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Mapping a Different Path 

On the road with Royce Davenport

Pale sunlight filters through low-slung clouds, throwing opaque shadows across the whimsical kingdom of Royce Davenport. Color-flecked roosters strut with abandon; rapturous metal sculptures peek from lush shadows, and a vintage aluminum travel trailer shimmers in cloistered silence.

Visitors to this far-eastside Xanadu discover a voyage of the imagination. But that's not the only course charted here; from a humble work table, within Davenport's refurbished 1948 Spartenette trailer, has also emerged a guide to nirvana.

Or at least to Arizona. Of course, some might say Arizona actually borders on nirvana. And Royce Davenport would be among them; the well-traveled artist has just released his "Classic Map of Arizona," a folk art gem that's part fine illustration, part history primer and part witty cultural record.

Not to be maudlin, but this map also marks a passage of sorts. Of course, plenty might suggest that moving from Indiana to anywhere else is a blessing. But for Davenport, a native Hoosier, arriving in Arizona several decades back truly was revelatory. "If you're here any time at all--and you've got your antennae up--you realize there's so much that's happened, so many stories with color to them," he says.

"For me, this has been a region of great awakening, a place that has given such a boost to my awareness and my world. The open space here allows room for your consciousness to expand."

Such talk might ring a nostalgic bell, dating from before New Agers franchised esoteric terminology. We're talking here of funky old Tucson, circa 1970s and 1980s, when the hippy cowtown wasn't yet fully commandeered by developers.

But more about that later.

Anyway, with the help of business partner (and noted copper artist) Kathleen Matsinger, Davenport is helping expand everyone's consciousness with his gorgeous and exceedingly witty map. Take the tiny cowboy standing beneath Monument Valley's huge spires. "Sacred mountains or advertising icons?" he asks. "Only the great spirit knows."

Or the oversized sign above the Casa Grande Indian ruins: "Future Site of an All New Shop Till You Drop!" Or the trucker barreling down Interstate 8, his CB radio cackling. "It's a big 10/4 good buddy," he's saying. "It's 110 (degrees) in Gila Bend!"

Then there's the Willcox cowpoke, wryly noting the true story of an oddly numbered state road. "It used to be ole Route 666," says the horseman. "But the highway dept. gave it a exorcism (sic)."

You get the point: Davenport's masterwork may not safely guide you from Flagstaff cul-de-sacs to a Tucson Taco Bell. But it provides a differently tinted glimpse of our varied homeland. The map is rendered in ink and PrismaColor, creating tightly woven illustrations with niches of commentary, and anchored by a huge saguaro. You could easily spend a couple of days with this piece, and still miss a laugh or two. There's so much stuff, says Davenport, "that I had to use a shoehorn to squeeze it all in."

Sound familiar? Well, if you recognize Davenport's name, it's for good reason. His folk art crosses are displayed in galleries across Tucson, and he also served 10 years as the Tucson Weekly art director. But many others recall his funky and treasured "Map of Tucson." Back in the day--namely the 1980s--that map with its cartoonish characters and now-long-gone haunts became an offbeat icon, adorning shops, cafes and shotgun apartments all over town.

Viewed today, the map recalls a gentler time when Tucson's bohemia was more or less mainstream. "I am a product of that time," Davenport chuckles. "And some people might say, "Oh that's terrible; you've probably still got something in your system.' And I do--it's called freedom of individuality."

Though we've since entered a white-knuckle era, Davenport retains crucial lessons from those looser days. Among them is simply having fun, which this new map chases with passion. It's an instinct fostered by the artist's "patron saint," Mark Twain. "My shtick is humor," Davenport says. "I just wanted people to have a reason to laugh, because there ain't nobody laughing much these days. It's just too damn serious and too damn dark."

Another key is the very slender use of computers; Davenport's images and lettering are hand-drawn. And finally, there's nary a corporate whiff to this map--no sponsoring logos, no targeted advertising, no vapid sloganeering. "I like to think that has kept it more in the fun lane," he says, "of being there for the sake of itself and not to power somebody's tennis shoe sales. It's kept it much more honest."

But there's another ambition within Davenport's 27-by-39-inch creation: It's steeped in notions of community. A healthy portion of the map's proceeds are earmarked to nonprofit groups around town. This spirit was also displayed recently when donated maps helped raise $600 for Hurricane Katrina victims, as part of a KXCI on-air auction. "I couldn't just write a check for $600," says Davenport. "But the map could."

And that's just the beginning. "It's not like this map is going to change the world," he says. "But we're in a time when people are really feeling un-empowered about their lives. It's important to hold onto the fact that you have the power to do things."

Davenport squints towards the warming sun, a shiny orange rooster pecking at his feet. "Listen, I'm just a guy with a particular talent or skill," he says. "I'm willing to see how far that can take me. And I'm willing to take everyone along that I can."

For that kind of journey, there's likely to be many takers.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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