Jay Pooley has always been fascinated by storytelling. Pooley, an architecture instructor, set designer and art director, grew up in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Festival and a thriving community of creatives.
The experience shaped his work early on. “I was always interested in design as a little kid,” says Pooley, who says he saw all of his friends’ parents working in the theatre and in set production. It’s no surprise, then, that his own creativity was inspired by the power of storytelling.
In the latest installation of the U of T Careers series, Pooley shares his approach to stretching the limits of creativity, and using different professional experiences as building blocks for the next career steps.
Pooley, who now teaches practicum courses at U of T’s Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape and Design, says he first discovered design by exploring it on his own. Pooley spent a few years after high school working on construction sites before pursuing a bachelor and master degree in architecture. “I loved the teamwork and collaboration that’s required in that work,” he says. It was work that also provided instructive context for architecture and ignited a life-long love of making.
While studying design and architecture at Dalhousie University, Pooley explored the idea of the theatre as a sacred place through his dissertation. “A theatre is a house of storytelling, like a church or a mosque,” says Pooley. “Whether through high, arched stained glass ceilings or following a path to get to the place of worship, like religious spaces, theatres too bring visitors into the particular experience and brand that they offer,” he says. As he pursued grad school, he worked on set design at the Legacy Centre, a theatre group in Halifax.
After Pooley completed studying and interning as an architect, he once again returned to his love of theatres, only this time as a journeyman carpenter. “I didn’t come up in the traditional way in production design,” he says. “I did a journeyman carpentry apprenticeship through the International Association of Theatre and Stage Technicians.”
But the accumulation of those experiences helped him to lead artistic visions and create astounding production sets for various popular commercials and short films (he’s also currently serving as an art director with the Director's Guild of Canada).
As his interests in architecture, design and storytelling intersected and overlapped, Pooley kept making, producing and learning. “Ultimately it’s about experiencing and listening to stories about who we are and where we’re going,” he says.
In his architecture practice, Pooley thinks about how buildings are meant to be experienced. “My biggest mentors have been architects,” says Pooley, recalling a quote by two of his mentors, architects Tod Williams and Billy Tsien: “We see architecture as an act of profound optimism.” Pooley says the quote stuck with him throughout his career, fuelling his perpetual curiosity. “The world is good enough to make art about it,” he says. “There’s something beautiful about the world to be celebrated.”
It also helped him develop a tenaciousness as a creative professional. “You can get lost in the idea that creativity is a very mystical power, and that if you want to make it as an artist, you either have it or you don’t – but these are all very teachable qualities, similar to playing hockey or learning calculus,” he says.
That’s a lesson that he brings to his students. “Whether students have an eye for proportion or design or writing or photography, there’s always some piece that you could use to develop another skill. To plug into the world around us,” he says.
Teaching students, he says, helps him keep his energy and optimism. “I am constantly amazed by students and their ability to keep their minds elastic to ideas and virtues, values and modes of thinking and working,” he says. “A big part of why I prefer to teach undergrad students is the huge learning curve that they travel across – it’s astounding,” he says. “Every year in the beginning of studio the students come with a blank slate. You see an incredible growth. In ten weeks you have an entirely different group of people,” he says.
Below, Pooley's TED talk at TEDxUofT: The Things we Make, Make Us.
“Ultimately it’s about going and listening to stories about who we are and where we’re going,” he says.