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Emblem Art for Every Day

Inspired by a 17th-century poet, one alumnus seeks to use art to transcend culture and language, communicating the gospel, as well as ethics and leadership principles. by Alanna Foxwell-Barajas ’06

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Several years ago in the heart of London’s Mayfair neighborhood, businessman Brian Oxley ’73, M.A. ’75 had an epiphany. While leafing through 17th and 18th-century texts, he found an emblem book by the 17th-century English poet Francis Quarles, first published in 1635.

After a career as president of Service- Master’s international side and heading management services for ServiceMaster in the U.S., Brian had trained leaders using just about every tool available. Even after leaving ServiceMaster corporate in 1998, and working since as the company’s distributor for Japan, he realized that the crux of his role in every position was training individuals—and the traditional training model just wasn’t working in other countries.

“So much of who we are and what we do comes from how we were raised,” Brian says. “You can’t only just translate words across cultures.”

Surrounded by the dusty wisdom of philosophers and poets in Mayfair that day, he opened Quarles’ Emblems and began to read. “An emblem is but a silent parable,” Quarles wrote. And later: “Before knowledge of letters, God was known by hieroglyphics; and, indeed, what are the heavens, the earth, nay every creature, hieroglyphics and emblems of his glory.” As he leafed through, Brian noted the intricate pictures with minimal commentary.

“I thought, we have to go back to the way things used to be,” Brian says. “Hieroglyphics made me think also of kanji [Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing] and how the written language came first from pictures.”

Brian used the inspiration from emblem books that he has since been collecting from all over the world and produced his own first piece, Emblems of Leadership Imagined. He conceives the images and his full-time illustrator, Tim Ladwig, illustrates them. He has used this collection of leadership training emblems to generate discussions during training sessions in Asia and the United States

“We are still facilitating training, but when we used to ask, ‘What do you think?’ all we’d see were heads down and averted eyes. Now when we ask, ‘What do you see?’ people start talking. I see this as a genesis for business.”

But what started as a way to be better in business communication quickly turned into an avid hobby, and even a tool for evangelism, as with his most recent piece, The Last Tower. “It’s a way to generate thought while not preaching at people,” Brian says. “The commentary is not meant to be the definition or final word, but rather to trigger discussion and thought.”

Brian now sees emblems all through daily life. Every story, conversation, situation, and observation becomes an emblem in his mind. “I love the idea of presenting God to the eyes as well as the ears,” he says, “just by watching and listening.”

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