Interview: The Outside Track

This article is also available in Spanish

A conversation between two designers underscores the challenges to entering the profession.

By Jamie Maslyn Larson, FASLA

Jamie Maslyn Larson, FASLA, met Gabe Jenkins, Student ASLA, when he contacted her last summer through LinkedIn. Jenkins, then a BLA candidate at Clemson University, was interested in an internship at BIG, her former firm. He asked if she had “any advice about landscape architecture, because I’m always willing to learn.” In subsequent conversations, Maslyn says, “Gabe’s life stories and his tenacity and positivity made such an impact on me. I learned that I need to work harder to give platforms for the next generation of voices in our profession.” In September, Jenkins will be starting as a landscape designer at Sasaki in Boston.

Jamie Maslyn Larson: Can you tell me a little more about the family you come from and your background? Is there any tie to landscape, but also more importantly, how you tackle obstacles?

Gabe Jenkins: Growing up, I was raised in a single-parent household. My mom was the mom and the dad for us, and she did a phenomenal job with being the mother, provider, and disciplinarian. Those weren’t always good times, but I learned valuable lessons in those moments.

It really had a profound impact on me, and she always taught me to look out for people. And even though we didn’t come from much, I thought we grew up in a pretty substantial family, because we didn’t use the language associated with poverty. It was always about encouraging your dreams, going after it.

Forcing us to go to church early on, we used to fall asleep all the time, and then one day I started to stay awake and to pay attention to what was happening. And [faith] really became the backbone of everything for me, even with the hard situations or seeing the true colors of friends in high school. It was a pretty tough realization, seeing how God was still there when everybody else seemed to let me down. That kind of propelled me to stay optimistic because there [were] a thousand reasons for me not to be optimistic, or be in good spirits because of the unfortunate situation that I had come up with.

Photo by Victoria Markel.

Maslyn: Your mom sounds like a very powerful force in your life, but were there any other leaders in your life, or supporters in your life, that really pushed you to succeed?

Jenkins: I had a mentor that came up to me and my brother randomly while we were just in our own world, playing sports. We started meeting periodically, and that had a profound [effect] on my life. I would say I had coaches that really poured into me.

And just seeing my past, or what my family’s past was, that was a primary motivator…people not going to college, not finishing school, and just having all these unfortunate situations. So I was like, “I want to be the one to change that. I want to be the one to trailblaze that whole regime.”

Maslyn: You and I sort of share a background in economic insecurity…. But a lot of people react differently with economic insecurity. Some people, it makes them afraid or hold back out of fear of scarcity or loss, but it sounds like in the face of that, you continue to take risks. You talked about your rootedness in faith, but at the same time you do take risks that a lot of people wouldn’t take. How do you feel in that moment, and how do you overcome that fear?

Jenkins: So, sports created that chip on my shoulder, right? And then a lack of resources created the possibility for abundance.

Maslyn: That’s an amazing point of view.

Jenkins: People started to show [me], you have to really go out and get on life’s edge to get what you want. And I started reading books, or just surrounding myself with people that were doing things I aspired to do. That had a really big influence on me, like, “All right, if they can do it, I can do it.”

Maslyn: I was just going to ask you, because no doubt, you have so much energy and optimism, but there have got to be dips in the process. There are these ways that you get out of it, but maybe you can talk a little bit more about the low points. Let’s say, maybe [there are] obstacles that are out of your control, right? How do you tackle that?

Jenkins: Coming out of high school, I didn’t have any scholarships, really. I was like, “Wow, this is quite devastating.” I was at the lowest point. I applied to only four schools. I was trying to figure out, with every worst-case scenario there’s an alternative, so how could I figure out what that is, and maneuver and navigate around that?

And I think what helped, too—I didn’t surround myself with a lot of naysayers. I think people often have, in their circle, a supportive system, but if you look at it, those people don’t necessarily want the things that you want for yourself. And also trying to figure out an innovative way to get what I want in life.

So, okay, I wasn’t given this fair share, in my opinion. So what I [thought] was, all right, I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m going to be determined. I’m going to literally try to give it my all. And that just formed within me, and I will say, when I applied three times to Clemson, that was another low point, because I’m just like, “Am I really this uneducated?”

So, changing my mindset, I really started focusing on things that I could control. I’m naturally pretty high-energy, optimistic, and things of that nature. It became contagious, and then people along the way started to also shape my perception on things that were positive, and just continued to instill that confidence within me. And while people were doubting me, that was hard. I was just persistent; I was going to make this happen regardless. It was just wired in me. So I guess that just fuels me to really go after things.

Maslyn: I replied to you on LinkedIn because I saw that you had posted that you’re a design coach at Clemson. I asked if you would be my design coach, and you said no, but that’s okay. [laughs]

Photo by Dawson Photography.

Jenkins: The design coaching is a new initiative that our department at Clemson put together, trying to help transition first-year students in landscape architecture. I was presented with this opportunity a few times in the summer, and I [thought], “How can I pay it forward and help people that are coming along in the same way I was?” Because growing up, I didn’t have these people in my life to give me that direction,
to navigate through this whole design industry.

[The coaches] don’t know too much, but we still all have some significant understanding of the things that we’ve learned over our few years being in school, and it’s been just a really rewarding thing to see how the upcoming students are valuing what we’re saying. You probably can relate to this. “Wow, these people are actually listening to me. I have something credible and valuable to say. This is wild.”

Maslyn: Sometimes, coaching on design is really hard. I did it quite a bit, and it can be really personal, or people might be trying to do something different and new. It seems like you have the kind of personality where you try to draw out the best of what people are trying to get at.

Jenkins: I would say it’s a mixture of all of those things. But I will say it definitely is something intuitive. I really look back on my insecurities and I start there. What was I insecure [about] coming up? If it’s drawing, or sketches, or something like that, I’ll try to figure out, “What kind of line weights are you using?” Because I know, I had one medium pencil that I was using. And just changing those [things] and being able to experiment really increased and improved my work significantly.

Maslyn: It’s good advice. [There are] two things that I always recommend that are sometimes not a part of design process explicitly. One is just playfulness and having fun, and that can be expressed in drawing, as you said. The other thing is gestation—letting things rest. If you explore a bunch of ideas, letting them rest, let a little time pass, and let your subconscious do this work.

Jenkins: I wanted to ask, what are some of the biggest challenges of your role, and how do you harness your position to help others?

Maslyn: When you get to be 24 years into the profession, your role changes. I used to be very hands-on in making drawings, and details, and all that stuff, and being on the job site. One thing that has definitely shifted for me is trying to be somebody that’s setting the bar for other people to learn and grow, to be their own designers. I want to try to find out what makes somebody tick and bring out those strengths. So it requires a lot of time getting to know someone’s motivations and passions and interests, and then trying to connect that to a project.

It seems pretty obvious that we, as a profession, haven’t really addressed or tackled a way to be more inclusive and have our industry reflect the population that we’re serving. Do you have any advice for landscape architects on being more welcoming and inviting to minorities, underserved communities, and other disadvantaged groups?

Jenkins: I think it’s something that definitely should be talked about more. That’s another thing that drives me, because I know I’m one for one, as a person. And that just speaks to me embracing that individuality, embracing that I’m unique and that I am significant.

I look at it as, there’s a big market for underrepresented groups, and not just from an economic perspective, but as far as how they need more people, besides myself and others that are trailblazing in different industries, to inspire people. So my suggestion for employers would be, don’t be apprehensive about giving opportunity to people [who] may not be that qualified, because you probably will be blown away with how they turn around your organization, or how they provide a dimension that you never thought you would get.

I think now is the time to get outside of your comfort zone and really make a substantial leap, or an effort, at least. You gave me the opportunity to let you know who I am and share some of my stories that could possibly inspire, or to even enhance your work that you’re doing. And it’s not a matter of hierarchy or position. I think it’s just a matter of having a humane approach to people and not going off of the news. Understand it for yourself and you’ll definitely be blown away.

Jamie Maslyn Larson, FASLA, is a landscape architect and a cofounder of WxLA.

Leave a Reply