Welcome the unknown
By Julie DeLeon
I am a self-taught designer and relentless doer. I love plants and traveling the world to further learn about them. My natural instinct to ask how things work and why they are this way or that informs me as a builder.
Landscape merged my hobbies and interests into a profession. My first job was at a floral studio and greenhouse grower. The love of plants and the endless wealth of knowledge gleaned from them has been with me from a young age. I studied Latin American literature and political science, thinking I would eventually study law and teach. This approach meant that I would maintain my artistic work in painting and photography for personal time. That changed shortly after I graduated, as I spent my first years out of college in an office. I quickly learned that my creative interests needed to be a regular part of my everyday life. I stumbled into the field of landscape architecture the summer Millennium Park opened in Chicago. Walking through the park with a friend, we discussed the future and he proposed I consider the field. Rather than head to graduate school to earn a master's degree in landscape architecture, I endeavored to find hands-on work in the field. That decision proved to be very worthwhile as I landed a job that melded my photography skills and horticulture knowledge for a landscape design-build firm. Over the course of six years, I taught myself drafting software platforms, directed contractors in the field, and drew together the sum parts of what was my version of a graduate school education.
I have always been curious to learn and experience all that life can afford me. I cannot imagine a life restrained from the freedoms of exploration. When I decided to focus on a creative life rather than work in law, and in discussing this change with my dad, he reminded me that saying "yes" to one direction for my life also meant saying "no" to many other options. That has stuck with me over the last 20 years and very much informs how I've led my life.
Of course along the way there was always self-doubt, so my cure was long walks, time spent in nature. Moments of self-doubt often feel like times when I've overwhelmed myself with thinking too much. Getting out of my head, being humbled by the great vastness of the wild world, helps me return to my responsibilities with an implicit trust in myself.
When I founded Groundwork Design, I was confident in my abilities to design and construct thriving environments. In becoming a business owner, a myriad of new roles were presented, from financial management to leadership responsibilities to marketing. These additional duties demanded a lot of time and energy outside of the services expected of the firm. It was a challenge to establish a balance between life and work with all these additional demands. It took several years before I was able to draw a balance.
Designing and constructing spaces requires starting over again and again. Each project is a new beginning with a fresh set of challenges, restraints, and opportunities. Early on I recognized this inherent process as part exhilarating and part terrifying. I remember saying to myself, "If I can't get comfortable with this rotation as routine, then this work is not for me." My approach was to plunge further toward the challenge. It's given me confidence in my abilities as a problem solver. I can better welcome the unknown after practicing starting over repeatedly. This realization has deeply impacted other aspects of my life and continues to support how I approach personal opportunities and challenges. It's a way to hopefully prevail — to achieve one's own goals, to become a level of oneself and then to go further.
I am also continuously in awe and inspired by Mother Nature. To mimic and reinvent what is already magical is the playful joy of landscape architecture. My life is rich in friendships and colleagues that are enormously inspiring. I return to the work of Isamu Noguchi often as a great source of inspiration. I can identify with his urge to sculpt and shape with many different elements, materials, forms, and spaces.
While establishing my business, a dear friend and successful businesswoman shared a business adage by drawing three overlapping circles. Each circle represented one of the following: what one is good at, what one is passionate about, and what one is successful at making money. Her advice was that the business should live where these three circles overlap. This advice was enormously helpful. It kept me centered when an uninteresting yet profitable project demanded my attention or when a passion project was presented that may distract from business goals yet required the service of my heart. I understood the balance necessary for each of these crucial, precious pieces to assemble a healthy business and keep my passions satisfied. My advice for the artist and builder is to cultivate the state of being alone. Most are not compelled to linger in this space. I find it necessary for the whole of an individual as well as for the role of the artist. Shaping a garden space where many ecologies will live and hopefully thrive requires attention to detail and a centered perspective on what's important. To construct and therefore offer this dwelling place, understanding the great wilderness of oneself is required.
Julie's career path follows curves and detours through floral design and greenhouse management, the social services sector, photography, and the design/build industry. Earning degrees in Latin American Literature and Political Science, she is always eager for traveling, cooking, and outdoor adventure. She is the founder of GROUNDWORK, dedicated to creating gracefully evolving landscapes for private and commercial clients. She is a great communicator, a foul-mouthed pool player, and a self-taught designer who hurls her whole heart and weird brain at everything she does. Follow @groundworkdesign.
Words: Julie DeLeon