State of the Arts

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Hot Topics Issue: November 2014
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An altogether arguable list of the Valley’s Top 10 defining art “movements.”

Hot Topics, by design, are meant to court a little controversy. We expect it when we’re writing about hot-button, politicized topics like education, immigration, gun rights, etc. What we didn’t expect was for this month’s topic – defining art movements in the history of the Phoenix metropolitan area – to be such a lightning rod. As a staff, we drafted a malleable, preliminary list of local art movements and then took it to the experts – art history professors, museum curators, gallery owners and even the artists themselves – for commentary, enlightenment and editing. We were quickly schooled on our incorrect use of the term “movement,” since some of our nominees are better defined as a “discipline” or “genre” than a specific school of artists in a particular time period. We concurrently received a crash course in Valley art history, something we don’t remember getting in primary school (not to drag that controversy into this one).

Each “movement” (we’ll dispense with the quotation marks now and just admit we’re using the term loosely) represents an integral segment of culture in the Valley of the Sun, from our Native American forebears to the hip kids turning life into art on Roosevelt Row today. Each movement could spawn its own full-length feature story, and perhaps one day they all will. Until then, we respectfully scratch the surface of the technicolor collage of art history in the Valley – in no particular order.

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#1  Murals
“Street art” has come a long way since graffiti lettering and gang-tag slurs, particularly in Phoenix, where Chicano tableaus ornament the sides of buildings (Exhibit A: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Barrio Café) and whimsical painted birds flock near minimalist black-and-white illustrations. The diversity and volume of murals in the Valley is a relatively new phenomenon, says artist Thomas “Breeze” Marcus. “The mural movement I think has obviously grown pretty strong as far as pieces and numbers. I’d say in the last five to 10 years, more in the last five to seven years, it’s gained a lot of momentum.” Still, he says our mural scene lags behind those of larger metros like New York and Los Angeles, something he’d like to see change.

Some of Marcus’ pieces can be found outside the Heard Museum and behind the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Phoenix. Like his collaborators Lalo Cota, Douglas Miles, Pablo Luna and Ishmael Dueñas, he draws inspiration from his ancestry (in his case, Tohono O’odham) and blends it with his modern perspective as a Phoenix native.

“We’ve always had this creativity; we’re just now translating it into a contemporary way. The very first art movement [was] the Hohokam people doing petroglyphs on South Mountain that you can still see today, or doing pottery,” Marcus says. “For us, it makes sense. We carry on this legacy of being creative and having that lineage of our original people and inhabitants being in the Valley.”

#2 Downtown Phoenix
We take the most license with the term “movement” for this one, but it could produce a Top 100 list just as soon as it contributes to our Top 10. The artist communities in Downtown Phoenix, from the buzzy Roosevelt Row to the Grand Avenue arts district to the revered Alwun House in the Garfield neighborhood, have been percolating and evolving for decades.

“There is a venerable tradition of the artist-led cooperative and the artist-led organizing movements in Downtown Phoenix, from MARS to Artlink to Roosevelt Row,” says Heather Sealy Lineberry, associate director and senior curator at the ASU Art Museum. “I don’t know if you want to call that urban art or collectives, but there is a history of that in the Valley that’s been really powerful.”

Photographer Annie Lopez, formerly of MARS (see page 29), agrees, praising Beatrice Moore’s and Tony Zahn’s “organic growth” of Grand Avenue. “[Moore’s] really improved what’s going on there – artists living and working and coming together and sharing their work and opening up their studios to a broader community.”

The movement picking up steam now is “socially engaged art practice,” manifested in the work of the ASU Art Museum and particularly its Desert Initiative Director Greg Esser, who works with local and international artists through the museum’s artists’ residency program in Roosevelt Row.

“That program... is creating some of the landmark movements, projects, initiatives that are helping to reshape the way we think about Phoenix as an urban community, the way we think about living in an urban environment in the Sonoran desert,” Esser says. “We’re moving from an archive to a catalyst for social transformation through the direct work of the creative process of living artists engaging with communities and addressing key issues that face the state today.”

Alwun House founder Kim Moody cites author Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class” as an explanation for Downtown’s artistic vibrance. “The creative class – the ones that come into downtowns all over the world and they’ll find their little niche area and start developing it... Artists and gays and the outliers of society are the ones that help create what, now, everyone points to with great pride.” Since opening Alwun House in 1971 (which he operates with his partner, Dana Johnson), Moody’s seen the art community continue to develop alongside the larger community.

“The nurturing nature of the Downtown scene incorporated many people,” Moody says. “It’s transcultural. It’s how people work together, your sense of place, who you are in that place and what you’re doing. Art helps bring that together. If you keep evolving through the arts, you’re evolving community and transforming it through the arts.”

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#3 Native American Art – Lloyd Kiva New and Charles Loloma
Any survey of Arizona art would be foolish to overlook the contributions of Native American artists. At the Heard Museum in Phoenix, art and crafts from kachinas to textiles are displayed, documenting the lives of tribal people from the ancient to the modern. Artists Lloyd Kiva New, a Cherokee originally from Oklahoma, and Charles Loloma, a Hopi from the Third Mesa, were cited by the Heard staff as leading a particularly transformative and defining time in Native American art, from the 1940s to 1960s. They were multidisciplinary artists, but New’s work in fashion and textiles and Loloma’s work in pottery and jewelry brought Native art “to light and took it from an arts and crafts [tradition] to a legitimate art form,” says Bruce McGee, director of retail sales at the Heard. “It gave other artists hope because they saw what was happening and upped their game.”

Loloma began as a potter but transitioned to jewelry, working primarily with turquoise and silver. His designs were embraced by bohemians and the high-fashion world alike. “Loloma was in Paris in 1968 and his jewelry was shown on a fashion runway,” says Diana Pardue, curator of collections. “That’s where he debuted the single earring.” He was the first Native American artist to design an earring as a standalone piece, rather than as half of a set. His work was sold at Neiman Marcus and Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about him in her syndicated column “My Day” in the 1940s. He acknowledged the traditional, Pardue says, but through a modern lens. “At times there are direct references and real obvious references to corn/maize, and other times it’s very abstract,” Pardue says.

New also enjoyed mainstream success, says Ann Marshall, director of curation and education. “It’s fascinating to see how Lloyd Kiva New bags were ‘in,’ completely. [He] had this kind of brilliance. He had a respect and a reverence for the artistic tradition that was part of people’s cultural heritage, but he could look at that and see how to make the leap into something that would look very contemporary.”

He was revolutionary, says curator Janet Cantley. “At a time when, politically and socially, it was a really difficult time, with the federal government terminating some tribes, he was traveling to Atlantic City and doing fashion shows in the ‘50s. It’s such a contrast to what was going on in the social and political situation.” New and Loloma went on to found the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, along with Native artists Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser.

#4 Movimiento Artistico del Río Salado – MARS
When photographer Annie Lopez joined MARS in 1982, her friends reacted with alarm. “‘Oh, they’re so radical. You shouldn’t do that,’” she remembers them saying. “I’d never heard of them, but other people had and they perceived them as being very radical. It was funny what the perceptions were.”

MARS was an art gallery and artist collective founded in 1978 by Chicano and Native American artists Robert Buitron, Ralph Cordova, José Giron, Jim Covarrubias, Francisco Zúñiga and Joseph Sanchez with the goal of supporting and promoting Chicano art. The Valley already had a rich history of Chicano art, but MARS stood out for its inclusivity and quality, Lopez says. “MARS had to be created to help these Chicano artists who couldn’t show at other places, so it made sense to include other people,” she says. “We were being left out, we shouldn’t leave other people out [they thought]. There are other groups that have come and gone, but [with] MARS... it was strong artwork with a message, and the message was strong.”

The group as it was originally formed petered out in 2001, with its original members splintering away from a new leadership. Lopez and her husband and co-member, Jeff Falk, left the group, but its legacy remains with them. Lopez, a Phoenix native of Mexican descent, credits the collective with helping her get in touch with her Chicana heritage. “The first time I saw the Virgin of Guadalupe was at MARS. I grew up Catholic and never saw it in my church,” she says. “I learned about being a Mexican, kind of, being around these people.”

#5 Cowboy Art in Scottsdale
The “West’s Most Western Town” lived up to its name – and still does – with its abundance of galleries, studios and home work spaces populated by cowboy artists, starting in the late 1890s with the arrival of Len Megargee, Arizona’s first cowboy artist. Megargee remains the definitive symbol of the era – he painted 15 murals at the Arizona State Capitol building to celebrate statehood, painted three more murals at the city library as part of a Works Project Administration project, and painted the famed “The Last Drop,” now reprinted on the inside of every Stetson hat. His work informed the careers of the Western artists who created the Scottsdale Arts District in the 1950s.

“[There’s] so much about this region back in the ‘50s with the artists literally in this neighborhood, in their studios, doing their art and developing this whole Fifth Avenue place for being able to share their art with the public,” says Mike Fox, executive director of the Scottsdale Museum of the West, slated to open in December. “It really became a very important civic and heritage kind of environment.” It lives on today, with Old Town galleries – Trailside Galleries, Arizona West Galleries, Open Range Gallery and Legacy Gallery, to name a few – carrying on the tradition of cowboy  art during Scottsdale’s myriad art festivals and art walks.

#6 Culinary Arts
PHOENIX magazine food critic and chef Gwen Ashley Walters has been covering the Valley food scene for more than 20 years. She’s watched its evolution with great pleasure and sampled it with gusto. “We started out with nothing, then we got a little bit of sophistication, then we got really high up on the haute dining scale and then now we’re kind of coming back down and everything’s a little bit more casual,” Walters says.

She groups the Valley’s culinary movements by decade, starting with the “Italian Titans” she wrote about in our Italian Cuisine guide (May 2014), Tomaso Maggiore of Tomaso’s and Angiolio Livi of Avanti. “They really brought a level of sophistication to the Phoenix dining scene at that point. The ‘70s was dominated by them,” Walters says. “In the ‘80s, you have Vincent [Guerithault]. He brought Southwestern cuisine, [for] which we had been known for a while, up to a whole new level by incorporating French classic techniques.”

Christopher Gross and Robert McGrath epitomize the ‘90s for Walters, bringing European sophistication to Christopher’s/Crush Lounge and Roaring Fork, respectively. “These guys are James Beard winners,” Walters says. “So they were not just impressing local people, but making a statement on a national level as well.”

In the early 2000s, Walters says Kevin Binkley, Beau MacMillan and Nobuo Fukuda took the sophistication of their predecessors up a notch, and now, in 2014, “We’re in this comfort-food zone. We’re not talking diner-style here, we’re talking Bernie [Kantak] at CPH and The Gladly and Justin Beckett with his two restaurants [Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail], and Blue Hound. So we’ve got a little Southern thing going on.”

Walters is excited to see what happens next for the Valley’s culinary arts scene. “I love the people who make our food, and I’m really a big champion and supporter of everyone. It’s a hard  business; there’s nothing easy about it.”

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#7 Mid-century Modern Architecture
For Alison King, founder of mid-century architecture website, community and home tour Modern Phoenix, the “golden age of mid-century desert modern... peaked around 1962. That’s when things got to be really interesting and some of the bigger projects were built here in the city, including the Phoenix Municipal Center.”

The luminaries of Valley architecture – Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri, Al Beadle, Ralph Haver, Blaine Drake – all fall under the mid-century modern umbrella, which spanned the 1930s to 1960s, but “they each have their own individual relationship with architecture and their clientele. Although they were all working at mid-century, each of them had their own aesthetic style that they were developing and their own market they were trying to reach. I think it’s important not to lump them together,” King says.

There were some similar elements in their designs: “In single-family housing, we see a lot of low-slung, long, lean, linear, close-to-the ground designs, typically one-story designs, that certainly are influenced by the prairie style that Frank Lloyd Wright developed. But in the way that it’s manifested in Arizona, it’s an extension of the ranch or contemporary ranch style that we see in single-family housing. We have great stock in tract housing as well, which really helped bring modernism to the masses. Not every city has that, where we’ve got large tracts of land that have modern-style homes in them that are very accessible.”

What differentiates Arizona mid-century modern from the rest of the country’s? An outsider’s perspective and desire to work with the desert environment, King says.

“Most of these desert architects that we talk about... they were largely not Arizona natives. So they were coming from different climates and learning how to work with and adapt to the desert,” she says. “Much of their work was experimental – and sometimes even a failure – but they certainly were trying to work with the elements and were very aware of framing the views and framing the environment, and the relationship that windows would have in your understanding of indoors and out.”

#8 Public Art
Thanks to its relative youth as a state and its consistently rapid growth, Arizona has been a leader in the development of public art projects. Most public art programs started between 1985 and 1987, says Dr. Betsy Fahlman, professor of art history at Arizona State University’s School of Art – Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“The big ones have been Scottsdale and Phoenix, and they have responded to the huge development of Arizona. That kind of growth fueled public art projects, which are based on a percent of capital improvement projects or infrastructure projects. Arizona has really established a national reputation for quite amazing pieces of public art,” Fahlman says. She cites the pedestrian bridges overlooking Arizona State Route 51, the blue bridges covering parts of the U.S. Route 60 east, the public art at every light rail station and Mary Lucking’s “Contours and Crossings” sculptural bridges on Papago Park’s crosscut canal multi-use path as examples.

“The piece that made the big difference in Phoenix was the solid waste treatment plant [at 27th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road] that was going to be just be your sort of basic, ugly engineers’ hut, and then they got artists on board with the design team and transformed it,” Fahlman says. “The actual structure is far more interesting than the engineers’ hut, and they made it a place for education about recycling, about garbage. It probably has less flies than your backyard.” To wit: The plant has a Yelp page with five reviews and an average rating of four stars – not your typical credentials for a dump.

#9 Early female artists in Arizona
In the early years of the Arizona territory, “it was not a very hospitable place [for artists]. We didn’t have art schools, we didn’t have galleries – we had the summer,” ASU art history professor Fahlman says with a laugh. There were Native American artists and itinerant painters en route to the Grand Canyon, but  few artists who took up residence. Kate Cory became one of the first when she entered Hopi land in 1905.  

“She spent seven years up on the Hopi reservation, and that took some grit,” Fahlman says. “She was encouraged to come out by another artist who wanted to form an artist community on the Hopi mesas. If you can think of a less promising place for an Anglo art community than the Hopi mesas, then I’ll eat it.”

Cory is quoted as saying, “I became the art colony.”

Other female artists came to Arizona and settled, including Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, who along with her husband Dr. Harold S. Colton founded the Museum of Northern Arizona, and Lillian Wilhelm Smith, the only female artist to ever illustrate Zane Grey’s writings.  

“It’s not exactly a school, because they worked in different styles, [but it is a] group that is unusual in a state that has defined itself at one time or another by cowboy artists,” Fahlman says. “Women in the west could do things in the west long before they could do them in the east. They got the vote first, they could run for office, they could throw off certain social conventions. It’s a lot harder to ride a horse in a skirt, right?”

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#10 The Tempe Sound
“There was a scene back in the ‘90s. It was robust. Every night of the week, you could go watch a band that played all original music,” musician Lawrence Zubia told managing editor Niki D’Andrea in an interview for her history profile on founding Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins, Lost Horizons, on page 54. The “Tempe Sound,” as it’s since become known, was a legitimate force in the Valley and beyond in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with an abundance of alternative rock bands populating the East Valley city.

Bands like Dead Hot Workshop, The Refreshments, the Gin Blossoms and Zubia’s bands, The Chimeras and The Pistoleros, created a sonic landscape and musical legacy for the Valley.

“We didn’t build a really cool building. We weren’t architects that built the skyline of Phoenix or anything like that,” Zubia says. “It was kind of an ‘art movement,’ for lack of a better term, and a pretty solid one. We were tight. It was a sound, it was an era, it was a time, and it kind of flowed and moved across the years.” The Tempe History Museum pays homage to the movement in its current exhibit The Tempe Sound (see page 57).