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The Art Life 

Richard Zelens brings flowers and Tarot icons to life with paint on canvas

In back of Richard Zelens' funky house on Kleindale Road, sunflowers bloom.

Refreshed by the recent rains, the flowers bob their yellow heads against the fence in the backyard. Nearby, though, the red cactus flowers have already bloomed and died. But they have a certain immortality.

Inside, in a studio that was once a garage, the red blossoms have been duplicated in oils atop a yard-sale table. And the sunflowers bloom even more cheerfully in oils on canvas, on a wall of the art-packed living room.

"I'm a gardener," Zelens says, and the flowers he cultivates so assiduously make their way into many of his bright paintings.

The painter made a name for himself in Tucson a while back when he owned and operated Gallery Four Ten, and exhibited the work of local artists. The gallery closed in 2004, and for the last two years, Zelens has been living and working--and occasionally exhibiting--in a different place.

Located in an eclectic neighborhood best known for being the home of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona's headquarters, his combo home/studio/garden shares the yin-yang streets with new stucco townhouses and run-down trailer parks. In between Zelens' patchwork of buildings--a modest home, and a guesthouse and mobile home, both rented out--the spaces are given over to art and art-making.

This weekend, during the slow art summer, he reintroduces himself to the public by opening up the place to local art lovers. His Midsummer Garden Art Party, tied to the (sort-of) cool hours of morning and early afternoon, will showcase his multiple interests.

"I'll put refreshments out and get misters going on the back patio," Zelens promises.

The flower paintings will bloom as per usual in the living room, but the giant Tarot card paintings in a recent series will be lined up outside along the fence. The studio will showcase one-of-a-kind painted furniture; outside the studio door, a covered patio "gallery" will display Zelens' clay "sgraffito" wall plates, wavy blue and white ceramics whose designs are etched through the time-honored scratch process. Hand-painted silk scarves will fly like banners inside the roofed ceramic shed, which also houses Zelens' kiln.

"I'll probably do some demos," Zelens says, possibly applying the slip colors to his clay at an outdoor work table.

He's best known in Tucson for his pungently colored flower paintings (their images turn up on notecards he sells in local gift shops), but he also likes to paint works steeped in the mystical. He's a devotee of Zen. At the moment, he's engrossed in his Tarot paintings, which feature such iconic characters as "The Skeleton" and "The Empress," infused with an exotic Asian aesthetic.

But "The High Priestess" borrows from the imagery of the Southwest, where the New Yorker transplanted himself in 1999. She's a Virgin of Guadalupe, beaming her familiar radiant light against a mountain backdrop that hints at Mount Lemmon's Wilderness of Rocks.

Zelens lived for years in New York, where he danced professionally with the Joffrey, American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera ballet, and staged an independent show of his own choreography. After he gave up dance, he studied art at Cooper Union and for years pursued a career making costume designs for the ballet and painted silks for New York interior decorators and clothing designers.

He left the big city for a stint in a Tibetan monastery, followed by a country sojourn in Woodstock, N.Y., before shifting gears once more. He'd paid a visit to Tucson ("everything just worked") and moved to the Old Pueblo and bought the Gallery Four Ten complex in short order.

He got a good price on the sprawling property, almost an acre in a dilapidated area off of Fort Lowell Road, in between a weedy lot and an auto-repair shop. It was run-down, but the place had a two-story house, a retail showroom and a Quonset hut on a huge lot--plenty of space to house his ailing mother and himself (he was his mother's caregiver), rent out a couple of rooms, install a gallery and make his own art, both inside and out.

Local artists, including ceramicist Maurice Grossman, printmaker Mary Lou Williams and abstract painter Carol Thaler, were happy to show in the new gallery. But it was off the beaten art track, and sales were slow.

"We just didn't sell, number one," Zelens says. "It was not well located. But it was a nice little gallery. The openings were great--a big party! The rest of the time, there was not a stream coming through. I'm not a great businessman."

After his mother's decline and death, and saddled by mounting expenses, Zelens shut the gallery in 2004. Its demise was not unusual among small Tucson galleries.

"That's what happens--there is a market in Tucson, but it's only in very select galleries. Downtown now is basically just Etherton and Davis Dominguez." He made an effort to exhibit younger artists just coming up. "Where does a young artist go these days? What galleries does a young UA grad go to?"

Luckily, he was able to come out with enough cash to buy the more modest spread on Kleindale. In the years since, he's shown his work here and there, at Tohono Chul Park, Raices Taller 222 ("they've been one of the most supportive"), Galeria Mistica and, most recently, at Dinnerware's Salon des Refusés.

Next weekend, he'll get a mini-show at a fundraiser in Amado for the Equine Voices Rescue and Sanctuary, a Green Valley nonprofit that works to save threatened horses. Other artists will also be featured. Becky Reyes will play live music, and La Vina de Tubac will offer wine-tasting and hors d'oeuvres.

"I'll show several paintings"--including "Sunflowers"--"some cactus giclees, my sgraffito plates, my silks," he says.

With its similarly eclectic offerings, the garden art party will serve as a preview for the Equine show.

"I can't not do all these things," says Zelens, who's now nearly 68, "whether it's the garden or the flowers or all the rest."

It's hard to struggle financially at his age, he notes, relying on the meager Social Security earnings of a serendipitous life and the rents he collects from his tenants.

"The art life is not an easy thing," he reflects. "Some people click in. Some people don't. But it's a compulsion. It's what I do."

And the life has its compensations.

"I've always been free to do what I want. I'm not locked into a style. I have the freedom to explore."

More by Margaret Regan

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