I'm a curious guy. I want to know new things. I want to see new things. I want to learn new things. I want to do new things. With that in mind, I've criss-crossed this country of ours for 30 years in the pursuit of seeing and learning, of knowing places and people.
The places are all different: creeks, streams, rivers, oceans, bayous, swamps, meadows, dirt, sand, limestone, granite, Ponderosa pine, Spanish moss, kudzu, gingko, coupled with heat, humidity, aridity, cold and winds of a thousand kinds. I can still remember the red Georgia clay I first saw at ten and the seemingly never-ending Great Plains I crossed at 15. Each place leaves a trace.
The people are likewise varied. When I was 17, a crazy, strung-out fashion model gave me a lift from Concord, Massachusetts due west for almost three hours. At 19 I rode in the back of a pickup truck driven by a black family, while heading out of Jacksonville, Florida, a group of white motorcyclists riding behind. At 26 I quizzed a Hopi elder who had picked me up hitchhiking somewhere between Kykotsmovi and Second Mesa, Arizona. The Polish communities of Chicago, the Cubanos of Miami, the Mormons of Utah, the Mescalero of New Mexico, the melting-pots of Seattle and New York, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, northern European descendants of the heartland: all so different and all so very much part of regional communities and cultures. All so much a part of a larger concept.
One hundred years before I was born, the New Hampshire-born printer and writer, Horace Greeley, founder of The New York Tribune, followed the words he often spoke - "Go West, young man" (cribbed from Indiana editor John Soule) - and made for Kansas City and beyond. In Greeley's day the Appalachians marked the beginning of the West and he erroneously figured that the three great cities of the United States would be New York, St. Louis and Leavenworth or New York, St. Louis and Atchison. Leavenworth? Atchison?
In part, that brought me from Boston to Kansas City, back in 1992, for a look-see. Okay, I was supposed to be there for a regional AIGA retreat, but I did want to see where the Santa Fe Trail started - more or less - and meet a few new folks. I did. And not a few of them were from Nebraska
Until then, the closest I'd come to a Nebraskan was the third-base woman on our M.I.T. softball team (what an arm!). What I found in K.C. were a handful of committed Cornhuskers who had taken up the challenge of starting an AIGA chapter in an area no longer considered by the majority of the United States to be even remotely close to one of the three great cities of the United States. I grew up on "the Wild Kingdom, presented by Mutual of Omaha" but never thought of Omaha as a place. Never even considered the Omaha tribe, overshadowed in history by Lakota to the north and Pawnee to the south. Lincoln? That's where I went swimming in Walden Pond, which was shared with Concord, Massachusetts. And there was Lincoln, Illinois to consider. I would wager that most Americans think of Nebraska - short of corn and football (in that order) - as a place to fly over. What I found in the Midwest, and what had a profound influence on my hanging out my own shingle, was a community that seemed to have a sense of self.
Kansas City was rocking and rolling, as was Wichita, St. Louis, and, yes, Nebraska. There was life in the "hinterlands," as people from either Coast referred to this neck of the woods (okay, tall grass). I realized that one did not have to live in new York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or Seattle to kick out great design. One could do it anywhere. Within four months I was working for myself.
I still wear the AIGA Nebraska T-shirt that then-chapter prez Sandi Jewett handed me before we parted ways in downtown K.C. and I wondered if in my travels I'd ever have cause to visit Nebraska, short of my general curiosity. What was there? What did the land look like? What did the people look like? How did they live? Why did they stay?
I had an opportunity to visit when a friend got married in Lincoln, but alas, I didn't make it. Later when offered the chance to visit Omaha and judge the local Advertising Federation show more than a year ago, I jumped at the chance. Checked out the great turn-of-the-century architecture, got to make some new friends, and got my history fix in Council Bluffs trudging through mud and snow along the Missouri River (Lewis and Clark, ya know). Within months I was back to give talks to the Omaha Ad Fed (thanks folks!) and the AIGA chapter (ditto). Had a damn fine steak, and again became reacquainted with the good folks who work hard creating programs and events of enrichment for the community. And what a community! I met people from South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, and from parts of Nebraska that Nebraskans consider the hinterlands. A new tribe, a new community, vested in values and committed to the belief that our profession is worthy of nourishing and nurturing. Worthy of growing.
When I moved from Boston to Austin, finally going west before I was no longer young, I was fortunate to stay at a few stops along the way with friends I'd met through AIGA in Washington, D.C., Birmingham, Wichita. Our profession brought us together, but we all gained more than design theory and practice. I drove on, through Hope, Kansas thinking I could find some of that particular quality in that town. But, literally speaking, people had abandoned Hope. My daughter and I found much of the small town's center boarded up. One can put a sing on something, give it a name, but substance always comes from within. We drove on.
With word-smithing and storytelling, I've gone the long way around the barn, as they say down here in Texas, to get to the heart of this missive. If you are reading these words, whether a designer or not, you are part of this community. It will grow and prosper only with your nurturing. Your community has grown not just because the wagon wheel busted, and your folks settled here, but because people believed your region was rich with potential. It still is. Pioneers became settlers, but because they planted roots doesn't mean they "settled" for anything. Don't you settle for anything but the best. A good barn doesn't raise itself. It needs people of varying roles and skills. It needs you. You are the substance within your community. Once you step down that road, I won't promise it's easy all the way. I do promise that building your community - and extending it - and bringing together people that care, is worth it.
For the record, not long ago I was in Lincoln. Did I know all those years of looking at maps what Nebraska would have in store for me? Hardly. Do I know where my road goes now? I can only hope. Frontiers are where you find them. You just have to look. What are you waiting for? Go!
[The above was written upon request for the Omaha Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. to help fire up the locals, January 2000.]