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Architecture professor using four stories' worth of windows to display art

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


southeast view of four-story Flagg Hall showing drawings displayed in each window
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy James Warfield
James Warfield is exhibiting "Dancing Lessons from God" on the windows of Flagg Hall, 1207 S. Fourth St., Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — James Warfield is giving new meaning to the phrase “picture window.”

In what he describes as something of a “guerilla exercise,” the emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently appropriated a four-story bank of windows on the south façade of the U. of I.’s Flagg Hall, transforming the windows into an “off-the-wall” display space for 65 “exploded” sketchbook images.

“Exploded,” in this context, is Warfield’s euphemism for “blown up” – as in “enlarged.” The artwork, which fills the windows of the former residence hall located at 1207 S. Fourth St., consists of 3 x 4 foot reproductions of 8 x 10 inch on-site studies made by Warfield during 40 years of professional travel throughout the world.

The exhibition, “Dancing Lessons From God,” will be on view through March 19 and may be best viewed while driving north on Fourth Street between Peabody and Gregory drives in Champaign. Warfield said the exhibition title is derived from a quotation by author Kurt Vonnegut: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

view of pencil drawing displayed in a single window
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy James Warfield
One of Warfield's images, taken from journals and sketchbooks dating from 1963 to 2004. The drawings were done during field research around the globe.

The exhibition’s images, which date from 1963 to 2004, were copied from research journals and sketchbooks created on location in destinations that have included Australia, Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Greece, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Tibet and Turkey. Warfield drew some of the sketches while pursuing field research in vernacular architecture; others, while coordinating study-abroad programs in China, Greece, Mexico and Turkey.

Warfield traces his inspiration for displaying the sketches in such an unorthodox manner to a couple of sources. For starters, he said, he just wanted to mark an “eerie” milestone in his career.

Before retiring from the architecture faculty a year and a half ago, Warfield had an office in the school’s Temple Hoyne Buell Hall. After his retirement, he moved to Flagg Hall, which has been used by many people in the architecture school as a studio facility. Warfield said the recent move took him back to his early roots at Illinois.

“This is where I used to eat when I was a student – when my wife and I lived in the dormitories over here. So, it was basically a matter of coming back to a place I’d known as a student and a place where I had also taught. In one sense, it (the exhibition) was wanting to do something and claim ownership of the building.”

A deeper motivation, however, was his interest in exposing students to the rapidly vanishing art of sketching by hand.

“Computers are dominating architecture education today,” he said. “And that’s a fine thing. You can do things with computers that you couldn’t do otherwise. But drawing is something that’s falling by the wayside. It’s good for students to see the sketches. If they don’t see this, they don’t know it exists.”

Although Warfield also is a masterful photographer who believes the camera is an invaluable documentation tool for scholars of vernacular architecture, he maintains that sketches still serve an important purpose in the field.

“To me, sketching is an intellectual exercise,” Warfield said. “The wonder and beauty of travel sketches is that they are subjective and interpretive. They are about travel, about thinking, about seeing.” And, he added, “for architects, the ability to ‘see’ is paramount … to understand not only what is physically there, but also to interpret and to imagine.”

Since the exhibition went up last week – just as students were returning to campus after the winter break – responses to it have surpassed Warfield’s own imagination and expectations.

“Students are coming up to me, wanting to do independent study to learn this skill,” he said.