Design at Southern Illinois University
In the fall of 1959 Davis Pratt, sat on the edge of his desk, on the second floor of the new library, and stroked his chin. In a calm voice, he assigned our class an amazing project. We were to go to Giant City State Park and either camp out or spend time creating a “primitive” society of people who lived there: What god or gods would they worship, and what effigy might they have devised? What were their behavioral rules? What crops would they grow or harvest from the wild? What kind of shelters would they have built? What tools or artifacts would they have devised? What was the size and locale of their village? Unable to get away to camp out, I did spend a day at Giant City, taking notes, photographs and making sketches. I was going to make a humane society, a god-like task. I vowed to avoid the usual clichés. I worked at home rather than at school, because I had air conditioning, and a complete set of drafting tools, pastels, airbrush, and classical music. Besides, I had to keep an eye on our son and daughter while my wife worked at the glove factory, and I was doing free-lance design and illustration by mail. The effigy for the god came first. I made a vertical clay slab and scooped a round, concave moon in one side. On the back, the same shape was convex. Worship in, forgiveness out, get it? The slab would be erected on one of the giant slabs of rock in the park that looked a bit like an altar. The rules would be novel too- monogamous marriages, with strict punishment for adulterers. Democratic discussions in a large, thatch-roof enclosure where a head-man would be voted in or voted out. There would be expulsion from the tribe for repeat offenders, but no death penalty. Since the site was mostly woodlands, the tribe would be hunter-gatherers. I was never interested in farming, and figured they might not be either. There were no caves in the park large enough for shelter. I’d crawled through plenty of Illinois caves as an Explorer Scout, and knew that was no way to live. So I decided there would be huts for each family. And a big one for singing and meetings. Of course, they would have flint knives, bows, arrows, spears, clubs and maybe slings, although I reasoned slings would not be as effective in the woods as in the desert. They would be about 300 people. After that, a new village would have to be started somewhere else, but not too close. The presentation day came. Most of my classmates were a few years younger, and had not spent much time on a god. Instead, they made stools, models of housing, and tools. I leaned back, arms folded, deciding they had not seen the big picture. Davis Pratt was a thoughtful man of few words. Through each presentation, he just nodded, and smiled. For my presentation, I decided to mimic the then popular TV program You Were There. My totally innovative project would blow my classmates away. I even imitated Walter Cronkite’s voice like on TV when he interviewed Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. As I presented, I noticed Davis had stopped smiling. He had begun to tap his lip with his index finger. He loves it, I thought, as I displayed the religious slab. When I finished, he nodded for probably for a full minute, but said nothing. My classmates didn’t say much either. And some days later, sitting in church, I realized why. My effigy was an abstract image; sin in, forgiveness out. My rules for behavior came from the Bible. The size of the village was 300, about the size most churches reach before they start a new mission. And Baptists hired and fired their pastors. What had Davis Pratt’s project, and more important, silence allowed me to realize was that my thinking was conventional and very narrow. That realization was the beginning of a slow but irrevocable change in my life. Suffice it to say, I consider Davis Pratt to be one of the greatest teachers I ever had.
Al Gowan - Cambridge, MA - - (SIU Design 1953-55, and fall of 1959)
A Davis Pratt Tribute
by Al Gowan
by Bruce Lierman
photo by Dale Carlson - Davis Pratt in the middle