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House Talk

No. 17 - March, 2004

"Painting in Paris Leads to Landscaping in the East Bay:
  A Local Artist Tells Her Story"
A talk with Shirley Watts

Shirley Watts started out to be an artist - mostly a painter. She grew up in Pennsylvania where she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art followed by more studies at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in Rome, Italy. From there, it was off to live in Paris where her French husband was a teacher, and Shirley seized the opportunity to take more classes; this time, at the Ecole du Louvre inside that amazing, world-famous museum. Then, as things happen in life, the young couple was having such a hard time finding an apartment in Paris in the early 1990's that they packed up and moved to Los Angeles! After one year, they came north to the Bay Area where he began teaching at the French American School. They rented a live/work space in Oakland and Shirley continued her work as an artist.

They discovered a small house in Alameda which they rented (and eventually bought) and for the first time in her life, Shirley had a garden that definitely called her name! Her husband noticed that she was always "messing around" in their backyard, so he encouraged her to investigate the unique and well-known Landscape Horticulture Program offered at Merritt College in Oakland. Shirley signed up for what she calls "Landscaping 101" and after five years of study, she received her Certificate in Landscape Design.

And now enters the connection with Glass-Sabine. In the mid-1990's, the team had listed a beautiful house in the Claremont District of Berkeley. The good news was that the property included a large rear area that had once been a well-kept, carefully landscaped garden. The bad news? An absentee owner had let everything in the garden go (and was not willing to spend very much money on revival), so Glass-Sabine put their heads together and placed an ad on the job board at Merritt College - and happily, Shirley Watts answered the call! She performed a quick miracle of pruning, re-planting and re-arranging - and she has been working with us ever since!

After graduation from Merritt, Shirley took all the necessary classes and exams to become a Landscape Contractor, licensed by the State of California. Shirley's favorite part of her work is the design-build aspect. She loves the problem-solving aspect of a job; in other words, she spends lots of time seeing how the garden will relate to the architecture of the house - and to the people who live in the house. She loves to get people what they need and envision - and stay within their budget. She makes the point that her clients often do not realize how much work, and how many costly materials, are actually required to create a garden. Whereas a homeowner knows that remodeling a kitchen will be extremely expensive, and is prepared for the cost, that same understanding does not translate into the landscaping. "Creating a garden is a big construction project just like any other job," says Shirley. She prefers to design home gardens, as opposed to taking on large commercial jobs.

In the process of doing her field work (with instruction on irrigation, grading and appropriate plant placement) for her contractor's license, she discovered that she loves rock work - picking out rocks and stones and then creating walls with them. She laughs as she confesses that her other secret love is "busting up concrete." On a more serious note, Shirley says that she got her contractor's license so she could feel totally professional, and basically "do it right and play by the rules" meaning that she follows the legalities of the industry, and always has a signed contract before she begins a job.

Recently, Shirley's expertise has been showcased at two local venues. The first was at the 2003 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show where she worked with two friends to create an indoor garden on the rather inhospitable concrete floors of the Cow Palace. Using some old "time-lapse" film clips of flowers opening and closing shown on de-constructed TV monitors surrounded by lush, large-foliage green plants and tall bamboo against a backdrop of walls constructed from computer mother boards, it is no surprise that the display won "Best in Show" and the Pacific Horticulture Award. Last November, Shirley was invited to do an installation at the San Jose Museum of Art as part of the "Not So Still Life" show that runs through the end of March 2004.

Shirley continues her education whenever possible. She recently attended a seminar at the Strybing Arboretum, and she is extremely pleased to be joining the Bay Area Horticulture Society for their popular bi-annual tour of private gardens in and around Los Angeles. She is currently designing a small front yard for some clients whose back yard she designed a few years ago, and she is doing a large garden renovation project in North Berkeley. Of great excitement to Shirley is the fact that she is in the process of acquiring her qualification to be an Alameda County Green Business. She says "I think a lot of homeowners in this area are interested in working with businesses that are making an effort to reduce waste, use fewer toxic chemicals, and just be kind to our planet in general."

Even though Shirley Watts is an artist turned gardener, her artistic nature is still present in her work - except now it comes from the ground up!

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please contact Glass/Sabine by email:  Sheila@GlassSabine.com
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