Watrous shines through 'Sacred Darkness'
Dim lights bring instructor's work into focus at SRJC exhibit

Feb. 4, 2000

The first thing visitors encounter at John Watrous' exhibit at the Santa Rosa Junior College is less. Less light, less distraction.

You enter the junior college art gallery and are hit by semidarkness, an unusual first take at an art exhibit, where more often bright spot lights shift the scene into a burning whiteness.

But Watrous, a former gallery director and an SRJC instructor for 28 years, wants the viewers to adjust their perspective even before seeing a piece of art. Because in less light, he believes, there is ultimately more to see.

It pays to linger. You can see more.

"What I am hoping for is people will come into this and say it's too dark, but if they spend enough time in here, they will find out its not too dark. They can actually see everything," said Watrous in a preview tour of his exhibit.

"Sacred Darkness: Sculptural Fabrications of Story and Place," opens today with a community reception from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery. It runs through March 15.

Past the huge gallery doors, you are greeted by hanging banners of vibrant color. You slip underneath a gentle canopy of translucent sheaths, swaying in a breeze you know not where it begins.

Once inside, the light still seems dim. On a far wall, you see what appears to be windows, the light barely blacked out by shades. But wait. Wait and walk through the rest of the exhibit. Over time, what is on the back wall becomes clear and distinct, so much so, you may marvel at your earlier guesses.

Watrous lit his exhibit, and each piece, with LED lights, light-emitting diodes, very low-wattage lights that have been used traditionally for switches on appliances like coffeemakers.

He designed the aluminum housing for those 20 fixtures. In these days of energy consumption cutbacks, Watrous likes to boast that the total energy of these lights is less than one standard gallery lamp.

It feels as though, after about 15 minutes or so, you are totally adjusted to the light. But Watrous said tests show night vision keeps improving, over about a 90-minute period.

So, once adjusted, there is the art.

"I really want to encourage people to spend some time with the piece. I am a bad offender of walking into a gallery and zipping around the work. I want people to pause and notice how their eyes are affected by the light and they can see more and more as their eyes adjust. 'Sacred Darkness' is about creating an ambience that is quieter and introspective."

Watrous, an instructor of three-dimensional design and computer art, who got a master's degree in sculpture, moves comfortably between the old and new, the mechanical and the natural. He wanted to tell a story with his work. Much of it is in found objects, rocks, pebbles, sticks. Each piece has a story with it, an experience, a trip, something that Watrous did.

"The work comes from a new desire to create objects based on special places and events in my life," Watrous writes in the exhibit guide.

The most immediate of the exhibit is "The Rowing Scull." Smack center of the gallery is a scull Watrous designed, complete with gear and motor, gliding back and forth in syncopated rhythm, a lulling experience. Watrous says: "There is something about the rhythm, like a heartbeat that connects human to machine."

As a young boy, Watrous, a Boy Scout, was very mechanical, fascinated by the way things worked. When he was 8, he built a rocket ship control panel out of things he found at home, a fair amount since his father was a building contractor. He got a ham radio license when he was 12. Later he majored in chemistry, was in the Air Force from 1964-68, and graduate school in sculpture in the '70s.

He moved from the arcane world of academic chemistry to art because "the chance of truly experimenting was rare."

"Under the umbrella of art, you can expand it to include anything you want," Watrous said. "Art is a system through which I can explore things I am interested in."

The scull piece allowed Watrous to make a mechanical analogy for rowing, reminiscent of prayer wheels he saw at Odiyan, a Buddhist center at Stewart's Point.

"I love making art while concurrently solving engineering problems which need to be solved to see the art," Watrous writes of the scull creation.

The other pieces, among them -- "Wood Flag," "Monte Alban," "Helix" and "Wisconsin" -- offer parts of things Watrous has found, in a place of experience for him.

Information on each piece is available through a guide visitors obtain walking in to the exhibit.

"Ball Rock," for instance, is of an experience Watrous had while driving with a friend in Ball Rock, a town just west of Corning on Interstate 5, in the Sacramento valley.

Their trailer unhitched. From across the highway, a stranger crossed the I-5 lanes, offering help. He gave them a hitch pin, said his name was Troy and drove off.

The resulting sculptural piece contains shale from the site, tubing, the cutout of a map of that area of I-5, under Plexiglas, lit by an overhead LED structure.

"He was our hitch-pin angel," Watrous said.

In "Monte Alban," a sculpture that deals with his visit to an ancient Mixtec-Zapotec site in Oaxaca, where he used a global positioning satellite device to pinpoint exactly where the site was in the cosmos.

Mixing the old with new gadgets, Watrous said: "I like to stand at a plane where people were at an earlier time, trying to get a sense of the rightness of nature. I am doing the same thing people have always done, using modern techniques."

You can reach Staff Writer Miriam Silver at 521-5403 or e-mail msilver@pressdemocrat.com