What’s in Your Toolbox?

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
Park engineer blends visual thinking, linear logic

As a child, Lisa Schafer created her own secret garden and hundred-acre wood near the family home in southern Indiana. Years later, she’s still making magical outdoor spaces, most recently overseeing parks planning and design for the City of Cincinnati. She retired from that position in June.

Lisa Schafer (BS ’83) translated a degree in architectural engineering into a career as a park engineer overseeing parks planning and design for the City of Cincinnati. She uses the same visual thinking skills in her personal artwork, shown in detail as the backdrop on the facing page.

Schafer (BS ’83), a self-described visual thinker, was torn between art and science when choosing a college major. She found a happy medium in the interdisciplinary engineering program, where she studied architectural engineering, which is now housed in the School of Civil Engineering. “I thought it would bring the creative and the technical into play,” she says.

With an engineering degree in her toolbox, Schafer rounded out her creative skills with a master’s in digital design from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and studies at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

In her daily work as a park engineer for one of the nation’s top urban park systems, Schafer drew on both creative processes and the methodology of engineering. In helping implement Cincinnati’s 2007 Centennial Master Plan, she was involved in improving wayfinding throughout the park system, engaging in restoration and historic preservation, implementing sustainable technologies, and installing sculpture and art elements.

She views all tasks through an artist’s lens.

“There are times when my problem solving gets very creative,” she says. “I look at every aspect of our parks as if I were painting or photographing them. I’m constantly adding or editing out elements to make visiting a Cincinnati park a more enjoyable experience.”

Schafer refers to the influence of painting for personal reasons. She is an artist in her own right and has shown her paintings at galleries around Cincinnati. She is currently working on large modern mixed media pieces.

“I love the effects of the chemistry involved in breaking the rules of more structured art forms,” she says, revealing the duality of the engineer/artist.

“I am continually influenced by the surrounding environment, and constantly contemplate its interpretation. For me the creation of art offers a tremendous sense of discovery. It is a journey built upon the sum of my experiences,” she writes on her website.

Schafer’s first job post-Purdue was on a bridge-building project. She then worked in marketing and consulting before moving to Ohio in 1991 when her husband, Bryan (BS ’82, biomedical engineering; MSM ’91), took a job in Procter & Gamble’s pharmaceuticals research and development division. By that time, the couple had two children.

“I am continually influenced by the surrounding environment, and constantly contemplate its interpretation. For me the creation of art offers a tremendous sense of discovery.“
– Lisa Schafer

Creativity is not a solitary venture for Schafer, who recently teamed with her husband to create an electronic greeting card iPhone application (www.pennygreetings.com). The project came about because she wanted to send her (now grown) children Valentine’s Day cards and couldn’t find any quirky enough. Necessity being the mother of invention, she went to work.

“When it doesn’t exist and you want it, I figure that means there’s an opportunity to create it. So we did,” she says.

Schafer didn’t have to reach far into her toolbox for the project — she had the creativity and her husband contributed the technical skill. Engineer that she is, she advises everyone to carry a well-stocked kit, including a healthy supply of creativity.

“Today, when I mentor, I ask one question, ‘What tools are you putting in your toolbox?’ I explain, ‘You’re building a life and you’re going to need skills in that box that will help you build it.’ I’m still adding to and editing my toolbox,” she says.