Radio Maine Episode 14: Josh Lowe
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. And today is a very special day because we've opened up our studio. We are now back in person talking with an actual live human across the table from me. He happens to be my neighbor but also many other things in his own right. This is Josh Lowe. Thank you for coming in and talking to me today.
Josh Lowe: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So Josh, it wasn't just because you're my neighbor and that you're fully vaccinated and that you happen to live right up the hill from me that we brought you in. You also have quite an interesting background, not only as an architect, but also in art.
Josh Lowe: Yes, I grew up immersed in art. My mom was the local art league teacher and we sat in those classes as she was teaching in the summer. And then when we got old enough, she moved on to the public schools and became the head of the art department as we were heading out to college and all that. Me and my sisters all ended up in art related disciplines.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And where do you fall in the lineup of children? Oldest or youngest?
Josh Lowe: I'm in the middle. So I have an older sister, Heidi, who's a metalsmith and then my younger sister is an oil painter. She's about six years younger than me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Oh, a middle child. So interesting. So that must've been fun to see where your older sister went before you and then the choices that your younger sister made after you.
Josh Lowe: Yes, well, Heidi, my older sister paved the way. In high school, she had already asked the art teachers to let her do jewelry. So, like when I got there, I was able to make knives and necklaces and rings and it was already set because she was great at what she does. She went to MECA, the Maine College of Art, for a metalsmithing. She now has a studio and having her ahead of me and plowed the way for me to be able to explore a lot of art related things. The teachers just let us do whatever. We had great teachers at that time. One time I won a competition to do a big totem pole for one of the big buildings in, in Wilmington.
Josh Lowe: They had a competition and I submitted something this tall by this wide. And I said, if I win, I'll make it 15 feet by 3 feet wide. I didn't know that I was going to win and I hadn't really decided on what that was like: it was just like an estimate. And then they're like, "okay, you win." Then I was tasked with figuring out what what it was going to be and how to get it in and out of the building. We ended up having to tarp off an area, pretty much the size of this radio studio, to build that sculpture. It ended up going into a big building in Wilmington.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was your totem pole constructed of?
Josh Lowe: I chose something called bio foam. It was like surf board material. Growing up I did a lot of surfing, so it was like surfboard foam, but it was not the beautiful white color. It was greenish. We bought chainsaws and started. I was allowed to have two apprentices once we got the commission or the competition. So then we were just hacking away early on with a chainsaw and then files. And then after that, like sandpaper and stuff. It was a lot like shaping a surfboard. We created different animals and a Native American head. So it was all the original inhabitants of Delaware. That was the idea. But it wasn't stacked like a true totem pole. It was all spiraling around this tall mast.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: There aren't that many people I could think of who, when somebody said, “we'd like you to be in a totem pole creating competition” would actually be interested in taking on that challenge. What was it that caused you to think, “oh, that's cool I'd like to do that.”
Josh Lowe: Well, it was just a sculpture competition and I think five teams ended up winning from five schools. When we went to the show, when they had installed all the pieces, we got to see all the other ideas and they were all completely different. One of them was a bunch of fish that were cut out of metal that were curved. I'm forgetting some of the others but yes, none of them were alike. You could tell that there wasn't an idea of exactly what the direction was. They just created five places where these sculptures could be placed in and let the kids have at it. And it was really fun. It was really exciting. And it was the beginning for me of making things that were scaled big. And it was enjoyable in that way.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have a connection to one of the Portland Art gallery Artists, Steve Rogers, who I believe lived not too far away from where your grandfather lived.
Josh Lowe: Yes. My grandfather grew up in Lewes and so did my dad. Lewes is one town from where I grew up. Steve Rogers is this amazing artist who makes miniature boats that I, as a kid, I was infatuated with because they were really well made. And since my mom was in the art community, he let me help him out. I remember putting sticks in water to get them ready for him to bend for his boat sculptures. I was lucky that he let me in the studio. I don't know how many sessions we did. It was a long time ago. But I was really thankful for that experience because he was someone who was actually doing art or architecture in the world. He wasn’t simply a teacher but someone who's job is to make these beautiful pieces of artworks. I'm thankful that he took me on. I was probably in middle school or early high school. I don't know how much help I was to him but his work is pretty amazing. And when I was with him, he was doing mainly sculptures, but he's moved on to doing a lot of these beautiful paintings.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yes. We have one of his paintings behind us in the studio with a gorgeous boat and some high seas a little bit of cloudiness but with the sun peeking through. You've had this experience also with the ocean. You have that connection. Obviously we live near one another on Little John Island but your connection with the ocean began far before you came here.
Josh Lowe: Yes. I feel like the ocean is the ultimate teacher. You can learn most things from the water. Growing up, my dad was a lifeguard ahead of when he had us, so we were sailing as kids and went to the beach often. And if you ever wanted to find any of my family members, all you'd have to do is to go between three and five o'clock to a certain beach where you’d find my mom or sisters. We were all doing seasonal jobs in high school, but you could always find at least two of them there. You just show up at the beach and that's where everyone connected even if we all had things going on in our lives in the summer that were pretty hectic.
Josh Lowe: I feel like it was pretty ideal. As I've gotten older, I've realized how fun and amazing it is to be by the ocean. And I think that's a lot of why I was drawn back to the east coast and also back to Maine. I feel like we're pretty fortunate to be this close to the water. I mean, we're roughly 200 feet away, and we can see it every day. I think it has a huge impact on the cycles of the day and reminding you that we're not just humans we're humans, in a landscape and in the world. So I love the ocean and surfing has been something that has pushed me to travel a bunch and to go all over the world to look for waves.
Josh Lowe: And, and I feel like from that, you know the tide, you know what's happening. And also like over Christmas we were all celebrating Christmas and my brother-in-law and I, who are both surfers, we were like, on the side watching, watching what was happening with the waves. Cause the next day it was just amazing. And we ended up just disappearing and going for an adventure and finding some great waves in Maine and then coming back into Christmas, but it was a nice way to feel like it's not just about the human experience, it's about us in, in the world. And in the ocean.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Maine does have some very nice waves, as you said, but it may not be quite as easy to actually get to the waves.
Josh Lowe: Yes. In Delaware the beach is right there and you can just fall right into it. But in Maine it’s tricky. You've got to work hard. And some of the surfers here who have put in their time…they're taking boats, they're getting on bikes, they're parking one place, they're biking to another place. And then they’re paddling across inlets and things like that just to get surf. And it can be five degrees below. I've actually been blown away, now that I'm a little bit older, about how much risk there is. Cause you're like, well, at some point I'm 45 minutes from anyone's help. And if the tide goes in, which it's going to do, it's even longer because maybe you're out on a point that fills in as the tide comes in. So yes, it’s tricky. It’s a lot of hard work, but when you do find a wave and you get good surf, it's it really fills your cup up. You get really stoked about that experience and it makes it even better that you've gone through all these steps to make it happen because it’s not easy. It's a workout.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You told me that it's better in the wintertime.
Josh Lowe: Yes. Typically the summer is the slow season for surf. There's not as many storms it's stagnant. I mean there are some storms and as you get into the hurricane season there can be some good waves. But consistently it's better in the winter. So usually when it's snowing, I’m checking the reports, seeing where to go, where it might be good. So that's the trick of it. When it's the coldest and it's the hardest to get around, it's usually the best surf. So good wetsuits are important and they've gotten better. So luckily you're not freezing as much anymore, like we were as high school kids surfing in the winter.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How do you balance this love of the outdoors with the very much inside work that you do as an architect?
Josh Lowe: I would say it isn't easy. You have to really push yourself to get outside and give yourself permission, which I'm not always so great at. Cause I always see that next deadline in architecture, but I find that when I do get out, I'm actually better at doing my work. So I try to give myself permission to go and surf and then step back in the studio. Cause then I'm way better at what I'm doing and I'm way less stressed about it. It just calms you if you've had a good surf in the morning or even within the last three days, I find that I'm much better at my job. So running my own business, my business partner and I, we've made that a rule to get out, do the fun stuff of mountain biking or surfing or paddle boarding, just go and do something and come back and get to work.
Josh Lowe: Don't sit there and hope and wish and dream. And my wife likes to say that I need to get my gills wet every once in a while. And I think I'm a much better husband, dad, and architect when I've surfed. So that's my excuse for continuing to surf. I feel for like the generation before us, all of their sports and things like that seemed to die away once they had kids. And I don't think that was a benefit for anyone. So I think for me, I try to keep it a part of my life and it hasn't always worked out, but I try my best to keep that balance. And I feel like you do a lot of running as well. So I think I've been inspired by you guys as well. I see you guys out there, we always notice you running across the bridge and we're like, she's at it again. It can be raining and cold, but you're still out there. So it's pretty inspiring.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, when I talk to people who tell me that they had their running workout and they were on their treadmill for an hour, I think good for you. And I never could do that. I'm like you, I would rather be outside and know what's going on with the weather. And some days it's not fun exactly. But you maintain this connection with, if it's raining, you feel rain. If it's cold, you feel snow. And I don't think you can quite get that on treadmill.
Josh Lowe: Yes, I agree. I grew up playing lacrosse in high school and there were a lot of guys that trained inside and once I stopped playing sports and once I got out of college, I stopped playing collegiate sports. And I was just like, all right, I'm done doing the indoor training thing because for me it's still work. This is supposed to be the fun things we do that are additional to our lives. So I always try to do it outside if I can, because yes, doing architecture, I spend most of my time indoors.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You've taken a very practical approach to your architecture. You first were doing a lot of work with construction and building before you even started your training. Do you think that that caused you to look at architecture in a different way?
Josh Lowe: I would say that construction was a part of my experience growing up as my dad was a contractor. So I've always had an innate desire to be hands-on and carving or working. And I took a furniture making class up in Rockport at the center for craftsmanship and I just like making and creating things. And so for me, I think the experience of creating is part of architecture and I try to be as close to that as possible. And sometimes I think it doesn't help. I think it holds you back sometimes because you're always searching for the practical way to make something, create something. And sometimes those practicalities hold you back from what it is you're hoping to design in the end. But when you get engaged with the contractor and you start working, they're very thankful for those moments where you're fighting to make that design idea into something that's real. So it helps there, but sometimes in the early stages it can slow you down because you're already thinking about the means and methods of how it goes together.
Josh Lowe: And sometimes I have to pull back and say, what would I really want if none of that was there? Because that's what architecture is, right? That's what design is. We can easily make a house again. It's about trying to find a way of creating a building that fits the current person and the current unique parts of who the occupants will be. If it's a house you won't want to answer the question originally for that person and for the time. And if you're held back by either the construction or recreating something again, you're not answering that question for the first time. You're just doing a repeat. And I think that that's the exciting part about architecture is that you've found an answer that fits the people that are there, the occupants, and also fits the moment in time. It's not just something that's a recreation.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So it sounds like an interesting balance between planning and flow between this idea that you do want to have all the steps laid out so that you can get to the product that you want, but you also have to have enough freedom and flexibility of mind so that you can allow things to assemble themselves in a way that may be, I guess we call it in medicine, supratentorial. There needs to be some putting together of pieces that somehow you're not always entirely sure how it works, but it eventually does.
Josh Lowe: Yes. In architecture, we have a couple set moments that are a part of the process. You have concept design. Well, even before that you have programming. We determine what the problem is. It sounds like a bad word, but for us, it’s setting the rules of the game. And then in concept design, you're big picture, what is this project about? It's the elevator pitch of the project. And then schematic design, you're starting to fit the puzzle pieces together and see how they relate. And at that point you've got the object. Usually you've got the parts it's got a bathroom, it's got a kitchen, an office, and they're starting to nest into each other. And I think usually we've presented a three-dimensional exterior, if it's an exterior project, and a walkthrough of the interior.
Josh Lowe: So the people usually know what it's looking like and have signed off on that. And then we move to design developments; what is it made of, what is between the two rooms? It's not just these gray lines, it's not just two lines. It’s something. What is it? Is it stone? Is it stucco? Is it wood? So architecture does have a process of working towards that. That is helpful when you start to allow you for that freedom in each place. So if you complete the steps, I think it really helps outline where you're at and keeps everyone on task, because it's really easy to jump back into another stage, but I've learned from practice that it's not good. You’ve got to work through it and own the process as well.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So you started in Delaware and then you hopped out to the West Coast and then you came back to the East Coast two and a half years ago. What was the draw to California? How did you end up out there?
Josh Lowe: When I graduated, I went to Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and it was a great experience I was near the water again, and I got to travel abroad a bunch and live Rome and live in different cities. And when I got done with school, I went back to Delaware to chip away at some of my debt, some of the school expenses and, and just some construction because that's what I had done on the summer. So I was doing construction and I did a design build project for my mom, so I built my mom's house and redid that. And in that experience, I realized I know how to design in the way that we've been taught in school and I know how to build, but I'm still figuring out how to make a living doing design.
Josh Lowe: And if I jumped off on my own, at that point, I realized that I would just be recreating houses that I knew how to build, because I hadn't really developed those. There was two silos and I hadn't really figured out how to get from one to the other. And so I thought big city is going to be the quickest way to get that done. A lot of architecture offices and San Francisco's the only place where the grid of the city runs into the ocean. So it was like, let's just go for all of the things, will it fill every bucket? Can I surf, can I have a new adventure? And can I get my license and learn how to be a practicing architect? Because I think people think, I'm going to know everything when I leave school.
Josh Lowe: You probably learned this. Now I look at people coming out of school and I love that naive confidence. And I also didn't know anything when I came out of college. I had a piece of paper that told me I'm something, and I had no idea how to put it into practice. And so I think I knew that I could learn fast in San Francisco. So, I moved out there, filled up my Volkswagen Golf, put the surf boards on top, the bike on top, and just drove out with a buddy of mine with a hope and a dream. And it worked out. San Francisco, at that time, wasn't as tech focused as it is now. And wasn't as big money.
Josh Lowe: I feel like right now, it's just in a moment where it's really expensive to live there and having its heyday. And when I was there, if you were into something, there were people for you that were also into that thing. Whether it's surfing, rock climbing, everyone I ran into, they were like, if you like something, it's a deep dive into whatever you're interested in. You could find a crew of people that were excited about the same thing. I just thought the outdoor living component being outdoors all the time and then being able to do architecture was a great combination. So it worked out and I honestly didn't really lift my head up that whole time. I was working hard and playing hard going skiing as much as I could traveling to find waves all over the coast.
Josh Lowe: I literally lived as close as we are now to the bay as where I lived to the ocean. And at that time I couldn't believe it when I got out there, but no one wanted to live right on the coast because it was so foggy. So I literally could rent a house 200 feet from some of the best surf I had ever seen. And for me, I thought I had won the lottery. I just laughed. I was like, oh, this is the best. This is the best place you could ever live. And at that point in my life, I think it was. But as I started to spend time there, it was great for my career. Great for surfing, but we got married, Carly and I got married.
Josh Lowe: And then we had our daughter, Luella. And I started to realize that being outside and being connected to the water, and being able to fall right into the water, wasn't really an experience she was able to have. It was an experience I got to have because I had put the time in to go surfing, but this way was huge and it was dangerous and the ocean was heavy. And so it was harder to find those moments for her. And as you want to go buy a house or do those things, being close to the water was out of the picture. The housing market there was just so wild and expensive and just fast moving people were buying houses quickly. And so I wanted that experience for my daughter.
Josh Lowe: I wanted her to be able to learn to sail and play in the water. So Maine seemed like the right next adventure. Also, there's a transient quality to the Bay Area where you are friends with people and then they're gone after three or five years. There's just not this long-term investment in the community. There's some local people there that have stuck it out and are amazing. But I think for those who have come to it in their college years or post-college, I think it's harder to stay. It's harder to keep your foothold there. And so we would have lots of friends, or friends of my daughters, who would be there for a couple of years and then move on. So I think that was something else, I was sad for my daughter.
Josh Lowe: Also for me, you put this time and effort into friends and then they would disappear. I think that Maine has a lot of great qualities going for it. And one of them is that people seem to be here for a long time. I feel like my daughter's at an age where she's going to school and I think her friends around her will be around for awhile. And she's already doing sailing, and we're playing on boats, and we're just in the water all the time when it's nice and when it's winter we're skiing. So I think that she gets a lot more outdoor time here and we also get a lot more time as family. So, I think that those combinations were what we were hoping Maine would provide just that connection to water and the outdoors, and just more time as a family together. And we're pretty thankful that it's worked out that way here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You brought some of your own art with you. And it's art that you actually, you told me you and Luella spend a fair amount of time painting together and have, especially during the pandemic where you would actually have art time.
Josh Lowe: Yes. So I've been doing watercolors as just my art pastime. And so this one here is based upon when we went to Palm Springs, a good number of years ago now. My family was having a show where it was me, my sisters and mom. So it was the four of us. I say it was a show but it my mom said, “Hey my friend wants us to put some pieces into a restaurant and I signed you guys up for it. So here you go, everyone's going to put up a few pieces of artwork. Are you good with that? And I was like, I hadn't really painted enough. I was like, oh no. So we had just recently gotten to Palm Springs. So I did three pieces and this is one of them in Palm Springs. So this was just one of the photographs that I had taken that I painted. So this is the photo and, and that's the piece of artwork.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So this shows a sign that says ACE hotel, and there's a blue truck behind it. And then is that some sort of a well-known, is that ACE hotel, the structure that's behind it, it looks more like a residence?
Josh Lowe: So at the time when we you're traveling ACE hotel was this new hip place to stay where they'd have these smaller rooms, but then more cool accommodations with it. And so we stayed there and yes, it's this like road motel that they converted into something rad. It was a bit hipster they'd taken over this old school, fifties drive up motel and turned it into something, and re-imagined it. And so that was one of the places that we were around a lot. Yes. It's quintessential of that one moment in time and I think I painted this in 2015, so they were at their heyday creating these hotels all over the country.
Josh Lowe: And it just felt like an image. I represented Palm Springs in that moment with like dry landscape in the background. And I just love the colors, the blues, and the fact that the colors were mirrored between the truck and the background. So it was just a photo that resonated with me from our travels there. And then this was another travel in California, that's Mendocino. And these pieces, I started doing these strips and I would do them at different times and mask off the other places that I had painted. And I was just playing with the idea that if you create a color five times or three times, you might get it more on, you might represent the color better by painting it or mixing it five times instead of once. None of them were exactly perfect, but altogether they represented the true colors of the place.
Josh Lowe: It was just an idea we were playing with. And then this is just a picture that I took and painted of our dock down here. So the fact that our dock is a working dock with lobstermen showing up in winter days. And doing that hard work of lobstering is impressive. And the structures they have are cool and they're moving around. So I can understand why Steve does his paintings. It's very dynamic, boats. It's like this house structure, that's always turning and catching the light in the right way. And these guys pull up every other day to load on lobster pots from 200 feet from the house. So it's fun to take a few pictures and get a sense for it.
Josh Lowe: It's one of my favorite things about Maine that we still have a working community on the water. It’s rare and you don't realize it until you're not here, you just feel like it’s everywhere, but it's not everywhere. It’s pretty special to this area. So I think in that way it's fun to paint something that you get excited about or you want to stay because it is going away in some places because the scale of fishing is growing. It's cool to see that it's sticking around here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, Josh, I appreciate your taking the time to come and talk to me today. It’s been a great conversation and really interesting. The fact that you and I have lived very close to each other for two and a half years, but as often happens, and especially during a pandemic, we don't necessarily get a chance to actually have a conversation about life and bigger things. So it's been a really fun conversation.
Josh Lowe: Yes, I feel like I know you guys better. This goes by so quick. We've been here for awhile and this seems like the first time where we really get to sit down and have a conversation. So it’s fun. Thank you.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I've been speaking with Josh Lowe. He happens to be my neighbor on Little John Island, but also is an architect and an artist. I really feel very grateful that we finally have somebody back in the studio because one of my pieces of art is having these kinds of conversations. And so, of course, it's very collaborative and having done interviews remotely all these months is very fun, but it's a different sort of art. So having an actual human conversation, this makes me feel great. I hope you've enjoyed it. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle for Radio Maine.
Architect Josh Lowe lives with his wife and daughter on a coastal Maine island—a decision that was as carefully considered as the process he uses for design creation. Less than three years ago, their young family was in San Francisco, with Josh working on residential and commercial projects coming out of the Bay Area tech boom. Many of their friends were transplants like themselves, who had moved to the area early in their careers in order to gain experience among their intellectual peers, and over time gradually moved away again. As their daughter got older, Josh and his wife, Carleigh, decided to seek a community with more stability: a place where people stay, and where they could raise their daughter to sail, ski and otherwise appreciate a close connection with the outdoors. On this episode of Radio Maine, Dr. Lisa Belisle explores Josh’s physical journey from Delaware to Mill Valley, with stops in Prague and Rome along the way, his professional journey from art student to builder to architect, and his personal journey into fatherhood, navigating the shifting priorities that come with having a young family. Thank you for joining us in this conversation of conscious life design, and for being part of our Radio Maine community.