Neville Clouten: Dialogue with an Adventist architect and artist

Dr. Neville Clouten travels the world with his sketchbook in hand, gathering impressions that have inspired his teaching philosophy, ideas about architecture, and what he has captured in watercolors. He presents watercolor workshops on the Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mary II, and leads groups of friends and artists on European river cruises.

Clouten received his degrees in architecture from Sydney University, Australia; Ohio State University; and his Ph.D. from Edinburgh University. He is a fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and received the Michigan President’s Award for the year 2000 from the American Institute of Architects.

He worked with the Opera House Project in Sydney as researcher and official guide, and as an architect in Stockholm, Sweden. For the past three decades, his particular interest in the academe has been in architectural education. He became inaugural chair of the Department of Architecture at Andrews University in 1980. From 1990 to 2003 he was dean of the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. His publications include drawings and more than 60 articles in architecture, art, science, and education journals. The book Academic Lite: Treasures of Creativity and Reflection From Life as a University Professor reflects his wry sense of humor, and his philosophy on the importance of keen observation and discovery in the process of creativity. In the foreword, Paul Stephenson Oles shares his impressions of Professor Neville Clouten: An accomplished academic with an “intimate familiarity” with his field of study and a “whole human being.” He is “someone who throws out the book and invents new rules.”

Clouten’s lifelong pursuit to explore, understand, and share the exuberance of the creative process is inspiring. The accuracy of his comment—“over the years, the centrality of creativity in human experience has remained important to me”—was confirmed when he showed me the prototype of a chocolate bar that was a design project by his architectural students, based on their preferences of chocolate. The prototype later became a real product.

His watercolors and sketches are regularly exhibited in juried art shows, including the Polk Art and Technology exhibition and the Michigan Water Color Society. His artwork is in private collections and corporate offices. Watercolors from the series, “Impressions and Reflections” are regularly exhibited in galleries.

Dr. Clouten, let’s begin with your sketchbook.

Virtually all my life I have carried a sketchbook. I am fascinated by time and place as well as accuracy. My intent is to record impressions in my sketchbook. As well as standing alone, some sketches are developed toward entertainment, as I want to connect with and appeal to people through that which is visually interesting.

Do you have a theme?

Yes, I have been influenced by my father who was a fisherman. Thus the sea or lake plays an important role in my art. One of my latest watercolors is “Low Tide at Boccadasse, Italy.” The sand/beach between the “stranded” boat and the cycle of the incoming tide give a sense of expectation. I enjoy imagining a conversation between people and with the elements of a watercolor.

Who have influenced you significantly on your ideas and expression in art?

My art teacher at Sydney University, Lloyd Rees, made a notable impression on me as a person and as a mentor. His lectures were personable and he shared his experiences. He connected as a person with his art and carried this into his theme and style. I have letters from him that I treasure. Here’s one letter where Dr. Rees comments that some of the simple, insignificant things that I had done—participating in an art project as a student and buying him a cup of coffee—had made a lasting impression on him. I have some of his watercolors and books. Donald Schon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his writings on reflective practice and his personal association, informed my own practice and focus on artistry in teaching.

Why does watercolor appeal to you?

I am fascinated by the way that this medium does its own thing. I enjoy entering into a conversation with the paper and paint, and watch how the temperature and humidity introduce variation. The drying of the watercolor often brings unexpected results. I find the process fun and enjoy the creative process, and often the result.

Why do you enjoy the creative process?

Creativity is connecting with people. It is communicating for the purpose of connecting—connecting between art and religious convictions, and sharing these with others. It is what Ellen White was talking about when she wrote that we are all creators and have the God-given power to think, to act, and to do.

Do you have a philosophy of art?

The creative process provides a model for reflecting on my role as teacher, administrator, and artist. Photographs remind me of experiences, but I cannot compete with nature. Realism in art leaves out a whole lot. Through the medium of art, one’s perceptions and worldview can be shared with others. A subject from nature or the built environment can trigger a flood of ideas. I may be able to put some of these on paper and share with others. It may even be possible for the watercolor to share passion.

So, what is the creative process?

Creativity begins with a need; a real need, a human need. This is the starting point in architecture: Should there be a new building or not? This is true of Genesis and it is apparent in the New Testament as well. Creativity requires keen observation. It is problem finding, problem solving, and reflecting on the process. Analysis and synthesis are required, and ideas must be run through a filter to decide whether they are worth something. It is a creative moment. Holding a pencil is to me symbolic of the continuity between this life and heaven. There are creative themes in worship, music, musical instruments, architecture, and the literature of the Scriptures. In heaven I anticipate we will carry on the process of creativity. The last phase of the creative process is communication. Engaging others in this process is part of the passion.

As a Christian professional, what has given you the greatest satisfaction?

I am satisfied with my architectural career. I have won competitions with my architectural ideas. I have designed churches; but I recall with pleasure designing a chapel for a retirement center, which included everything from the building to light fittings and communion glasses. I have found enjoyment as a teacher, as servant-leader, working with different kinds of people and reflecting on different methods of teaching. In the design studio setting, each student engages in creativity and reflection.

I am very conscious of the Lord’s leading in my life. I reflect on this in my new book with the working title, A Plan Larger Than I Can Draw. I have had glimpses of God as Creator through my limited excursions in the creative process.

Of all your life experiences, is there one that you would like to share?

My wife, Norene, and I had spent Friday sketching Mayan ruins in the jungle. Mid-afternoon we drove our Volkswagen towards the Pan-American Highway to find a campsite. The lack of road signs and ambiguous map information delayed us, and we were anxious to find a place to pitch our tent before sunset. As we climbed the steep mountain road, we came across a car. One of the Mexicans called out, “Where are you going?” “To Tuxla.” “You are on the right road. We are Seventh-day Adventists and are going to Linda Vista College, a few miles further.” We followed Dr. Rodriguez and his family, and joined in the vesper service at the school. We met Dr. and Mrs. Butler who insisted that we stay in their home. We were given a parcel to take to Mrs. Graves at the clinic just across the Guatemalan border. She was grateful for the company and gave us mail to deliver to the Adventist hospital in Nicaragua. Not only were we inspired by these loyal missionaries, but we were left with the lasting impression that while we may know at certain points in our life that we are in the right place at the right time, faith is fundamental in the Christian life in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty.

Do you have any parting counsel for your readers?

Everyone can combine passion with reflection. Our impressions of the aesthetic experience add to the compass of life. Dutch Architect Aldo van Eyck commented, “Architecture can do no more and must not do less than assist one’s homecoming.”

Norene and I have come to know and appreciate a more meaningful life. If it is true for the secular world, it is infinitely more important for spiritual truth. Life with the Holy Spirit, in both the broadest sense and in the specifics of eschatology, cannot do anything more and must not do less, than assist us on the way to the Homecoming that really matters.

Delyse Steyn (D. Ed., University of South Africa) is professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Neville Clouten’s address: 8695 Maplewood Drive, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103, U.S.A. 269-471-4163. Email: nclouten@yahoo.com. Some of his watercolors can be seen at http://www.nevilleclouten.com.