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It's All About ART

Interview by Jim McCloskey

3-21 Holden mugshotMark Holden smiles a lot these days, happy with the progress he, David Tisherman and a group of fellow instructors have made in the very short time they’ve been organizing a new educational program.

That program, called Artistic Resources & Training – or ART for short – is a spinoff of his years of trying to make the study of watershapes part of the curriculum taught to students of landscape architecture in American universities. Holden is a perpetual-motion machine these days, pulling together resources and sponsors to make ART’s first classes come to fruition. We slowed him down enough to get in a few questions about ART and its goals.

Why ART? Where did it come from?

I’ve taught what we call a "Water Module" in the Landscape Architecture Department at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona (better known as Cal Poly Pomona), and the eagerness of the students to learn about watershaping always impressed me and made me want to do more to see that this kind of education was available to anyone who wanted it.

I’m not alone in having done this. David Tisherman, who will be an instructor for ART and is one of its guiding spirits based on his teaching experience alone, has taught university-level courses to landscape architects and designers and knows the dynamics of these sorts of classrooms in great depth and detail.

What we both know is that landscape architects go through years of education and learn little or nothing about recreational or decorative water. It’s all about irrigation systems and stormwater runoff and wetland preservation – and nothing at all about what’s involved in designing or engineering or installing swimming pools, fountains, ponds or any of the other watershapes clients ask them to include in their projects.

On the flip side, people who actually work with water – pool builders, pond installers and a host of other aquatic professionals – tend to lack any credible, directed background in design fundamentals. It’s a disconnect that has resulted in too much mediocrity at a time when more and more clients are interested in and motivated by a desire for excellence in their environments, both at home and in commercial settings.

This is where ART comes in. It’s an attempt by about two dozen accomplished instructors to bridge the gap and create a next step in education – one that will start us on the road to replacing mediocrity with excellence.

How is ART different from other programs?

On some level, it’s about a set of core beliefs rather than about personalities or product sales.

At its heart, ART is geared toward transferring information from experts to students in the most efficient manner possible, pure and simple. For starters, this means trimming away much of the fat that can be seen in other education platforms – the fraternity-like organizations with levels of inclusion that recognize financial commitment to an organization rather than real educational accomplishment.

As we’ve defined it, ART is focused entirely on education, and what “association” there is flows from the benefits of building a community based on acquiring knowledge and learning how to apply it in the real world. To us, those are business rewards that rise far beyond membership in any association, so we decided to do without the club and set up a system in which education is all that matters. After all, knowledge has no expiration date!

Who will benefit from participation?

Any designer or builder has something to gain from this sort of education.

On the designer side, they will gain exposure to the practicalities of watershaping in ways that will demystify processes, introduce them to technologies, familiarize them with materials and arm them with information and questions they need to ask to achieve desired results.

Our aim here is to put an end to designer plans that abdicate all responsibility for watershapes “to others,” as far too many projects now do. We’re not going to produce people who know every detail, but at the very least we will help them take charge of the totality of their design environments and give them the moral support they need to demand excellence from those they collaborate with.

On the builder side, participants will be introduced to the ideas and insights that every landscape architect picks up in the classroom – information on color theory, design history, spatial organization, movement through space and a host of other concepts you don’t tend to pick up if you come to watershaping through the construction trades.

We want to help builders figure out their roles in the process of creating aquatic environments and find ways for them to become informed participants in the process of meeting and exceeding client expectations.

What’s on the calendar for ART?

We’re kicking things off with two classes scheduled for May 19 and 20 in Scottdale, Ariz., at Pebble Technology’s training facility. The first edition of our Course Catalog, which should be available online by the time this Interview is published, includes about two dozen courses that are now being developed by our faculty. Anyone who is interested in the May classes or in future offerings should visit www.theartofwater.com.

Why is this so important to you – and why now?

In today’s marketplace, the water-related industries face steep challenges related both to the economy – which we’ve all been dealing with, some better than others – and to changes in the nature of the client base.

As I see it, we need to overcome some old thought patterns and improve our position within the broader architecture/engineering/construction marketplace. For many years, most other design and construction disciplines have looked askance at watershapers; yes, there’s been some progress, but it’s been on an individual rather than a collective basis.

Part of the problem is that current education programs put watershapers in a bubble and are at their best in making these professionals feel good about themselves. That’s nice, but it doesn’t mean anything to architects or engineers or general contractors. What we propose instead is to establish credible programs that will mean something to those outside the bubble – and demonstrate to watershapers what can be accomplished with some effort and a little help.

Personally, I travel in many industries and have never resided in just one. As a landscape architect working with many types of professionals and clients, I have watched and heard how most watershapers are regarded, and it’s not flattering. What we want to do is lift the veil, set goals and give watershapers the tools and skills they need to compete in a fast-changing market.

Furthermore, by pulling designers into the fold and introducing them to the practicalities of watershaping, we begin to break down professional barriers and create a different playing field.

What are your goals here, both personal and professional?

I have been teaching for almost two decades, both in university settings and through trade organizations. I love having the opportunity to lift others by sharing my experience.

Neither I nor any of the instructors who’ve lined up to teach for ART are without flaws, but each of us has enough experience in running classrooms and dealing with students as individuals that we recognize the synergies that occur when education becomes a force that improves the quality of life of everyone involved.

My education in landscape architecture sometimes forced me to spend time in classrooms where instructors merely went through the motions. I hated those classes and always found that I learned more when the information was conveyed with enthusiasm and joy.

Each of ART’s instructors has been through that same sort of process, knows the pitfalls and has reached a point where teaching with heart and passion and enthusiasm is second nature to them. I know we can all translate our personal motivations to benefit wide ranges of students and make them much better not only at what they do, but also at what they want to do.

That’s what ART is all about: pushing watershaping and the aquatic arts in a new direction where the future is defined by artistry and excellence rather than imitation and mediocrity.


Mark Holden is a landscape architect, pool contractor and teacher who owns and operates Holdenwater, a design/build/consulting firm based in Fullerton, Calif. He may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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  • Guest - Peter Langevin

    Bravo! Mark Holden is an individual who deserves applause. The formation of the ART group is a natural progression for him and the others who are involved.

    I met Mark 10 years ago in a class he was teaching for Genesis 3. That class, "The History of Water in Architecture," made me a bit nervous: In school, history was my least favorite subject. But Mark’s course changed my perspective on watershaping forever. Here was an instructor with passion who loved what he taught. Besides being highly knowledgeable in the history of water and its importance, Mark had a great sense of humor, and he took away all the fear I had. In all my years, it was the best class I have ever attended.

    Since that time I have had many opportunities to speak with Mark and have even leaned on his extensive knowledge. In the years ahead, I'm positive the formation of ART will have proved to be a valuable addition to our industry.

    Peter Langevin
    Simply Pools