Remembering Architecture Professor James Rapp, the 'Enemy of Ugliness'

James Rapp was a former Associate Dean of Architecture at ASU
James Rapp was a former Associate Dean of Architecture at ASU Janie Ellis

Do you see the plaintive youths, their pens pressed pensively against the page of a Moleskine as their latte cools? Of course you have; you can hardly order a coffee anywhere without seeing a member of this scribbling tribe.

Have you ever asked: What are you writing? What are you thinking?

Me either. Joan Didion did not sit in a Starbucks drafting Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Someone curious to see the fascinations and meanderings of a genuine artist might instead look to the sketchbooks of Phoenix’s James Rapp, tomes once sold in a microscopically limited composite edition by Cattle Track Arts Compound in Scottsdale.

Rapp was Associate Dean of Architecture at ASU in the '80s and '90s. His passing on August 5 created one more void to endure.

Rapp’s sketchbooks, some five-score of them, are now on their way to the Smithsonian Institution. What’s more, his wife Joanne, the legendary Scottsdale gallery owner of The Hand and the Spirit, has found her craft collection also en route to the organization.

His-and-her Smithsonians? Jesus!

“Jim and Joanne were an elegant couple,” notes a mutual friend. “They traveled to Japan many times. I think Jim must have been a Japanese prince in a former life. He dressed, spoke, behaved, and sketched precisely. He was kind, optimistic, and very intelligent. He never lost his hunger to travel and learn.”

Jim Rapp gave a copy of his book to my wife. She did not give it to me. This is strictly a look-see situation. A loaner. Due date for return: immediately.

But I’m taking my time with this collection and distillation of a lifetime sketching. Rapp’s ink is not in service of the doodle. What we have here are grains of rice. Elegant, simple, nourishing.

The black and white reverie is Japanese in its simplicity; this is the opposite of richly textured Kabuki artistry; it is a draftsman’s haiku. Look here at the rendering of a daddy long legs, its corpus an alarming crow’s beak; and there, an enormous stag beetle with a curtsy to Albrecht Dürer circa 1505.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross dissected death and loss into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rapp bequeaths us seven stages of design: Accept the situation, analyze, define, locate, select, implement, evaluate.

But these are not mere words. The penmanship alone would make a second-grade nun weep with appreciation for the elegance of the strokes.

The soul behind Cattle Track Arts Compound, which printed the aggregation of Jim’s sketches, is Janie Ellis, an "eminence grise" of Arizona arts.

Over her breakfast table recently, Janie said many things about Jim and Joanne. She explained that they traveled the world in search of native crafts for The Hand and the Spirit, which led to Joanne championing Phillip Moulthrop’s radiant wooden bowls and Claude Conover’s ceramic pots.

Then Janie interrupted our conversation, called Joanne, and promised lunch.

She continued, recounting the couple’s trip to Afghanistan. At one point, the couple loaded their car onto the same train they were traveling on. This was before America invaded the country. Taliban rule meant that, as a woman, Joanne wasn’t allowed to mingle. So she rode inside the car, lashed to a flatbed on the moving train.

And Jim would fetch her nourishment.

On Sunday, November 21, friends and admirers will gather at Cattle Track to celebrate Rapp, the self-proclaimed "enemy of ugliness.”

Guests are asked to wear a bow tie, Jim’s sartorial signature.
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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey