What an artist taught me at Thomas Jefferson’s vacation home

This morning, my family visited Poplar Forest, a plantation that Thomas Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law, and a place where he once hid from the British after a raid in 1781. A retreat home that he began building during his second term as president still stands today, and continues to undergo restoration.

It’s the first octagonal house in America—Jefferson was using octagons quite a bit in his architecture. He paid meticulous detail to geometric perfection, even to the point that the fire his home later suffered could be blamed partly on an unusual flue he designed for the dining room fireplace in order to make the room a perfect cube.

While we were in the third president’s former library, I looked out one of the large windows and saw a man sitting down in a chair on the back lawn with a giant canvas in his hands. This artist had picked a beautiful scene to draw.

After the house tour (and after rushing my son to the restroom when he started saying “poppy,” which is his word for “potty”) I stopped to talk to the artist, Harvey Bilisoly.


I was really impressed by how quickly Harvey had sketched out the house. I was equally impressed by the fantastic (but unfinished) drawing of Monticello that lay at his feet. (Visible in the lower left of the next photo.)


I casually joked that my son is an artist, since Paul has started coloring a lot. Harvey joked, “Tell him not to get a degree in it!” That started a really enjoyable conversation.

Harvey studied art at Tulane University—in a beautiful part of New Orleans that I got to see when I was there for a conference a few months ago. Today, he sells corporate alarm systems, but obviously, his skill with art serves him well. Today, he was stopping by Poplar Forest on his way to his son’s college in Roanoke for family weekend. He promised himself a few hours at the beautiful historic site to relax and draw.

I mentioned how much I regret having let my talent for drawing fall by the wayside, and Harvey offered to share some advice. He said it was a great life lesson that he had learned by seeing his father spend the final seven years of his life less than happy because once his golf swing was gone, he had no simpler hobbies to keep his mind and body occupied.

Harvey’s advice to me was to pick a hobby that I can continue when some of my other hobbies, such as biking and hiking, are no longer options. It might be jazz piano, or drawing, or painting plastic army man toys, but it has to be something that will allow me to enjoy my later years.

“If we were put here for a higher purpose, waiting to die is not it,” Harvey said.

If we were put here for a higher purpose, waiting to die is not it.

I agree.

I have always thought that I would never really retire. After all, everything I do for hire can be done in a recliner. (I’m even writing this in a recliner.) But there may come a day when I need something that is not as mentally taxing as writing and programming can be. Although I play guitar and piano some, perhaps I will develop those talents some more. Or maybe I should pick up drawing again. It would be nice to be able to sit down and make a nice sketch again.

The purpose of life is happiness. Developing a talent or hobby that helps us be happy has got to be worthwhile.

Harvey and I chatted some more about his art. It turns out that he recently went to Salt Lake City on a business trip, and while he was there he drew the Salt Lake Temple. Based on the quality of his art that I saw him working on, I really look forward to seeing that sketch.

For the rest of the trip, we looked through the cellar beneath Jefferson’s house and enjoyed the exhibits there.photo (29)

I enjoyed the entire experience, and it was great to go there with my family. I’m glad we were there at the same time as an artist who had a talent—and great advice—to share.