Meet Jason Williams, Slate School’s Landscape Architect

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Twenty years ago, Jason Williams was a farmer in Montana. Today, he is the landscape architect who designed the glorious grounds of Slate School. Here’s how he remembers the moment he decided to change his life and pursue the career that is now his passion. As it is in all of Jason’s stories, nature is the main character.

“So one day, it’s like 100 degrees, and I’m on this farm in the high plains of western Montana,” he says. “I’m sitting surrounded by the purple flowering peppermint, and the bees are buzzing everywhere. I remember looking up at the quaking aspen trees that were barely blowing, and I remember thinking, ‘This work is too hard. I need to do something else with my life. I need to get back to my roots as an artist.’”

When Jason got home that evening, he sat down to his computer and typed three words into the search engine: farming and art. “Landscape Architecture came up,” he says matter-of-factly, “and I knew that was what I needed to do.” He never looked back.

Jason, now 42, is a lead landscape architect and urban designer at Milone and MacBroom in Cheshire. He recently received an American Architecture Prize along with numerous awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects on projects ranging from the restoration of a 100-acre historic park to the ESPN campus. He has been at Milone and MacBroom for more than 13 years, where he has been involved in regional and community master plans; coastal resiliency and river restoration projects; and downtown revitalization and transit-oriented development plans. But for him, it all gets back to two things: nature and art.

Growing up, art was the one constant in Jason’s life. “As a child, I was always, always drawing. Drawing is my lens, 100 percent,” he says. “On my middle finger, I have a big piece of hardened skin where the pencil rests. It’s kind of like a war wound. It shows how long I’ve had a pencil in my hand.”

Other than art, Jason’s greatest passion has always been the natural world. He grew up in Norwalk, where he spent a lot of time boating and hiking. In high school, he worked at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, which opened his eyes to the amazing variety of plants of the world.  “I grew up on the water, so the feeling of salt and of fish was important to me,” he says. “But I also love the deciduous forest in New England.”

Jason earned a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Montana and a Master’s degree in Ecological Design from the Conway School in Massachusetts. He loves the big sky country of Montana, but he is equally enthusiastic about the East Coast. He recalls one summer while he was living in Montana and came home to Connecticut for a visit. “I remember getting off the plane at LaGuardia or JFK and driving to Wilton, where my parents lived,” he starts. “I was driving home and I remember thinking, ‘It’s so lush here. It looks like a rainforest. This place is so beautiful.’ And I had never realized that my entire life.”

Now, Jason realizes the beauty of his surroundings every day—whether it’s the edge of the forest surrounding Slate School or any of the trails where he and his family go for hikes. He lives in Fairfield County with his wife Gina and their daughters Winter, 9, and Autumn, 5. They love to hike and bike and kayak together as a family. Jason talks about his family adventures with an almost childlike enthusiasm. He paints a picture of one of his kids’ favorite hikes at Southford Falls in Southbury: “This hike has a small lake, wetlands you can walk through, a rocky hemlock ravine, and groves of mountain laurel. It has a fire lookout tower you can climb. There’s a large waterfall, a boardwalk, and a covered bridge. Around every turn is a new environment.”

Always the landscape architect, even on family hikes, Jason can’t quite keep himself from telling Winter and Autumn the names of every plant—in both English and Latin. He loves the botanical names of plants and carefully enunciates their exotic sounds, like Parthnosisus quercifolia (Virginia creeper) or Ilex vericillata (winterberry holly). “I like everything about the Latin,” Jason says. “I like the sound of it, the detail of it. It’s like a code. I love that you can understand the natural world based on a language that you don’t even speak.”

Jason has a poet’s appreciation for the wonder and magic of nature—and he particularly loves designing parks, schools, and landscapes for children. “Once a park is complete, I’ll go back on a weekend and see what was once this dead and dying underused park now a vibrant place, “Jason says. “The parking area is full. The kids are running through the water at the spray park and playing basketball and playing on the playground and walking through the wetlands. There’s really nothing better than that.”

He is particularly thrilled that his connection to Slate School has not ended just because his original design is done and the site work is complete. Like the rest of the team who created the buildings and grounds of the school, Jason will continue to contribute to Slate as it grows and changes. His eyes widen at all the possibilities: new trails, destinations, and new ways to encounter the abundant wildlife.  He loves the idea of letting the landscape be a source of endless inspiration for the children’s learning—and eventually adding elements to the site in response to the children’s discoveries.

 “Usually, we work weeks and months on a project that seems like it’s the most important thing in the world,” Jason explains. “And then, students get into the classroom, and we’re onto the next project. The drawings get rolled up and stored away and nobody looks at them again. But Slate School will be changing all that. We will all be staying involved. That never happens. Never.”

 The Slate School site for Jason is an artwork in progress. “It will take about three years for it to really get there,” he says. “In landscape architecture, you’re building things that change. With the seasons. Over the years. There’s an impermanence associated with what we do, like the Tibetan monks who do the color sand mandalas. At the end, they essentially ruin the mandala to show that life is not permanent, that everything is changing. That really is a lot like what we do. “

Reflecting on the ever-changing nature of landscape design, Jason brings it all back to his roots as a farmer in Montana. “Landscape architecture is very much like farming actually,” he explains. “Just because you plant something in the ground doesn’t mean you’re going to get a good crop. In landscape architecture, just because you specify some plants or techniques, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work. We do our best, but we just have to wait and see how it all turns out.” Luckily, Jason likes the mystery. And he can’t wait to see what wonders are yet to emerge from the grounds of Slate School.