Colony Creations 

Rancho Linda Vista celebrates four decades with a show at Davis Dominguez

Judith Stewart and Joy Fox work in studios side by side at Rancho Linda Vista, the longtime artists' colony in Oracle.

Both women are sculptors, but their styles are distinct. Stewart typically makes female nudes of bronze, but she coaxes the metal into looking like flesh that's pliable and yielding; then she colors it in soft patinas. By contrast, Fox uses fired clay for her tall outdoor totems. After incising and firing the clay, she assembles the cracked pieces on metal poles, making creatures that are part-animal, part-human, their desert pinks and beiges punctuated by the fire's black scorch marks.

In their latest show, though--Davis Dominguez's Rancho Linda Vista 40th Anniversary Invitational--the two artists' styles show signs of converging.

"Déjà Vu" is a classic Fox work. Its delicately colored clay shapes are arranged vertically on a pole, and a tiny human profile juts out from the enormous top layer. Stewart sticks to her usual subject--a female torso--in "The Handmaiden," but like Fox, she's made her sculpture out of clay instead of her usual bronze. Borrowing another Fox technique, she's patched together the figure from multiple pieces of fired clay. The results, however, are wholly original. The unexpected cracks and overlapping of layers give the woman's surface a delicious texture. She's flesh interrupted.

It's hard to know exactly what the two artists would say about who's influenced whom. But it's safe to say that artistic interaction-exchange-ferment is what Rancho Linda Vista has been about for the last 40 years.

During the hippie heyday of the late '60s, when countercultural types were moving back to the land, Charles Littler, a charismatic artist and UA art prof, was determined to start a rural artists' colony. He found a broken-down former dude ranch in the lush high desert an hour north of Tucson. Aided by its spectacular view of the jagged Catalinas to the south, he persuaded a band of idealistic fellow profs, their families and other assorted artsy types to pool their resources to buy the 80-acre spread. Complete with 15 red-roofed cottages infested with rats, the Ranch of the Beautiful View cost the group the then-princely sum of $60,000 (about $370,000 in today's dollars).

Once the houses were made habitable, and the old red barn divided into a honeycomb of studios, the ranch became both muse and home to some of Tucson's best-known artists: fellow UA profs James G. Davis and the late Bruce McGrew; his wife, Joy Fox, who sometimes goes by the name Fox McGrew; and Andrew Rush, founder of The Drawing Studio. Over the years, the place attracted a solid contingent of well-known visiting artists, too, including the pioneering feminist artist Miriam Shapiro and New York painter Paul Brach, who died in December. (Brach is memorialized here in a dark pastel that captures the Catalinas in a storm.)

And the ranch has spawned a second generation of artists. A number of kids who grew up running wild under the mesquites and scampering beneath easels turned to art themselves. Turner Davis, son of James, is a Phoenix painter who recently had a fine solo show at the UA Museum of Art. His dad is here, with an edgy urban painting, "Polar Bear (Room 314, Madrid)," that conjures up a scene of expatriate dissipation.

Sculptor Selina Littler, daughter of Charles, came back to the ranch, along with her husband, sculptor Imo Baird, to raise her own kids among her childhood haunts.

The 40th Anniversary Invitational at Davis Dominguez is a CliffsNotes version of this complicated history. The gallery has shown many of the ranch artists over the years, and for the show, it's assembled some 35 artists--painters, sculptors and one photographer--both living and dead. Most of their work is not exactly cutting-edge, at least not anymore, but the show gives a good sampling of their multiple aesthetics. It proves that the ranch survives, for now, despite the suburban sprawl rapidly making its way to Oracle. (See the info box for events at the ranch.)

The late founder Charles Littler still presides, in the form of a commanding "Self-Portrait" in neon pastels on black. He stares forward through round John Lennon glasses, supremely self-confident, his face strident in fauvist lavender, blue and orange.

His daughter's desert sculpture, "Nike," is gentler than her dad's piece, and more evocative of its surroundings. She's gleaned sticks, bark and stones from the ranch's washes and woods, and shaped them into a joyous goddess, who strides forward with her wings flung behind her back. (This Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, not the sneaker, though come to think of it, she's running like a champ.)

Selina's brother, Stephen P., contributes a watercolor, "Trilogy," depicting three monstrous heads with pointed teeth, in wild colors borrowed from his dad. Stephen's brother-in-law Baird is the most contemporary of the clan, and maybe of all the RLVers. Like his wife, he shuns traditional art supplies, but where she gathers natural materials, he trash-picks manmade metal discards. His "General Radiatrix," a feisty fireplug of a figure, is a tyrant comically made out of spare car parts, tin cans and nails.

Completing the intricate Littler family tree is a painting by Pat Dolan, wife of Charles, stepmom to Selina and Stephen. Dolan calms the family reunion with a gorgeous abstracted sunset in encaustic. It's not the classic Sonoran sunset so typical of RLVers, though: Dolan has put some distance between herself and the ranch. She went to Hawaii to paint her "Kauai Sunset."

Another watery sunset is the handiwork of the late Bruce McGrew, whom Andrew Rush once affectionately called one of the ranch's "alpha males." (Rush, another of the alphas, checks in, appropriately for this family history, with a charcoal drawing of his wife, Ann.) McGrew often painted the lovely landscape around Oracle, but he also traveled widely, especially to places with water. His abstracted "Sunset Lake" is a huge glistening oil celebrating Turneresque atmospherics. A semicircular sky in pink and blue surrounds a sinking sun of flaming orange; below, a brown shadow fans out over the turquoise water.

Less well-known than the McGrews, perhaps, are the Sterns, founding members who only summered at the ranch. Mom Jean Stern does pale paintings of ambiguous social gatherings. Her oil "The Opening" wryly casts this ritual of art life in a Renaissance setting. Daughter Emily Stern Düwel has returned to RLV to live, but she captures her former New York life in the "52nd and Second No. 1," a fine acrylic on paper that simplifies the city into plain geometries.

When Emily's German husband, Matthias Düwel, first came to the Southwest, he was painting bleak abstractions of urban desolation. Now head of the Art Department at Pima Community College's northwest campus, he still paints cathedral-like interiors filled with strange objects, but his colors have lightened and brightened. Case in point is this show's "Crater," a sunshiny assemblage in orange and salmon.

One explanation for the change? Düwel took over McGrew's old studio. Perhaps the old alpha male's color palette has slipped into the young artist's paintings, the same way Stewart's and Fox's adjacent studios have provided classic ranch cross-pollination.

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