Until Laura Spalding Best came along, I never would have called my street beautiful.
Mind you, I love my sweet, cluttered home. It’s the surrounding Tempe neighborhood that always left me a little cold, despite qualities that most people would describe as “charming”: irrigated lots, big trees and quirky old houses, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s ASU Gammage auditorium just a short stroll away.
I’ve tried taking “mindful” walks, even photographing quaint aspects like the sprawling rose bushes, the old adobe house on the next street and the neighbors’ little outdoor lending libraries. But the space has always felt slightly sad – brown around the edges, unbearably hot half the year, caught somewhere between city and country in an unsatisfying way. A place to be tolerated, not celebrated.
Inevitably, I have felt deflated when a road trip ends with that final turn onto my street. The grass is, quite literally, always greener someplace else.
Last year, I stumbled into the kitchen way too early, looking for coffee. As I waited for the kettle to fill, something outside the window caught my eye – and my breath. The sun was coming up, staining the sky hot pink. It was undeniably pretty – even I am not immune to a Phoenix sunrise – but what really struck me was the black silhouette of powerlines and a utility pole against the pink. It was beautiful. And it reminded me of something. The kettle overflowed as I kept staring, and then I realized that this scene looked just like a Laura Spalding Best painting.
You might have seen Best’s work on her Instagram account @bestsofphoenix or on murals and in shows around town. Best paints the city on found objects like vintage silver platters and old hotel key fobs, focusing on the delicate, gorgeous play among the sky, sun and land and the way that background interacts with ubiquitous features of life in Phoenix, like roads, trains and birds on powerlines. Recently she painted a series of urban waterfalls, an observation of how people in these parts treat our most precious resource.
Born in Ohio and raised in Illinois, Best moved here to major in visual art at Arizona State University. She chose Tempe to be close to family; she wasn’t particularly interested in the place. For her senior thesis, Best painted a series of large-scale portraits of her female relatives.
After graduating in 2003, she and a friend drove to British Columbia, determined to continue their art careers past college. Best painted what she saw on the road and at a cabin the two rented, and returned to the Valley with an appreciation for landscapes. Her first paintings of utility poles were based on photographs her husband took on Farmer Avenue, not far from my house.
I love it when art imitates life. If you live in metropolitan Phoenix, you know it happens far too rarely here, and I think that partially explains my longstanding troubled relationship with my hometown. I was born and raised in Arizona and never saw the place reflected back at me, not in a way I found meaningful.
Raised on sitcoms starring Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore, I wanted to live in a Chicago apartment building and toss my beret into the cold Minneapolis air. The show Alice, which is set here, premiered in 1976. I was 10, and by that time I already hated Phoenix and didn’t want to watch a show about it. I never went looking for Mel’s Diner. Instead, I moved to Washington, D.C., and tried to find the bar in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire.
Eventually, I came home and found my way in Phoenix. It’s taken a long time, and it’s taken art to make me love it here – and I don’t mean a cutting board shaped like Arizona or sheets with cacti on them. A little part of me died inside when the succulent became the new owl. I’m talking about art that shows what it feels like to live in a desert city, what it means to live here.
It took Best a long time, too, she says. For her, appreciating life in the Valley and connecting to the landscape means acknowledging how water, power and other resources support us.
The irony is that it’s been right in front of all of us all along. “The canals are visible,” she says. “The utilities, except for in really fancy neighborhoods, are above the ground. You can see it. So you see every bit of what powers us living here. And that’s what I like to show and explore in my work.”
The other day, I finally went to Mel’s Diner, which still sports the iconic sign that you see in the opening credits of Alice. I drank a cup of coffee and admired the photos of Linda Lavin and other cast members on the walls, and, bored, did enough Googling to learn that the place was renamed – the sign redone – at the behest of the sitcom’s producers, who were looking for an opening shot. I rolled my eyes (not entirely surprised at the fakery of all of it), paid for the coffee and drove home to Tempe.
As I turned onto my street, I noticed the way the cloudy yellow light was glowing through the big trees and against the power lines, strung across the street like holiday lights, and I didn’t feel deflated at all.