Costumed Colombian stilt walkers dance the night away at Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve. South of Tucson, an artist makes the border wall vanish by painting it sky blue. In the Valley, binational performers mix music, interviews and theater to investigate the meaning of home.
What do these spectacles have in common? The answer is Phoenix art advocate Mary Stephens – working with, she is quick to say, an international network of artists, activists and educators.
Stephens stands at the figurative Four Corners of art, culture, social justice and border issues. She is producing director of ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands, which explores politics and identity through dance and theater. She teaches theater, culture and activism at ASU. With a collective of artists, she co-founded Border/Arte, which produces installations that imagine a more socially just future. And she’s the owner of the Phoenix Hostel & Cultural Center.
The daughter of “renegade thinkers” from England, Stephens grew up at the Phoenix hostel, which her mother opened in 1991. It was a diverse, culturally rich environment. “So for me,” Stephens says, “the world has always seemed like a very friendly place, a very complex place. But none of that ever felt threatening; it was just how big organizations, like a planet, will work.”
When she bought the hostel in 2010, she fashioned it into a space similar to the Mexican casas de cultura she’d seen in her travels. It now hosts artist residences, jam sessions, play readings and events for social justice organizations.
Stephens is excited about the upcoming Performance in the Borderlands season, which spotlights women’s leadership in the arts, particularly women of color. “It’s very much in dialogue with what’s happening in Phoenix and nationally in terms of social justice,” she says. It also dovetails with her twin goals: to “amplify the voices of people of color, creating spaces where people of color can feel comfortable in the arts,” and “to create spaces where artists and community members can see themselves thriving [in Phoenix].”
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