment and intention—that is made possible precisely because of the excessive character of its economy and unique cultural composition.

I would be curious to get a better understanding of the various communities that comprise that city, as I think it’s more stratified than most places, and that these factions are part and parcel to the edginess, seediness, and the wholly synthetic feel of the place.  Like I said, the mountains seem to be watching an alien invasion—human opulence spontaneously erupts up out of a hostile terrain.
I can’t help but think that Las Vegas’s extreme form of excess must be related to the particularly unyielding landscape in which it’s situated.  Surrounded by the barely habitable Mojave desert (it receives less than 5 inches of rainfall a year and is marked by the iconic Joshua trees dotting its terrain), Sin City virtually sprouts out of the inhospitable  land in defiance.  The land is dry as a nut, through and through, and the sun has a metallic sheen that could spur a migraine if you're not careful.  Madcap artifice springing insolently from a panorama of uncultivated expanse.  The clime and land don't allow for niceties--no soft graces hanging from lush trees--instead, the neon lights scream back at their unpliable surroundings.

Shot of Plaza at Springs Preserve (photo from their website)
Cactus Alley at Springs Preserve (photo from their website)
I visited the Botanical Gardens at Springs Preserve--well worth the visit, with some lovely plantings (Especially the Cactus Alley!), walkways, and innovative architectural structures, but I think the layout is somewhat fragmented and the overall concept needs more development.  I think it probably looked amazing on a planview and in CAD, but there needs to be more development with respect to the organization of space once you're inside and interacting with the garden.  I do love that the garden deconstructs to meet the Las Vegas Valley and trails on the back side of the site.  

Photo courtesy of Nevada National Parks

Photo: Tom Budlong, Imperial Valley Solar Project
From there I went north toward Red Rock Canyon and spent several hours hiking in the Mojave Desert.  The colors of the afternoon sun veritably set the Calico Hills and surrounding mountains aglow (Beloose participants will recognize this as "Color Glow with How Bout Me?").  Punctuated by such remarkable xerophytes as Yucca brevifolia, Salvia mojavensis, argentic Encelia farinosa, Fouquieria splendens (Ocotillo), and the senescing seedheads of summer ephemerals, the lonely expanse is a lively example of adaptation in the harshest of niches. 

I also visited the Hoover Dam: another heavy-handed example of human industriousness that is a flagrant insurgence against a remote and unforgiving place.  It’s an Art Deco embodiment of humans’ will to dominance.  It nevertheless maintains a singular beauty, a beauty that is entirely “other” than that of natural beauty, but is nonetheless a reaction to and intertwined with the specific landscape from which it was hewn.  I was silenced by the grandeur of the Dam and the surrounding landscape. 


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