Jeff Watson: Science Editor Turned Sculptor

Although Jeff Watson has not attended recent CSE annual meetings, he is still working. Instead of in his office, though, he can be found in his art studio, covered in dust, perhaps chiseling at a piece of marble.

Watson’s engagement with stone began early. An avid outdoorsman, he enjoyed rock climbing in his youth, and he continues to hike mountain trails. In his earlier career, Watson channeled this interest into ecology research and communication. Now he enjoys the natural beauty of the earth through his work on stone sculpture.

“Go West, Young Man”

Watson received his BS in geology and zoology in 1962 and his PhD in terrestrial ecology in 1966, both from the University of Durham, England. The newly minted Dr Watson was ready for adventure. He accepted a job with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada and moved to St Andrews, New Brunswick. For the next 5 years, he researched marine fisheries, particularly with regard to lobster and other crustaceans, along the east coast of Canada.

Scientist to Editor

Like many in the profession, Watson stumbled into editing and discovered that he loved it. When a form of arthritis made continuing his research difficult, he needed a new job—one that would not involve spending many hours on boats. Fortunately, an opportunity to transfer to the publications office of the Fisheries Research Board came up at about the same time. Watson began work as an assistant editor of the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in Ottawa and by 1980 “ended up running the shop”.

During his time at the Fisheries Research Board, Watson experienced “electronic communication . . . just coming in” as he worked on the communication of scientific research. He used “the internet before Internet” and electronic mail years before the public did.

Council of Biology

Editors Watson was active in the Council of Biology Editors (CBE), the predecessor of CSE, beginning in the early 1970s. Having heard about the Council by word of mouth, he decided to get involved because it seemed to be a “cool” yet professional organization. He felt that the meetings were targeted to his interests and needs and that they provided a forum to meet other editors and to discuss such issues as standards and style. He quickly began contributing to the Council, including writing for the CBE newsletter. Several of his suggestions, such as improving the newsletter and reporting the annual-meeting proceedings to all members, are in evidence in Science Editor today.

After serving as chair of the Membership Committee and as a member of the Board of Directors, Watson was president of the Council in 1981–1982. He considers his tenure as president to be one of the greatest satisfactions of his career. “I and others at that time achieved some important changes in the way the organization functioned,” he said in his British accent, only slightly tempered by his years living in Canada. Watson helped to move the organization to become more democratic and more international, he explained. CBE had consisted of editors from only elite medical and biology journals, and Watson described it as “a bit like an old boys’ club”. He was at least partly responsible for changing the membership bylaws to include “all who could make a contribution”, he said. That move helped to lead to the name change to Council of Science Editors. It also might have contributed to the increase in total membership, from about 350 in June 1976 to around 1200 today.

Internationalization was an important goal for Watson, who gave it high priority during his presidency. He encouraged closer ties with European science editors and the International Federation of Scientific Editors’ Associations (IFSEA) and was active in that organization him self, both before and after his time as CBE president. He attended and sometimes presented at IFSEA conferences, served as IFSEA president, and kept CBE informed about the work and events of IFSEA. He also researched and lectured on the internationalization of standards for scientific journals, drawing on his experiences with IFSEA.

“I’d rather be in Philadelphia”

Having the choice among 6 months in Paris, 6 months in Rome, and a year in Philadelphia, Watson opted to spend his sabbatical in 1978 in the City of Brotherly Love. This decision was based largely on his desire to work with Eugene Garfield (a pioneering architect of bibliographic information tools), whom he had met through CBE. Watson spent the year as a visiting scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information, a job that involved a lot of lecturing. Meanwhile, he studied research communication at Drexel University. Reaffirming his joking quoting of WC Fields above, Watson enjoyed his year in the United States, after which he returned to the Canadian Fisheries Research Board.

Environmental Resources

Having worked in the same place for 15 years, Watson began to feel restless. Thus, in 1986, he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and joined the International Centre for Ocean Development as its director of information. This organization helps small island states to manage their ocean space, so Watson’s experience with fisheries research and communication of marine-science information was useful.

In 1989, he left the International Centre for Ocean Development to begin Jeffrey Watson Associates, an environmental-resources consulting firm, whose clients found him almost exclusively through word of mouth. He consulted at least part time until recently, when he made the switch to sculpting.

While still consulting, Watson was asked to apply for a job as the executive director of the Royal Society of Canada’s Canadian Global Change Program. He served in the position from 1994 to 1998, working to address such environmental issues as climate change and loss of biodiversity. He worked closely with the Clinton administration as Vice President Al Gore learned about the environmental problems that he would later combat.

“It just shows how slowly things move,” Watson commented. Issues that had top priority in the middle 1990s are still unsolved.

Editor to Sculptor

Although Watson had taken art classes and sculpted part time for years, it wasn’t until 2005, when he moved to Montreal, that he decided it was time to try sculpting full time.

Thinking he should have an artist’s name, he chose to go by “Guv”, which is shortened from “Guvnor”. Watson’s son, when mimicking his father’s accent, would call him “guvnor”, which is British slang for “boss”.

Watson sold his first sculpture, Oiseau III, in 2006 for $175. Now, sculpture consumes him. “I am constantly thinking about sculpture, creating ideas in my head and on paper, visiting areas to get inspiration or materials,” he said. It takes him between a half-day and 3 weeks to finish a sculpture, but he is usually working on three or four pieces at once, switching as inspiration comes.

The Work

Some might call Watson’s work abstract, but he prefers the term “nonrepresentational”. In fact, he is not particularly wedded to establishment descriptions of art in general. He says, “You don’t have to know anything about art to like what you see.”

Watson sees his two careers as being inescapably connected. “Research is an extremely creative process,” he says. “My career in ecology, geology, and global change research gave me an in-depth perspective on nature and on our human interaction with the environment.” The natural world—textures carved by the wind and the water, the lines of a skeleton—is one of his main inspirations.

Watson has two main approaches to sculpting: the planned and the spontaneous. His planned sculptures tend to be adapted from pieces of jewelry that he has designed (and that his wife often wears to his gallery openings), but even these are just a “point of departure”. “The stone itself leads you into different things,” he says, on the basis of faults, lines, and veins in the stone.

Much of the time, though, he doesn’t even begin with a design in mind. He leaves a stone in the studio, photographs it, looks at it, thinks about it, until eventually he starts sculpting. If he likes what evolves, he continues.

He sculpts “mostly in hard stones”, such as alabaster, limestone, marble, and travertine, because this medium gives him “the feeling of a vital and primeval connection with the earth, its evolution, and its many perturbations over the millennia”. The sculptures can be huge, often standing 6 feet tall and weighing up to 2 tons, although most weigh 20 to 80 pounds. Marble is Watson’s favorite stone to use because there is a great variety of marble and because there is such “tradition” behind marble work.

“The tools in the hand of the sculptor thus become a metaphor for Nature’s evolutionary and transformational forces which polish, erode, texture, or leave in a natural state,” Watson states on his Web site. He uses all kinds of tools, from power tools with diamond blades to the handheld hammer and chisel.

Watson cites winning the Rumsey Prize (second prize in sculpture) at the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, International Salon, Carrousel du Louvre Paris, in December 2008—“after only 3 years of full-time sculpting”—as another of the greatest satisfactions of his life. “This was a real surprise and an important recognition of my art,” he said.

Parlez-vous français?

Although he had studied French in high school, it wasn’t until he needed the language for his job that Watson became fluent. He was working in Gaspé, Quebec, and needed information from fishermen who spoke only French. Today, as visitors to his Web site,, may quickly see, Watson can move fluidly between the two languages. His facility with French is probably a result of his wife’s influence. She is a French speaker, and they speak French at home most of the time. Watson thinks largely in French, and so is in the unusual position of mentally translating his adopted language into his native tongue before speaking in English.

Future Plans

Watson considers himself a full-time sculptor but acknowledges that his editing and consulting career may not yet be over. He is editing a volume from a symposium on the Gulf of Maine ecosystem that was held in October 2009.The symposium was held, coincidentally, in New Brunswick, the same location where his career began more than 40 years ago.

Sculpture isn’t being neglected, though. In 2009 Watson exhibited in two Quebec vineyards and was artist in residence in Portland, England. He is one of 12 artists chosen to participate in the 2010 Kingsbrae Garden Sculpture Competition, which is being held in St Andrews, New Brunswick, in June.

He plans to keep sculpting, large and small, and exhibiting often.

As Watson points out, “You don’t necessarily choose your path.” His interest in artistic things started when he was young, but because he showed an aptitude for science, he was nudged in that direction. He has no regrets about how his career has evolved. His advice for anyone considering such a career change? Don’t waste time considering it. Go for it. Don’t be afraid.

Christina Sumners prepared this profile while a Science Editor intern.