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Book Review: The Mind at Hand by Michael J. Strauss 

State of the Arts

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South Burlington’s Michael J. Strauss seems to be a study in contrasts: a scientist who is also an artist; a painter who is also a writer; a realist who also has a thing for magic tricks. Or you could say he’s something of a Renaissance man. Strauss calls on all those skills and ways of thinking in his newest book, The Mind at Hand: What Drawing Reveals. And, as if to telescope in further on what lies within, the book cover offers two additional subtitles: Stories of Exploration, Discovery, Design and Drawing to Learn Across the Disciplines.

It’s not easy to sum up succinctly who Strauss is, what he does and what he has to say. But here’s a stab at it: Born in San Francisco in 1940 and a Californian until he earned his PhD in chemistry, Strauss landed at the University of Vermont in 1968. Barring fellowships and visiting professorships elsewhere, he remained a UVM chemistry prof until 2003, focused on teaching and research in physical-organic and medical chemistry. On paper, Strauss’ transition to adjunct professor of art seems odd. But in The Mind at Hand, he explains that he’s been drawing since he was young, has long been a practicing artist and, moreover, has extensively used drawing as an approach to learning. He writes in his preface:

Drawing, like writing, helps students understand subjects. If students can write clearly about something, then they often come to know it better. By drawing it well, showing the shapes of parts and the relationship of one part to another part and how they interact, students come to know it better also.

Accordingly, Strauss explains that the book is focused on three things: the process of drawing-to-learn as practiced in many fields; memoir, or personal reflections that illustrate “how exploration and discovery drawn from life experience both inspire and evolve from drawing”; and ways of seeing — which include “symbols, their meaning, and how we use them to represent parts of the world we cannot see.” By “symbols” Strauss means mathematical mark making, diagrams and musical notation, as well as the letters, numerals and icons that convey meaning.

In short, Strauss believes that drawing should be as integral as reading and writing to the learning process both in and out of the classroom.

If it sounds like heady stuff, it is, but Strauss is far from a pedantic lecturer. Instead, he employs entertaining personal anecdotes to illustrate concepts such as shape consciousness, or offers examples of historical figures who exercised, one might say, their right and left brains. The 19th-century artist and writer John Ruskin, he notes, had “interests in geology, architecture, ornithology, botany and economics. His drawings emphasized the connections between nature, art and society, and his views of the world emerged, in part, from his drawings.”

The Mind at Hand offers practical information, too. Strauss explains, for instance, why it is difficult to draw a portrait even of someone we know well, and how using a grid can help break down the “shapes” into easier-to-replicate chunks. He notes how keeping journals and sketchbooks can help us learn, and remember.

In addition to his chemistry career, Strauss has extensive experience leading workshops in writing, teaching and educational pedagogy and has written previous articles and books on these subjects. (On his website, the list of Strauss’ accomplishments over more than four decades is very, very long.) His chapters on young students drawing to learn — about science and the world around them — are instructive for all ages. And Strauss pulls even this formerly indifferent chemistry student into his love of physical science with a chapter that explores matter we can’t see. He doesn’t shy away from approaching the intersection of material and cosmic:

It is counter-intuitive to believe that all we see around us is not substantive, but instead small particles (atoms and molecules) moving both rapidly and slowly from one pattern to another. That’s definitely not what I feel, but it’s what I know is true. Even more difficult to understand, we see only large collections of these particles. The particles themselves are too small to be seen … [T]he rocks, trees, people, my body — all seem continuously extended in time, but they are an illusion, a moving-picture show with many trillions of frames…

It’s no wonder Strauss is attracted to magic, the art of illusion; there is no less wonderment in science, as the author demonstrates in a chapter derived from one of his previous books, Where Puddles Go. (If you’ve been pondering that yourself, here’s his answer: They “simply go and form new puddles somewhere else.”) You could say The Mind at Hand is one long ode to curiosity. Enthralled with understanding how the world works — both observable and invisible phenomena — Strauss stirs that fascination in the reader. Even when he gets into the weeds with chemistry (Sample section heads: “Seeing How m-RNA and t-RNA Function in Protein Synthesis”; “Understanding How to Name an Organic Compound”), the author continually brings us back to drawing, and to understanding how drawing helps the brain learn.

In the chapter on doodling and cartooning, Strauss shows how even stick figures convey meaning and reminds us that the word “emoticon” is a combination of the words “emotion” and “icon.” You may henceforward have new respect for the bland smiley face, or for pictographs we rely on to locate gas, lodging, food and bathrooms.

The Mind at Hand is educational throughout and builds toward nitty-gritty lessons in how to draw — that is, how to look, how to make what we call art — as well as in how to look at art that others have made. One section records in Q&A format an illuminating conversation between the author and Vermont painter Tad Spurgeon. In part it’s about making paintings. But Spurgeon’s description of painting as “an endless series of Russian dolls” echoes the book’s earlier exposition about the ever-evolving nature of matter. And, though Strauss doesn’t call attention to it, one of Spurgeon’s comments — that drawing or painting can change a person’s consciousness — could convey the essence of this entire book.

Think about that next time you’re doodling on a napkin.

"The Mind at Hand: What Drawing Reveals" by Michael J. Strauss. BrownWalker Press, 240 pages. $39.95

The original print version of this story was headlined “The Shapes of Things: A New Book by Scientist/Artist Michael Strauss Reveals the Power of Drawing”

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.


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