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Instant messaging: Artist and graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson turns ideas into ‘Knowledge Walls’

  • Graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson talks Jan. 24, 2018 about her work at her Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Page two of a "knowledge wall" by graphic facilitators Sita Magnuson and Alicia Bramlett illustrates information from a workshop titled Accelerating Innovation: Telling The Brain Story To Inspire Action, shown Jan. 24, 2018 in a book titled Graphic Recording: Live Illustrations for Meetings, Conferences and Workshops, published by Gestalten. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson is shown Jan. 24, 2018 in her Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson displays a color sampling sheet Jan. 24, 2018 at her Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson talks Jan. 24, 2018 about her work at her Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Page one of a "knowledge wall" by graphic facilitators Sita Magnuson and Alicia Bramlett illustrates information from a workshop titled Accelerating Innovation: Telling The Brain Story To Inspire Action, shown Jan. 24, 2018 in a book titled Graphic Recording: Live Illustrations for Meetings, Conferences and Workshops, published by Gestalten. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson talks Jan. 24, 2018 about her work at her Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A towel featuring the work of graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson illustrates a Negotiation for Executives class by professor Jared Curhan at MIT, shown Jan. 24, 2018 at Magnuson's Easthampton home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Above, graphic facilitator Sita Magnuson pulls up a piece of her work at her Easthampton home.

  • Sita Magnuson does some quick research while working on a “Knowledge Wall” at a World Economic Forum session in Tianjin, China in 2008. Photo by Alfredo Carlo

  • Part of a “Knowledge Wall” Sita Magnuson helped create at a World Economic Forum session in Tianjin, China in 2008. Photo by Alfredo Carlo

  • At right, “Land Narratives,” a 40-by-96-inch poster created by Sita Magnuson.


By STEVE PFARRER
Thursday, February 01, 2018

You’ve heard about visual learners, probably about auditory learners, and maybe about kinesthetic or “tactile” learners — people who acquire knowledge more readily through physical activities rather than watching or listening.

How about someone who “listens with her hand” and expresses herself visually?

Sita Magnuson calls herself a graphic facilitator or a scribe, which describes what she is, if not what she does. Essentially, she’s a trained artist who visually represents ideas while people talk, creating large, colorful pictures and diagrams that illustrate topics discussed in various meetings — an accessible, visual record that’s called a “Knowledge Wall.”

For more than 15 years, she has traveled across the country and overseas to a wide array of places — schools and universities, private businesses, world economic forums, including Davos — to work in meetings and events where she must make constant choices on how to relate, in artistic ways, the concepts under discussion.

Take the nautical theme — an old sailing ship, a lighthouse, standing rocks in a harbor — she devised for an MIT business management professor whose seminar suggested that running a company was like steering a ship across the sea. 

Her tools are acrylic-paint markers, colored pens, STABILO pencil markers and large surfaces like foam and poster boards — that, and a very attentive ear.

“A lot of the practice is really about listening,” Magnuson said during a recent interview in her Easthampton home. “It’s almost like a form of meditation. Your choices need to be grounded in a deep understanding of what the client wants to do, what the objectives are, and how you can visually serve that.”

It’s a skill she has developed over the years, but also one that in some sense may just be part of her creative nature.

“I was always listening with my hand,” she said, describing how she transforms spoken words into images. “In school, I was always doodling. It just comes naturally, and over time I’ve come to trust my intuition.”

Even at home, she says, she’ll often find herself doodling and drawing as she talks on the phone with friends and others, making a rough visual sketch of the conversation.

These days Magnuson, who with her musician husband, Jim Bliss, has a young son and daughter, is looking for more opportunities to work locally. She’s a cofounder of Easthampton’s Co.Lab, a shared workspace designed to give people who work from home — or maybe from a coffee shop via their laptop — an alternate place to go, and one with more community.

Indeed, community is a big interest for her: She says she’s particularly intrigued with how different workplaces are constructed and how those spaces “inform how we hear each other and work together.”

And Magnuson, 37, also feels thankful that she has been able to use her background and experience in art in a practical and collaborative way over the years, she says: “It’s been sort of a long, winding path to get here, but it’s been an interesting journey.”

Learning to listen

Magnuson, who grew up north of Boston, developed an early interest in photography, illustration and abstract painting; after high school, she enrolled in a combined five-year program at the Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College, both in New York, intending to major in illustration and Eastern European and Russian studies. She left after a couple of years.

Back in the Boston area, she began working with her father, a facilitator/graphic artist with a development background, and other independent contractors with Ernst & Young (E & Y), a company that operated, in multiple locations, what was known as Accelerated Solutions Environments (ASE), a set of facilitation tools and movable workplaces designed to help businesses solve complex problems in a collaborative way. The ASE program had been developed by Matt & Gail Taylor, an American couple, a few decades earlier.

Magnuson initially had the Harry-Potterish title of “KWIB,” which stood for “Knowledge Worker Information Broker,” though she jokes the job (as she did it) “really boiled down to being a receptionist.” But before long her talent for drawing was recognized, and she began assisting, among others, Kelvy Bird, a graphic facilitator who, like her, had a background in art.

“I shadowed Kelvy to see how she did it,” she said. “She was a huge mentor and a friend to me.” The two would work together for years and eventually formed their own company, dpict; both are also members of Value Web, an international group of independent artists, educators and others first formed in 2005 to support the annual Davos conference.

Magnuson says the modern practice of scribing dates back a good 35 years or so, but that its popularity and practice “has really exploded in the past 10 to 15 years.”  

A particular boost came from a series of animated videos that British animator/illustrator Andrew Park did in 2011. Bird transcribed various lectures by members of Britain’s Royal Society of Arts into 10-minute whiteboard animations that became a YouTube sensation.

Though her work is very different — Park’s short videos all took weeks to make — Magnuson says the goal is the same: making complicated ideas accessible. In her case, she’s also looking to reflect the different voices she hears as she sketches. 

“You’re listening for people’s tone of voice,” she said. “Even if you have your back to the room, you can hear patterns of speech and ideas. When you hear an opposing voice, you try to weave that in, too. You learn what needs to be recorded, what to amplify.”

Her topics vary greatly, though she now works primarily for nonprofit groups and colleges. In 2016, at a conference at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield that examined the nexus of art, land preservation and resource sharing, she created an approximately 3-by-8-foot drawing including a grassy field, a small image of Earth and a number of artfully rendered phrases such as “the LAND is a VITAL MEMBER of our COMMUNITY.”

For a conference in Canada for researchers looking at connections between early childhood brain development and addiction, she and fellow graphic facilitator Alicia Bramlet created the outline of a child’s face to frame some of the ideas that were discussed.

“The content of a talk can dictate color and the actual drawing tools you use,” Magnuson said. “Sometimes I’m looking for a more painterly effect. I’m trying to integrate more and more of my own artistic instincts into the work.”

During her career, she has been to 15 other countries and many states in the U.S., and she has worked at times for dignitaries, heads of state, former presidents and the leaders of global social moments. Online, you can find a picture of her sketching as she stands behind Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, at a World Economic Forum event in Egypt in 2008.

But Magnuson says the appeal of her work lies much more in the connections she has forged with people who do similar things — what she sees as playing at “the intersection of process, creative practice and deep listening.” Like others who often work independently, she notes, she also wants to keep trying “to figure out how people who are not together, not in a company, can share information and ideas.”

And the more of that she can do here in the Valley, the better. “That, and I’d also like to get back to doing more of my own painting,” she said with a smile.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

More information about Sita Magnuson’s work can be found at dpict.info.