Dallas artist sheds light on homes and gardens

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JOHN Watson is an unusual artist who ``sculpts'' with light and shadow to create his own style of landscape art. Since 1947, he has brightened Dallas with his ``landscape illumination,'' a term he coined to describe the art field he pioneered. For almost four decades, he has been refining his art on projects as big as world's fairs, corporate headquarters, hotels, clubs, and parks, and as small as private homes ranging in size from luxurious estates to middle-income houses.

``I created an outdoor lighting service 38 years ago,'' Mr. Watson recalls, ``for which there was already a pent-up demand. People were building fine homes and wanting to show them off and enjoy them at night as well as during the day. They wanted to embellish and highlight the most attractive features of their properties and to put weaker portions in shadow.''

Watson had the technological know-how, the education, and the artistic flair to provide customers with what they wanted. He grew up in a small Texas town and earned a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from Texas A&M College, working his way through college by helping out in his father's cotton business. After a stint at the Sorbonne in Paris and time spent studying the lighting of such French monuments like the Palace of Versailles, he wrote a master's-degree thesis, the first of its kind, on exterior lighting.

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Before opening his business in Dallas, Watson also studied art in Taos, N.M., and spent four years learning about the many aspects of lighting at Nelo Park, General Electric's Lighting Institute, in Cleveland. After these experiences, he says, he was ready to think of landscape illumination as an art -- ``an orchestrated drama of light'' in which he could express his talents with directed and controlled light rather than with paint, brush, and canvas.

When the FBI announced that good lighting was a major deterrent of crime, his clients became equally interested in landscape illumination as a security measure. He was then able to design systems that served both aesthetic and security requirements.

``While experts and researchers sometimes debate the actual effect of lighting on crime,'' says Joe A. Mele, loss prevention specialist of the National Crime Prevention Institute at the University of Louisville, ``a body of research upholds the fact that security lighting has the greatest effect on controlling crime.'' Even if lighting a house in some areas creates pockets of dark shadows, the fact that the house is lighted to begin with is a deterrent to crime.

``A lot of people think we must be very expensive,'' Watson says, ``but actually our bread-and-butter jobs are in the $3,000 to $6,000 range. We do hundreds of modest homes every year, although those people who own very large estates do often spend between $30,000 and $80,000 for lighting systems.''

The energy crunch of 1974, notes Watson, turned out to be a very good thing for business because it forced him to refine his equipment and techniques to create longer-lasting lighting at less cost. He describes a garden he redesigned in Dallas in which he used ``25 percent of the original energy for one-quarter of the cost, and with coverage that had more sparkle and brilliance, and lamps that lasted 10 times as long.''

The lighting industry, he explains, has been able to provide more energy-efficient lamps by moving from the incandescent variety to gas discharge lamps, including the now commonly used mercury vapor lamp as well as metal halide and high-pressure sodium lamps.

These energy-efficient lamps allow him, on average, to bring security lighting to medium-sized homes for about 7 cents an hour, or 70 cents per 10-hour evening. The gas-discharge lamps that he uses give 24,000 hours of light without ever changing a bulb.

What factors must be considered when lighting the landscape around a house? Watson says it is important for the designer to understand not only the strengths and weaknesses of the total property but also the life style and personal demands of the clients.

``We study the approach to a house, ask clients how and where they entertain, and where guests arrive and depart. We ask how they normally use their homes during the evening hours and take into consideration the ages and interests of clients and their children and whether the family is inclined to be social or nonsocial. We determine whether they are looking for dramatic and showy or soft and soothing effects.''

He and his staff also take note of street lights and their possible effect on any lighting plan. They consider how to protect neighbors from glare factors and light spillage. Finally, he says, ``we must be able to calculate the cost of operation and maintenance of a system so that it is not a financial burden to the client.''

Armed with such background information, Watson, using his own coding system, proceeds to design an individual system to attain the desired effect, specifying the equipment to be used, the shielding, lamps, wattage, colors, and location and direction of equipment.

``It is where you place the equipment and how you handle it that, in the final analysis, makes the difference,'' he says. ``If you design badly and light badly, then you see badly.''

The Watson firm not only designs and installs but also manufactures much of its own equipment. Watson trains the crews who do the installations and also keeps a supervisory eye on the work of his almost 100 employees. His wife, Mary, is in charge of ``the financial end of things,'' including accounts and accountants, insurance, and lawyers.

Although company headquarters are in Dallas, nestled in a sylvan glade uncommon to the area, Watson is often hustling off to one of 14 branch offices as well as to hundreds of far-flung job sites. If he moves, talks, and thinks fast, it's because the volume of his unusual business requires it.

Recent commercial jobs have included the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles, the El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico, the Nassau Beach Hotel in Nassau, the grounds of Rockefeller University in New York City, and the corporate headquarters of such companies as Atlantic Richfield in Los Angeles and PepsiCo in Purchase, N.Y. Watson has also designed the lighting for new towns and communities, such as The Woodlands, outside Houston.

How long do such lighting systems last? ``For very many years if they are properly maintained. Systems I installed 30 years ago are still working fine,'' Watson says. When asked about the use of floodlights, he shakes his head. They are generally for carrying garbage out to the trash can, he says, not for the fine art of lighting homes and gardens.

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