These days, when asked to make a public presentation, I sometimes offer an illustrated tour of Agincourt, Iowa. Just as often, though, you’ll be relieved to learn that I’ve spoken on other topics: 1) the Gothic Revival as source for the Modern Movement, 2) the evolution of architectural drawings during the 19th and 20th centuries, 3) the Social Gospel, 4) emergence of the architectural profession in the last 150 years, or 5) Victorian culture on the Great Plains. Granted, most of these are historically based, but that’s just who I happen to be.
Last year I was invited to speak at UNLV (thanks to our friends at Klai+Juba) and gave one of the best presentations of my career: a guided tour of imaginary Iowa to a capacity audience (so I’m told) of students and community. A half hour of post-presentation Q&A reinforced my belief that this project has been worth my investment. Some of the crowd even got the obtuse inside jokes. But the most illuminating experience so far has been another shorter presentation to a handful of sixth graders at Faribault, Minnesota.
Molly Yergens (Milton and Barbie Yergens’ daughter) teaches art at Shattuck-St Mary’s, an Episcopal day and boarding school with students quite literally from around the world. Molly had challenged each of her charges to imagine a community and hoped the Agincourt story might stir their creative juices. So I gave them twenty minutes of sketchbook images, pix from the 2007 exhibit and other material that hasn’t been shown yet. Things went well, but then I noticed a downcast face and a furrowed brow and wondered about his concern. “Well,” he paused, “it seems to me that people might actually believe Agincourt really exists.”
“You catch right on!” I enthused, because that’s exactly what excites me about this project. I recall the BBC production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and supplementary discussion with cast members, including an off-hand observation about the difference between fantasy and imagination. Despite the puns and inside humor, I have hoped that this exercise of the imagination will be solidly based in real historical processes; I want precisely what my new young friend had feared: the nagging suspicion that you’ve been there before; got a tire repaired at Cliff’s Garage; had pie and coffee at Adams’ Restaurant; received a postcard from Aunt Harriet’s high school reunion trip.
In a few weeks we’ll be offering a set of Agincourt postcards–images of buildings and people–for gift-giving this year. Proceeds will support a scholarship in our NDSU department. But my real hope is that some of these cards will find their way to Ebay; that ultimately “…people might actually believe Agincourt really exists.” Everything I do is motivated by that wish. And what I can learn along the way.