Design or Art?

By Jim McCloskey

I spent a couple strange hours the other day, surfing through Internet references to what I have discovered is a fairly lively Art-versus-Design debate.  What I found was oddly interesting at first, but after a while, I began feeling underwhelmed by the whole discussion, which seemed mostly to be about trying to boil a truly complicated debate down to some essence one writer or another saw as both wise and irrefutable.

Most of the participants in the dialogue, so far as I could tell, were graphic artists of one sort or another, many of whom seemed to want to elevate what they do beyond Design to become Art.  And I agree with these folks that the lines are finely drawn between the two; where I part company with most of them, however, is in my refusal to believe that the distinction is as gravely important as their aspiration makes it out to be.

During this whole exercise, of course, I kept thinking about watershaping and how it fits into the discussion along with architecture and a clutch of other disciplines for which there’s room to consider such high-minded distinctions.  Along the way, there were two points that caught my eye, one practically based, the other a bit broader.

First, there was the thought that Designers work with clients and are to some degree bound into a transaction that places limits on raw creativity and freedom.  By contrast, Artists are effectively their own clients and retain complete control – even if the output is ultimately purchased and passes beyond the artist’s direct purview.

I can think of several people in the watershaping business who come close to meeting the standard for artistry set out here.  It’s a small group, mind you, and I’m aware that even folks on the level of Anthony Archer Wills and David Tisherman can’t escape the fact that they have clients they aim to please.  While those relationships aren’t always intrusive when it comes to crafting the output, it makes it harder to reach a clear conclusion in the debate in absolute favor of their being Artists.

But there’s this:  Michelangelo and Frank Lloyd Wright were ruggedly stubborn and flagrantly insubordinate, but both needed patronage to survive and develop their legacies.  Who would dispute calling them Artists?

The second, broader point that set me thinking asserts that, where Designers solve problems, Artists tend to cause them.  Of course, this one is a slippery slope, basically because it carries an implication that Artists don’t give a damn about either consequences or appearances, which is generally far from the case beyond the more abrasive of the fine arts.  But underlying it is, I think, a great case for preferring to be called a Designer rather than an Artist – particularly with an endeavor such as watershaping.

In my observation of watershapers through the years, I have generally found them to be problem solvers to a rather sublime degree.  For some, it’s figuring out how to fit in a necessary piece of pipe or some other functional detail to make a desired effect possible without impinging on aesthetic virtues; for others, it’s about achieving exactly the right flow using a scupper or fountain head that wasn’t exactly meant to work in the given application.  In other words, it’s all about reaching beyond the specifications and applying inspiration, grounded in experience, to get the job done.

That in mind, I know lots of watershape Designers and appreciate the way they look at something as it is and see a potential in it that transcends expectations.  That’s a gift, and perhaps their greater gift is being able to communicate with clients in a way that elevates the basic conception of what a space might be if there’s the wherewithal to let fly and make it happen.

After reading all about the fine points defining the razor’s edge at which Design might become Art, I’m left with my own wise, irrefutable thought:  If the Design is good – good in the sense that it tells a story and has a meaning and value beyond its raw appearance – it becomes Art by a sort of undefined consensus.

On that level, being a Designer is fantastic; being called an Artist is a worthy cherry on top.

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Nothing But Net

By Jim McCloskey

In summers long past, I’d come home from work, get into my swimming trunks, grab the newspaper and a cooling beverage and head for the pool.

On some days, I was left on my own for an hour’s worth of drifting on my big float, not a care in the world.  Before putting the cover back on the pool, I’d swim a couple dozen short laps and tend to any pool-related chores that needed doing.

On other days, I’d be joined in the pool by one, two or all three of my daughters.  There were two rules:  If I was still reading, they knew not to splash the newspaper.  And if any liquid remained in my plastic glass, there was a strict non-dilution-with-pool-water policy in effect.  In years of experience, I recall maybe one or two occasions (out of several thousand) where the newspaper stayed dry and my beverage untrammeled and I didn’t end up in the water with a child or two hanging on my shoulders.

Our nest has been empty for many years now, and my after-work routines are much different.  It’s been a long time, for starters, since I floated on the surface of our sun-drenched pool at any hour of the day.  All it took was my dermatologist asking me to keep basking because he wanted a new deck on the mountain home he assured me I’d helped him acquire and improve through the years.

I still swim when the sun’s not on the pool and probably use our spa more than ever.  And now that we have grandchildren, I’m getting nostalgic for the sensation of precarious buoyancy and for the joys of being around children at play.

To improve my lot in life (while protecting my skin), I’ve largely replaced floating on the water with gently swinging in a hammock a few feet away from the pool.  It’s not the same by any means, but it became more agreeable a year ago, when I finally set up our birdbath/fountain just off the deck:  The sound of moving water transports me back to days when my daughters’ furtive splashing was so often a part of my summer-afternoon experience.

Paler but a bit wiser, I am content – and I know I’m not alone in feeling better simply because there’s water nearby.


I speak with watershapers all the time, interviewing them about projects or hearing what they think about work they’ve seen on the site.  Whether they focus on pools, ponds, fountains or any other form of waterfeature, I almost always end up asking one of two questions:  What do your clients think about what you’ve done? Or, If you were the client, what would you think?   

In the former cases, the answers are universally positive, basically because we wouldn’t be talking about a given project for WaterShapes if the results hadn’t been pretty special.  In the latter conversations, the answers can get pretty interesting because few hold back when they see missed opportunities or what might be considered errors in design or execution.

I take responses from both angles with grains of salt, of course, because I know from the personal experiences I recounted above the asterisks that “client satisfaction” and its motivations are moving, evolving targets.  I also recognize the pride-driven biases of those with whom I’m speaking.  So while I know neither question gives me truly solid information, all of the responses have long infiltrated and informed the way I look for and evaluate projects to be published through WaterShapes.

Naturally, my own failings sometimes get in the way of my objectivity.  Back when WaterShapes was a printed magazine, a designer called to ask me why we’d selected a certain project for publication, letting me know pretty quickly that she wasn’t exactly pleased with our choice because it violated what she saw as basic principles of design.

I had to agree with her.  I knew from my conversations with the builder that he had responded both to site limitations and some specific requests from the homeowners in organizing the space.  That specific information hadn’t been included in the story – and, to nobody’s surprise, sharing it with the designer on the phone wasn’t enough to make her happy.

But again, she was correct and I’d let my familiarity with the builder and his process blind me to the fact that the project probably shouldn’t have made it into WaterShapes.  I learned from that experience, believe me, and I think I’ve done well ever since in holding projects we publish to high standards for design, engineering and construction – and have learned to set aside “mitigating circumstances” in the selection process.

As an ex-basketball player, I like to say that we shoot a really high free-throw percentage.  And that’s the way you seem to like it.

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A Path Not Taken

By Jim McCloskey

As I read Robert Nonemaker’s article on the recommissioning of the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens while uploading it to the WaterShapes web site, one comment he made stuck in my mind:  Seeing that fountain as a ten-year-old, he wrote, was one of his inspirations for becoming a watershaper.

I didn’t have that sort of uplifting aquatic experience as a child:  I learned to swim in a dreary, nondescript indoor pool and spent the rest of my swimming childhood in Santa Monica Bay.  To be sure, the Pacific Ocean was awesome and inspiring to the ten-year-old me, but witnessing its power never defined a career path for me.

I didn’t formally become involved with watershaping until I was already well engaged in my publishing career, which I’d begun in college at the age of 19.  I’d worked on a bunch of books and several magazines by the time I took the editor’s chair at Pool & Spa News a dozen years later, in 1987.  But I’d always had an eye for water and had seen and appreciated a lot of cool watershapes before any aquatic interest and my career collided.

By 1987, I’d already seen the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, and I even knew that another of Julia Morgan’s Hearst-funded pools was under plywood on the beach in Santa Monica.  I’d stared for hours at waterfalls in Yosemite, built tiny dams on streams to create warmer bathing pools in the San Gabriel Mountains and had a poster of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths on my office wall.

I’d been swimming in rivers and lakes all over California and Oregon by 1987 and had found my way into a pool or two in various hotels across the country.  As an amateur art historian, I’d made a study of fountains and what they say about the communities that built them.  This led me to a variety of fountain plazas in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and other cities I visited on my travels – attractions not universally targeted by the typical sightseer.

Indeed, I’ve felt a compelling urge to be around water through all of my life, but no, there was never a moment where I felt grabbed by the shoulders and pushed onto an aquatic career path.  I have to say that I envy Bob his lifetime Longwood experience, and I can’t help wishing I’d been able to use what I’d seen through the years as the sort inspiration he found in sizing up the recommissioned Main Fountain Garden.

These thoughts have made me a bit wistful, but in truth I look back on 40-plus years in publishing with no regrets:  I know I’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people in a range of industries and professions, and I rest easy knowing I’ve made a difference.


About ten years ago, my wife Judy accompanied me to a trade show in Las Vegas, and it was my intention to take her to the Fountains of Bellagio so I could explain to her that its very existence was one of the reasons why I was so happy about publishing WaterShapes.  As luck would have it, however, the wind was high enough that evening that all shows had been cancelled – and so cold that we fled almost immediately.

The Basin of Bellagio is impressive, but that night it wasn’t particularly dramatic beyond the fact that the winds were kicking up some interesting ripples.  Long story short, weather conditions may have kept me from sharing my thoughts about watershaping with Judy that night, but now I’m hopeful that Longwood Gardens will give me another shot at it.

As it turns out, our youngest daughter is moving to Philadelphia this month and will be there for at least the next four years as an intern and medical resident at the University of Pennsylvania.  So Judy and I will be visiting from time to time, and I plan to take advantage of those multiple sojourns to visit Longwood Gardens a time or two.

If the depth, the raw profundity of the experience Bob describes in his article (click here) is any indication, I’ll get another shot at explaining my love of watershaping to my exceedingly patient spouse!

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Watching the Water

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve witnessed and participated in discussions of water safety on a professional level for more than 30 years now, and I can remember a time when watershapers in just about every sector were unhappy about raising the subject in any way.

I could understand the negative attitudes:  No matter whether it had to do with pools, spas, ponds or any other form of open, accessible water, nobody was particularly happy about the thought of fencing things in, installing alarms or, most resolutely, feeling the need to frighten clients as part of the process of persuading them to add watershapes to their lives.

I remember the reaction to the Gus and Goldie program when it arrived in the late 1980s courtesy of what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute – and I have to say the fishes’ handlers didn’t help much.  One of the campaign’s first messages was “Never swim alone.” A waggish acquaintance of mine always put a pregnant pause after the second word and whispered the third so the strongest part of the message became “Never swim.”

His modest suggestion was to fry the fish, and it was only made worse when, during a memorable late-’80s trade show, organizers brought Gus and Goldie into a convention center in an ambulance.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)  There was a profound scrambling of messages with the spokesfish, and I’m more than happy to say that the water-safety issue has found better voice in recent years, thanks in good measure to the sensible folks at Water Safety USA.

I hear about what they’re doing mostly through the National Swimming Pool Foundation, which participates in the organization as one of 14 national governmental and non-governmental member-organizations.  This year’s safety message is a simple one:  “Designate a water watcher – supervision could save a life.”

It always helps when a safety advisory is an appeal to common sense and, even better, when it asks for little more than putting an edge on common practice.  Whenever the head count in our pool exceeded our three swimming children, for instance, I always asked someone else to help me keep an eye on the water, just to be on the safe side.

There’s an obvious problem with my old approach, of course:  It would have been easy for one or both of us to get distracted and assume that the other was on the case.  That’s the beauty of the designated-watcher proposal.  It takes that variable out of the mix and, for the period of the designation, keeps a pair of responsible eyes focused on the task at hand.

The great thing here is that, because of the widespread awareness of the “designated driver” concept, the new message doesn’t require any explanation.  Indeed, almost everyone who comes across the term “designated watcher” will know exactly what it entails, right down to the potentially life-or-death nature of the role.  I don’t know if this association was intentional on the part of Water Safety USA, but it certainly is powerful.

Water Safety USA calls for selecting a designated watcher even if all of the children (and adolescents!) in the water know how to swim.  It also lists requirements for those who would assume the role:  “An appropriate water watcher is someone who is 16 years old or older (adults preferred); is alert and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs; has the skills, knowledge, and ability to recognize and rescue someone in distress or can immediately alert a capable adult nearby; knows CPR or can alert someone nearby who knows CPR; has a working phone to dial 911; and has a floating and/or reaching object that can be used in a rescue.”

The alliance also reminds us all that a water watcher is not a substitute for a lifeguard.  In public waters, it notes, adults should corral children in lifeguard-protected areas but should still designate a water watcher, as drowning can occur even with lifeguards around.

All of this makes sense to me – sobering, but not frightening.  In fact, it encourages involvement with water in all sorts of positive ways.

In days long gone, I had my quibbles with the way the industry approached water-safety concepts.  Happily, that’s no longer the case:  I know the commonsense approach defined by this new campaign can work.

To learn more about how to keep children safe in, on, or around water and for more information about water watchers, visit


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Boundless Potential

By Jim McCloskey

As you’re probably aware, I live in southern California in the southwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley.  You may also know that it gets wicked hot here, which is why this slice of the globe boasts more swimming pools per capita than anywhere other than maybe the Phoenix metroplex.

What you probably don’t know is a basic fact about my specific neighborhood:  Most of the homes here were built in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and many of their pools are of an older vintage.  The one out back of my house, for example, was built in 1982, about seven years before my family and I moved in.

That makes our kidney-shaped beauty a “young” watershape by local standards:   Most of my neighbors’ pools were built in the late 1960s and ’70s, a time when simple rectangles and kidneys were the order of the day and bells and whistles didn’t extend much beyond a heater or maybe a slide.

Most nearby pools have deep ends, and some even have diving wells (although most of the boards and platforms have disappeared).  They also commonly have a three- or four-foot-wide ribbon of concrete decking around them, and precious few have attached spas.  (Happily, ours does.)  Even fewer have raised walls or any other sort of feature that protrudes above deck level – other than the occasional ladder, that is.

I know this because my wife and I like to visit open houses in the area to get a sense of what people are doing to enhance homes of the same general size and age as ours.  I also spent a weird afternoon a couple months ago looking at satellite views available through Google Earth – something I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to learn more about your neighbors’ backyards than you ever wanted to know.

Point is, when it comes to swimming pools, I live in the land time forgot, and this is why I have, through the years and whenever I can, always taken the opportunity to ride along with designers and builders to see their work and get a clearer sense of what’s happening at that moment – and of how far things have come in the years since WaterShapes emerged on the scene.

It really is a day-and-night contrast.  To some extent, it’s fulfilled the vision I had back in 1998 that the foundations of watershape design and construction could and should expand and that people working in pools, ponds, fountains and various other forms of contained, controlled water could and would benefit from a cross-pollination of ideas, techniques and technologies.  That truly has happened, and I think it’s been both productive and inspiring.

But what I witness in ride-arounds in southern California and elsewhere is astounding – a spectacular shattering of established boundaries of creativity and artistic determination.  It wasn’t long ago that vanishing edges and tanning shelves and fire features and leaping jets and in-pool light shows were bracingly new – the latest and greatest.  They’re still cool even now, but they’re also getting “familiar.”

Lately, what gets me going are elegantly executed rills and cool water walls, amazing stonework (both naturalistic and architectural) and incredible glass-tile mosaics, seductive toe-kick details and hidden shell penetrations.  There’s a growing consciousness that watershaping is a true artistic endeavor, without doubt or compromise, and it’s a thrill to get out and see what’s emerging with my own eyes.

I can’t wait to hit the road again to get a sense of what’s coming next.  My own pool and spa may be drab and dull by comparison, but that’s no big deal:  I have enough memories of good times and family fun that I still smile every time I step into my backyard.

In that context, let me leave you with this thought:  Watershapers, you’ve always done wonderful things for your clients, my family included.  But these days?  Now you’re reaching for incredible – and all I can do is urge you to keep striving!

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Spring is Here!

By Jim McCloskey

Although fall in southern California is my favorite time of year for its raw beauty, spring is a close runner-up because it is so busy.

In fact, some of the heavy lifting is already done by the time March 20 rolls around:  Early in that month, for instance, I’ll typically take advantage of a warm day to vacuum away our pool’s winter accumulation of debris, brush the walls and floor and split and clean the diatomaceous-earth filter.

Once that’s taken care of and the water’s looking brilliant again, I take a sample to my neighborhood pool shop for testing that’s more thorough than what I can accomplish with my own meager kit.  Invariably, this means heading back home loaded down with water conditioner, non-chlorine shock, a bag or two of salt and a good supply of phosphate controller.  I also check out the flexibility of the automatic cleaner’s hoses, the buoyancy of its floats and the condition of its pump.

Starting this year, I’ve added the task of opening up and cleaning out a small ornamental fountain’s buried basin to my routines.  I was surprised by how little there was to do this first time:  Even with the torrents of rain we’ve had in recent months, the burden of yuck in the basin was minor, almost negligible.

Nearby are three large raised-bed garden boxes that require our attention, one still filled with winter crops and our perennial artichokes, the other two awaiting their fill of mostly tomato plants and basil.  I don’t have much to do here beyond amending and turning the soil; Judy is the gardener, and I pretty much do as I’m told.  In fact, my main responsibility here goes not much further than making certain all of the plants are covered by the drip-irrigation system.

We also have a bunch of fruit trees:  lemon, lime, tangerine, orange and kumquat trees (some in multiples) that are closing out last year’s production and blossoming with next fall’s crop.  Then there are the stone fruits (apricot, aprium, plum, peach) and two varieties of guava, a persimmon tree and a pair of pomegranate trees along with a big passionfruit vine.  We have berries, too, including a tangle of blackberries and a wonderful Persian mulberry that produces fuzzy, impossibly delicious fruits about the size of an adult finger.

Not all of our plants are edible (although I failed to mention the herb garden, which could be bigger).  Through the years, Judy has planted lots of groundcovers, ornamental shrubs, palms, vines and trees, including a Brugmansia that’s done spectacularly well.  There’s also a whole registry of roses, including a Barbra Streisand she just picked up last week.

Other than the pool, none of this was here when we moved in 28 years ago:  no fruit trees of any kind, no berries, no vegetables and maybe a few roses.  For whatever reason and despite the fact that the area in which our house was built was at one time a grand tree farm, previous owners reaching back to the home’s origins in 1961 had never planted anything other than some bottlebrushes, a couple of cedars, lots of oleander and a magnolia placed awkwardly to one side of the backyard.  Our personal favorite, dominating the center of the yard, was a long-suffering juniper that had been torturously pruned year after year to make it look like a tree – and not to great effect, so it is no longer there.

It’s taken us all this time to clear away the old and put Judy’s fresh stamp on our surroundings.  The one thing the plants we found when we moved in had in common was that they were essentially maintenance-free (except for the malformed juniper); the one thing about everything we’ve planted since is that it all requires loving year-round care – fertilizing, watering, pruning, cultivating, harvesting, canning, drying.  We wouldn’t trade these chores for anything, even though it can get a bit overwhelming as Spring gets started.

You may think it’s odd of me to include pool maintenance as the kickoff point for our springtime garden chores, but as I see it, there’s a wonderful, karmic balance in it:  This is the home Judy and I have shared for 28 of our nearly 35 years together, it’s where our kids grew up, and it’s where we’ve put down roots to a point where it’s hard to think of being anywhere else.  But it’s also the place where I’ve worked on WaterShapes since it was first envisioned in my spa on a fateful day in the spring of 1998.

After three decades of careful attention to our surroundings, two decades of thinking about water in built environments and moving into another wonderful spring of 2017, we’ve reached a point, Judy and I, where this is all such a matter of routine that we’re relaxing a bit and are spending more time being deliberate about enjoying both our common labors and our shared harvests.

Yep, it’s a great time of year – and not a bad time of life, either.

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Adding Up

By Jim McCloskey

It was entirely coincidental, but the last edition of the WaterShapes digital newsletter included two of the most popular of all articles ever to appear on our Web site:  Tommy T. Cook’s “Casting Nature,” which originally appeared in the printed magazine in November 2010; and Scott Cohen’s “Beware of Exploding Lava Rocks,” which was published exclusively through the newsletter on March 16, 2011.

It’s easy to recall how popular Cook’s article was when we first published it:  He described the process of making concrete castings of huge Gunnera leaves to make fountain bowls and spillways, and for several weeks thereafter, it seemed like all I did was answer questions about where the leaves could be obtained and whether I knew if the elephantine plants could be grown in one specific region or another.

The article was translated to digital form in April 2013 (click here), and in the four years leading up to this date, it has been opened a phenomenal 28,950 times.

We published Cook’s article as part of our effort to bring the world of decorative concrete to the attention of WaterShapes readers – a campaign that included coverage, among other things, of the utterly amazing projects of Fu-Tung Cheng.  When we went all-digital in 2011, we carried on with this program with the assistance of our friends at Concrete Décor magazine, and I’m not quite certain why it’s not still part of what we do.

I also recall the quick, strong response to Scott Cohen’s article:  It appeared at a time when the beds of lots of fire features were jumping like popcorn through ill-advised use of certain types of lava rock.  What I heard then were plentiful corroborating stories – and tales of serious accidents narrowly averted.

This article (click here), which later appeared in the book, The Candid Contractor:  Lessons Learned from the Construction Defect Expert Witness Files of Scott Cohen, was a web-exclusive piece we uploaded on March 16, 2011.  In the six or so years since, has been read 17,488 times.

These two articles are joined in the all-time top ten by “How to Make Durable Pool Plaster” (by Kim Skinner), “Vanishing Edge Pools:  Problems and Solutions” (another item from Scott Cohen’s “Lessons Learned” web series) and “On Grounding and Bonding” (by Paolo Benedetti).

I have noticed the popularity of these articles and others, of course, and have used them to guide or inspire additional topic coverage through the years – although I have to say that Tommy T. Cook’s article is so singular that it didn’t leave me much leeway in finding similar subjects to cover.  It’s all about a specific form of art and artisanship, and I have long suspected that a large portion of its following comes from beyond the ranks of professionals who are the primary readers and users of

The same can be said for several of the other top-ten features:  While professional watershapers are certainly opening them, the subjects make me think they are also of interest to curious consumers who are collecting information and setting expectations for their experience of watershaping – although a text on grounding and bonding may be carrying this point a few steps too far!

As I see it, this is all the wonder of the Web.  By making WaterShapes wide open to search engines and at this point attracting upwards of 40,000 unique visits each month, we’ve created an environment where “civilian” readers, ranging far beyond the professionals we count as the core of our marketplace, have found a resource they can use in formulating their personal approach to – and preferences within – the realm of watershaping.

That’s cool, I think – not only for what it says about the diversity of, but also for the multi-layered industry it serves.

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