Friday sketches: Tampa architect doodles for good

Most folks know the feeling of sitting through long work meetings, but John Pehling knew just how to cut the tediousness: through drawing.
“The drawings start out when I’m in late-night conference calls: I will doodle and talk at the same time. I don’t consider myself an artist, I’m just a chicken scratcher,” Pehling says.
Though he doesn’t consider himself one, the artist has always been drawing, even though he never had an art class before he attended the University of Minnesota for architecture.
“When I was younger, instead of talking, I would draw things. I was always a sketcher and doodler. Because of that, I focused on design because I would conceive unusual designs. My mother encouraged this: she was a teacher, but also a concert pianist and had art in her bones.” Pehling says. “I always wanted to be an architect. That was always my track. I was one of the few people that got accepted to Harvard and Columbia but declined both. In school, I was lucky that I had a good mentor, the 50s classic architect Ralph Rapson, who took me under his wing and helped me get a job before I was even finished with college.”
In Minnesota, Pehling had the chance to work alongside people with great craftsmanship and picked up techniques through watching demos of renderings, which were mostly done by hand over the course of a few weeks. After being hired by Ellerbe, Pehling eventually found his way to Tampa where he joined Reynolds, Smith, and Hills. For almost 20 years, Pehling was their Design Director in charge of 100 people, with most of his career revolving around crafting higher education facilities throughout Florida, including 12 projects at USF.

Traveling inspirations
Aside from making a name as an architect, Pehling has gained an online following as an artist with his works dubbed “Friday Sketches.” Besides alleviating conference call boredom, one main reason Pehling draws is due to his wife’s encouragement.
“John has always had an incredible talent for drawing. Because of the new technology with architecture, he wasn’t doing it as much. He’s ambidextrous, so he can draw with both hands and even upside down for clients. About five years ago when I found out he wasn’t drawing, I told him that when we travel, he should do more because he’s so good at it,” says John’s wife, Lilly Ho-Pehling.

The “Friday Sketches” moniker started after the Pehlings took a trip to Portugal with friends. Pehling did a vacation sketch and gifted it to their traveling companions. He posted a picture of the sketch on social media and it took off from there.
Whether drawing local landmarks or cities from around the world, his works are small for ease in traveling so he can work on them throughout the week. Because of his background in architecture, it's no wonder that buildings enamor Pehling and feature prominently in his sketches. Setting out into a city with enough colored pencils to stock an elementary school, he scopes out compositions based on what he feels will make a good picture.
“Now, the Friday sketches have gotten out of hand with more and more detail. Sometimes they take an hour or two, while some have 20-30 hours of multiple sittings in them,” Pehling explains. “On a trip to Italy, I had my sketchbook stolen and lost about 20 years of sketches. Losing them, my wife said I needed to generate even more sketches. At one point, I had a pile behind my desk of 400 drawings. I have never really curated them, so I had some people help me organize them a bit.”
Pondering what's next

From this organization came his first gallery show at Reynolds, Smith, and Hills as part of their “Local Flavor.” Another big exposé of his works came with the Tampa Chamber of Commerce commissioned him to create works for their 2020 Vision Plan with drawings of the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Sulphur Springs Water Tower, and other local highlights, some of which were turned into posters to hang outside of their downtown office.
Pehling says he is “trying it out with retirement,” as he still does some consulting for his firm, but has considered the possibility of marketing his art.
“I have given a few drawings away to people, but I have never sold them. Now that I’m retired, that may change,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve never really promoted the work. Up until now, that sounded like work.”
Ho-Pehling mentioned that they were discussing the option of making a coffee table book where the proceeds would be donated to charity, but in the end, it was the fulfillment of drawing in itself that pushes Pehling to keep at it.
“I just started this to improve my skills,” Pehling says. “It’s been surprising how much people like them and say it brings a little brightness to their day.”
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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”