For Art’s Sake: The Gentle Genius of Architect Arthur Dyson

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While genius artists and architects are famously difficult and egotistical, Arthur Dyson, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff and William Gray Purcell, is fundamentally gentle.  It is not surprising then, that his successful career, marked by a notable conviction to innovative design, would develop into one in which the artist turns his focus to enriching and uplifting his clients and community.

When I read Tracy Kidder’s House years ago, I was deflated.  I’d previously thought I might write a book about building my first house with an idealistic Arthur Dyson when my late husband and I were idealistic 20-somethings, our contractor Greg Potter and builder Dave Friesen about our same age and attitude.  The truth is, I hadn’t been scooped; my book would be different than Kidder’s because of those characters and this architecture, but I used it (and toddlers and a job) as an excuse to shelve the project.

Years later, remarried, and knee-deep in planning a second house with Arthur Dyson, I’ve just read Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.  As an embedded author, Kidder develops the story of a man who himself is a great story.  Before I even finished Kidder’s book, I knew I had to write my own book this way.  Although this is not a book about architecture, I do attempt to get to the bottom of some questions artist/architects must grapple with.  It has elements of a biography of a man with an interesting life; but, at bottom, it’s my story of building a couple houses with the talented architect Arthur Dyson.

I was inexplicably over-prepared and nervous when I presented this notion to Art, my friend and architect.  He reciprocated by blushing as he agreed and tried to change the subject, calling up on his computer my house featured in an exhibit in Volterra, Italy. The image showed Italian dignitaries with my house pictured in the background, and we realized one couple pictured, the organizer of the show, had been out to California to see my house a few years before.  I knew I needed to talk to those architects, people he worked for and with over the years, as well as family, friends and people in the community.  By the next week, Art had typed up a list of “Contacts for Debbie.”  When he told me that, due to mortality, I’d narrowly missed a few important contacts, we prioritized the list by age.

When I call and introduce myself, explaining I’m writing a book about Arthur Dyson, the responses are:  “It’s about time” and “Brilliant; he deserves it.”  Practically everyone I have called has enthusiastically agreed, even calling me back if I left a message, something I’d been warned never to expect.  The difficulty has been to find controversy—try as I might, no one who actually has known Art can avoid positive superlatives—there’s precious little dirt.  Even expressions of frustration with Art’s sometimes quixotic temperament are quickly negated by “good thing we love him.”  In fact, people commonly assume a wistful expression, smile and sigh as I asked the first question.

Time tumbles the sharp edges off of memories and wears smooth some of the details, so talking to people who know Art strengthens the outlines for me and makes my memories bolder.  I’ve sought stories which preceded the first time I met him in the mid-80’s, and I’ve included stories since that time from others, but I’ve discovered that my encounters with Art are a complex microcosm of everyone’s. I’ve spent most of my adult working life–the 27 or so years I’ve known Art–teaching writing, most of that time at Reedley College, a two-year community college outside of Fresno.  My toddlers are adults now, and in 2002, when they were freshmen in high school, their dad Dennis Lencioni, co-owner of Art’s Lencioni Residence, died of a brain tumor.

In 2005, just before the kids’ senior year at University High School in Fresno, I married Greg Lapp, a musician.  As I write this book, Greg and I live in Dyson’s Lencioni home—the children, now grown, visit.  In order to start fresh (and to accommodate both Greg’s grand piano and my dining room table), we’re in the process of building a new Dyson home nearby on the Kings River.  Additionally, University High School in Fresno, the school where Greg teaches (and where my Lencioni kids graduated), is also a Dyson design under construction, so, as I write, I am observing two projects intimately.  My two Dyson homes are the bookends to this book.

Although my intent is genuine and authentic “truth” as I perceive it, this book is built of my memories and the memories of others; and memories, of course, are often selective or distorted.  I’ve sought corroboration where possible; often I just present the various versions of a story side by side.

One daunting problem is that Art is a fine writer himself, but if he writes an autobiography it will be fundamentally different.  (He says he plans to write his own unauthorized autobiography).  Welcome into Arthur Dyson’s humor, his heart, and his creative mind.

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