Painting With Water and Stone

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In the pool and spa business, the fun isn't always about slides, swings, grottos, swim-up bars and fire pits. Sometimes, says Oregon designer/builder David Owens, it's about the thrill of creating work that is boldly original.

There was a time long ago when building and designing swimming pools was — for me and my dad before me — all about the money. Any enjoyment that came from the process was a bonus. We worked hard to pay the bills and did quality work along the way, but as time has moved on, I've discovered there can be more to work than just keeping the home fires burning.

Over time, my focus has shifted almost entirely to the kind of sublime enjoyment that stems from artistic expression. Of course, making a living will always remain part of my motivation, but that's far from my primary objective. I've learned that by infusing my work with the joy and beauty of art, I'm able to foster a feeling of anticipation, excitement and discovery with my clients.

In other words, by approaching the work as a form of art, almost every aspect of the process changes. It influences the dialogue with clients and injects a feeling of purpose and adventure into the often-grueling construction process.

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It's come to the point that in recent years, I've been working mostly for clients who have given me carte blanche to explore my own creative instincts as I strive to deliver a unique product. In other, less adventurous situations (I still build some mid-range "ordinary" pools), I always try to put a little piece of me in the work that makes an interesting artistic statement, even if it's something relatively small and simple.

Consistently I've found that clients appreciate both the process and the results. From small concrete details to elaborate stone mosaics, they appreciate the way artistry can become a point of pride and interest, especially when sharing the space with friends and family. From my perspective, treating pools and spas as functional art has transformed my career in ways I would never have imagined.

IN THE MOMENT

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A big part of why I believe pools and art go so well together is that, like aquatic spaces themselves, art exists to create an experience for those interacting with it.

Water is a perfect foil for artwork with its reflections, tranquility, interplay of light and movement. That's exactly why so many great sculptural and architectural works accompany fountains, reflecting pools or even natural bodies of water.

I recently concluded a project, pictured here, that features a sun shelf with an elaborate stone mosaic, a swim-up table and fire features. It's an almost surreal composition that is meant to appear over the top from an aesthetic standpoint. To me, the scene only becomes complete when the clients and their family and friends are there experiencing the atmosphere and the beauty of the moment. All of the elaborate stone work, pebble finishes, sculpture, water in motion, lighting, fire and all other artistic elements exist as a catalyst to their human experience, which finishes the whole piece.

ART MEETS COMMERCE

Building a pool like this, one that incorporates the client's instincts and results in a pool that creates an experience, is a great way to leave customers smiling — which in turn leads to referrals. Naturally, there are people that don't appreciate the free-flowing style of art I'm known for, but by the time someone has seen my past work and has decided to get in touch, they usually have a good idea the general direction we'll take.

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I'm the first to acknowledge the work I do is unusual, even hard to define at times, and I'm not sure how well it would resonate in other more "traditional" parts of the country. I know for sure that in this region, my work has struck a chord.

In the pool industry specifically, working at this level can really set you apart. Many of my clients meet with other builders prior to making a decision. Although those firms may be competent and even offer some interesting options, none of them are doing work that is this distinctive.

In my case, the process with the customer is a little different each time. Most of the time I'm not exactly sure at the outset how we'll work together to create the finished project, but I'm confident that one way or another we will. There are points in the early stages when some clients are unsure about the direction we're heading, but as we progress and the work takes form before their eyes, almost without exception they become more and more excited.

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By the time we finish, I like to leave the impression that the end result is more than they expected. Making sure that happens leads to happy clients and ultimately gives me the opportunity to continue developing ideas and skills for new clients.

MATERIAL CONNECTION

For all of the idealism that drives me, the counterbalance is that building pools is hard, sometimes excruciating work. The days are long and the work is physical, which for some might obscure the enjoyment of making art.

I look at it differently. By pursuing and achieving artistic expression, the effort required by the construction process takes on new, even greater meaning. The thrill of seeing the end result motivates me, and those I work with, to embrace and the level of physical and mental diligence needed to make it through one day to the next.

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It's certainly not all daydreaming and waiting to be inspired by a muse. We are moving heavy material into place, shaping and cutting and grinding, all the while exercising caution to make sure the final outcome looks great and will stand the test of time. After all, what good is a work of art if it falls apart and ultimately becomes a source of frustration and expense for the homeowner?

Because my work exists in direct or indirect contact with water, stone that's properly selected and installed is a fantastic choice. Not only is it beautiful, it also makes practical sense in a harsh aquatic setting. It gives the work a timeless quality, which can't be replicated.

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But its durability is only part of the story. When you study different types of stone and how the various visual characteristics can be used as part of a composition, you quickly discover its seemingly infinite variety. The texture, veining, range of colors and the way it breaks to form edges in addition to the size, weight and shape of each piece all come into play when selecting and applying the material.

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I'm kind of silly about it sometimes. If I'm traveling with my family somewhere and see a stone yard or a quarry that looks interesting, I'll stop to have a look around. Working with a natural material with such a vast and rich palette becomes a process of constant discovery. I become completely inspired by the complex interplay of colors and even the sense of geological time embodied in the stone.

Later on, when I'm talking to clients before or during construction, I try to convey that kind of appreciation for the materials to let them know that the stone itself is special and carefully chosen.

By the time the material is installed and takes its place in the overall composition, it's like a note in a beautiful symphony, distinct in its own character while at the same time part of the aggregate beauty and creative statement.

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Later, when the vessel is full and the clients begin to experience the space, the full impact of the work comes to fruition. And when clients tell me that it's more than they had hoped for, despite my own cuts and bruises and hours of hard work, I'm inspired all over again.

And to think I get paid to do this!

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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