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Artist Combines Skills to Create Tranquil Places : Sculptures: Former landscaper Lew Watanabe does environmental make-overs with rock, water and plants.

January 04, 1991|JIM SCHMALTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Schmaltz is a Los Angeles writer

Many artists say their ultimate goal is to change the world around them. Few will claim that they've succeeded.

But artist Lew Watanabe is constantly changing the world around him--literally.

"I went from a landscaper to an artist," says Watanabe, 58. "I never thought I'd be doing this."

What Watanabe does is combine landscaping, nursery skills and sculpting to create unusual environments for a specific location. But unlike more provocative artists such as Christo--the renegade who once placed fences across Marin County fields and surrounded an island with pink plastic--Watanabe's efforts are more like tiny Gardens of Eden.

His environmental make-overs evoke something from a science fiction movie where a barren land is turned into a thriving landscape.

"He was able to create a place that on a daily basis gives me so much," says Lois Neiter, whose Van Nuys residence is home to three of Watanabe's sculpture gardens. "It's a place of tranquility . . . of peace."

An art collector for more than 10 years, Neiter owns original works from world-famous sculptors such as Robert Graham, Anthony Caro and Jonathan Borofsky, but says Watanabe is in a class by himself.

"I think I have a real sense of what quality sculpture is," she says. "Lew's work is unique. I have very strong feelings about it."

At a time when art seems dominated by discussions of Robert Mapplethorpe's bullwhips and Karen Finley's yams, Watanabe--who has no formal art training--elicits praise from collectors and critics alike for his ability to create meditative pieces that inspire reflection and serenity.

This quality earned him the sweepstakes award in 1989 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia, despite the fact that his exhibit didn't possess the grand visual style that usually appeals to judges, according to John Provine, superintendent of the arboretum.

"It was the first time a small design won," says Provine, a 26-year veteran of the arboretum. "But though it was a smaller space, it was a place where the judges wanted to be. It was so inviting, they wanted to stay and enjoy it."

Allen and Joan Burns commissioned Watanabe to work on a larger scale on their 1 1/2-acre Mandeville Canyon estate. He created two water sculptures and a dry stream bed.

"Lew can create illusions, sort of like Zen tricks," says Allen Burns, 55, who met Watanabe six years ago. "Somehow he's tuned the sound of the water differently on each sculpture.

"Visually and aurally, it's a tremendous piece of work. There's a great sense of tranquility. After the stress of driving home from work on Sunset Boulevard, I know I can dump my stuff when I get to my yard. It makes me feel that maybe something's worthwhile."

The focal points of Watanabe's environments are his "weeping walls"--water sculptures that vary in size and shape, constructed from slabs of black African stone, a type of granite usually used to make gravestones.

"I was in a quarry and saw the stone," Watanabe says. "I took it home and worked with it. When I got it wet, it came alive for me.

"It's a strong, masculine rock," he says. "But the plants and water soften it. It's the combination, along with the sound of the water, that creates the peaceful feeling."

Watanabe--who does all the plumbing, electrical wiring and planting with the help of three assistants--builds each piece without a specific plan, making it up as he goes along and accepting suggestions from the owner of the property.

"I don't design on paper. I approach this work like a painting," Watanabe says. "I guess you could say it's by instinct."

Despite this approach, the process can use unusually stringent methods to create the exact effect desired. On one of the weeping walls in Neiter's yard, Watanabe has a wisteria plant growing that he carefully bent at a precise angle for weeks at his nursery before transplanting it to the sculpture.

"My jobs can take anywhere from a few months to years," says Watanabe, who has been known to scrap a work at midpoint and start over with different ideas.

With a gentle smile and a calm manner that reflects the essence of his work, Watanabe is aware of his talent but seems genuinely surprised at how he went from simple gardener to artist.

The son of Japanese immigrants, he grew up on a farm in Utah, where he learned to work with his hands. After serving in the Army in California, he learned carpentry and gardening. Next was a job at a nursery and, from there, landscaping. His abilities developed slowly and without a master plan.

Now living on his five-acre ranch in Wildomar in Riverside County with his wife, Joyce, Watanabe maintains a nursery with many rare plants and keeps a stockpile of black African stone, which weighs 190 pounds per cubic foot. He's quick to acknowledge his three helpers, Glenn Bransfield, Gerado Medina and his stepson, Steve Sage, who help him haul the material and aid in the installations of his water sculptures.

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