Architect and Urban Sketchers president Amber Sausen would rather draw in the Guthrie Theater than take pictures

By Amy Goetzman

In a museum in Singapore a few years ago, Amber Sausen, AIA, pulled out her sketchbook and began to draw the scene around her. A security guard came over to take a look. “Why don’t you just take a picture?” he asked. And then he jokingly insisted that she draw him. She did.

“We’re trying to move through life so fast that we don’t take the time to study and observe,” she says. Most photographs are taken quickly and soon forgotten. The drawings Sausen makes on location are indelible keepsakes of her experiences in the world.

“I don’t remember every photograph I’ve taken, but I remember every sketch I’ve made,” she continues. “Each one contains the entire experience; when I look at it, I instantly remember the weather conditions on the day I made it, the interactions I had with people, and what it felt like to be in that place.”

An architect at Alliiance in Minneapolis, Sausen is also the president of Urban Sketchers, a global nonprofit dedicated to on-location drawing. On the third Sunday of each month, she joins the organization’s Twin Cities chapter to draw and paint in a compelling public space. The participants come from all walks of life, but the sketches done by architects aren’t hard to pick out when, at the end of a session, everyone shares their work. “We architects seem to focus on perspective even in our sketches outside of work, because our brains are working in 3D all the time. We’re always looking for solutions to problems,” she says.

In late 2017, when Urban Sketchers celebrated its 10th anniversary with a 24-hour, worldwide sketch crawl, the Twin Cities chapter gathered at the Guthrie Theater. “I love that building,” she says. “When I was in graduate school, I used to go to the Guthrie café, grab a coffee, and do my reading in the building. I claimed it as my own.

“It’s a modern building that has a really strong relationship to the city,” she continues. “The interior of the Endless Bridge gives you framed views of the Stone Arch Bridge, the Mississippi River, and St. Anthony Falls. The design is so thoughtfully done. It’s not a humble building—it’s a big tower with lights on top. At the same time, it shows respect for the city; it honors the connection the Mill City Ruins area has to the river and Minnesota history.”

She flips through her sketchbook and shows me her depictions of the theater, awash in deep blue watercolor. Over multiple sessions, she’s sketched the building’s interiors, its exterior from the adjacent Gold Medal Park, and the riverfront just beyond its glass walls.

“I think it’s an especially interesting design for a theater, because when you step into a theater, you leave the world around you and enter a world of fantasy and imagination,” she says. “But this building doesn’t forget the real world entirely. Its design connects it to its surroundings.”

Sausen has a special regard for theater spaces, including the Myles Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which she worked on with Alliiance. Before she decided to pursue architecture, she studied and taught performing arts and considered becoming an opera singer. “The arts are in my bones, and it’s always a pleasure when I can bring that firsthand understanding of creative work to a client,” she says.

With Urban Sketchers, she encourages everyone to practice creativity. She sees it as an antidote to the rush and stress of modern life. “I don’t care if you haven’t picked up a pencil in your life. This isn’t about creating a perfect work of art. It’s about the experience of observing a moment and trying to capture something about that place and time.”