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My Disability Has Allowed Me to Use Landscape Architecture to Pursue My Passion

Written by: Jeff Kerr, ASLA, AICP, Principal

Figure 1 American Falls, Idaho

I still remember being pulled out of my third-grade class. Yep, I was about to find out that I was one of those ‘special kids.’ My teacher, Mrs. Johnson, recognized that I was struggling with learning some basic comprehension skills. What we would later discover is that early illnesses, multiple ear infections, and a couple rounds of tubes in my ears affected my auditory learning. What I heard didn’t always register in my brain. I had a learning disability. I continued to struggle through most of school dealing with this, and I still do to this day.

Sure, I excelled at a few subjects in school, which would become obvious later – including science, art and photography. It wasn’t until I took a mental acuity test that I began to explore what a gift this auditory learning disability would be.

Yes, not a disability, a gift.

While several areas of the test were average or even above average, my pattern recognition was several deviations above the mean. I guess my brain developed a stronger aptitude to see patterns and overcome my auditory hearing impairment. I guess this is what it must be like for people who suffer from other disabilities – like blindness – their brain helps enhance other senses to adapt, like acute hearing or touch.

It looks so clear looking back, but I’m sure that’s why I was drawn to the visual arts – art, photography, graphics, maps. I was captivated at finding patterns everywhere I looked – the dispersal patterns of aggregate in concrete, the subtle textural changes of soil in farm fields, the rhythm of rivets on bridges, mathematical geometry of nature, the simple hierarchy of lines in maps. I was one of those people who could look at a map once and get to a place without ever looking at it again. When I looked at something, I instantly saw geometric patterns of repetition, contrast, symmetry, balance, hierarchy, proportion, scale and value. I loved it – all of it.

Figure 2 79d N 127d E – Alaska

You can probably guess how I found my vocation – in the field of patterns and design. Getting into landscape architecture was the perfect fit for me.

Visual design has become my first language. It’s what comes most naturally. As one of my colleagues noted, it can also be a curse. It’s sometimes hard to stop designing when you have a need to get it just right.

As an outlet, I began to use landscape patterns as a means of expressing and interpreting the world. It first came to me on a flight looking down from 30,000 feet. I was mesmerized by the juxtaposition of nature and human influence – the historic meander of streams, geometric farm fields, the hierarchy of street grids, housing patterns, and soil organics create a variety of subtle tones on the landscape. I explored the patterns created between these human-influenced and geologic landscapes by exploring underlying patterns of light, texture, scale and form. The motivation of this art was to provoke others to explore the beauty of our world differently – the way I see it. The objective was to take the ‘obvious out of the place’ and reinterpret images by exploring underlying patterns and creating a new color vernacular and unique interpretation of landscapes. I call them mosaic landscapes – telling stories of how patterns shape our world.

I am blessed to be able to do what I do – shape the form and patterns of our communities. My disability has allowed me to use landscape architecture to pursue my passion. I get to create places for people to enjoy through shaping the public realm.

I would guess we all have some type of disability – some more pronounced and obvious than others. My hope is that everyone can the find their ‘gift’ and use it to make a positive impact in their community.

Figure 3 Paris, France



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