Patrick Dunne's residency in the Storefront Studio is only missing one thing-an audience.
By Margaret Regan
BIG JOE WALKS into the storefront on Pennington Street. Despite his name, Joe is little. His leathery face has been in the sun too long, and his T-shirt and jeans are dusty.
"I could wash your windows for you," he tells painter Patrick Dunne. "I just need a couple of dollars to get the bus."
Dunne is polite, but unyielding, as he escorts Big Joe back out the door.
"I think you better ask somebody who has some money," Dunne tells Joe. Puzzled, Joe turns over the idea. "You don't have any?" he asks wonderingly. Then he retreats and ambles up the street, past Dunne's big plate-glass windows, past the empty stores to the west.
It's noon and Big Joe is the first passerby of the day to drop in on the Artist in Residence Storefront Studio, a project sponsored by the Tucson Arts District Partnership. Dunne is the first Partnership Storefront artist, and he may well be the last. Installed in the old Inglis florist shop at the corner of Pennington Street and Scott Avenue since March, Dunne will be in situ through December.
The Storefront Studio, says the soft-spoken Dunne, was supposed to trigger "interactions" between artist and community, including but not limited to encounters of the Big Joe kind.
"The average person walking by could enjoy it and maybe even could contribute," Dunne says. "It's been a good experience for me...It's been successful in the sense that I never stopped working, but the community part hasn't happened."
To be sure, Dunne's done his bit. As soon as he arrived at his new studio, he fixed it up, and hammered in a wall between the front gallery--the former shop quarters--and his back workroom. He's on hand for all the special events, the Thursday evening Art Walks and Downtown Saturday Nights, and treats the residency like a full-time job. Dunne conscientiously keeps regular business hours, putting in a 40-hour work week, and staying open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday.
After eight months on the job, he's completed dozens of paintings. Lined up on the floor and pinned to the walls, they're auditioning in front of the Dunne jury of one for an exhibition he's opening this weekend during Downtown Saturday Night. He's carved and painted animals, too, and most recently he's been slicing a life-sized detective out of found wood. He just might put the Seamus outside the studio door, for company perhaps. His paintings, rendered in glazed oils, give a hint of what it's like to be pinned as a stationary observer in an urban center that even at lunchtime is as quiet as a Bruegel snowscape.
"I've spent since March looking out the window every day," he says, and what he has seen ends up his oils.
Over and over Dune has painted fantasy deserted downtowns, old mercantile districts populated by a lone figure or two. They're scenes of city stillness right out of Edward Hopper by way of contemporary Tucson. The Inglis building gives Dunne a strangely truncated view of a city known for its big vistas. Hunkered down in the shadow of the City Hall Annex, a monstrous hulk whose blank facades ought to draw a life's sentence for its architect, the Inglis overlooks low-lying commercial buildings to the north. Catty-corner is the old Reilly Funeral Home, an elegant Deco building, now inhabited by elderly descendants of the late undertaker.
Dunne does his best to enliven this distressing material, converting the funeral home to a dance hall in a painting, adding deserts at the end of a narrow city street. But even his artistic license didn't permit him to fill the city's empty spaces with people.
Dunne looks on the bright side.
"The day it quit being super hot people slowed down and started looking in," he says. "Some people come in and want me to paint their portraits. The Partnership people come by. But on Downtown Saturday Night, the people don't come down this far...It's been a good experience for me, but I'm kind of at a loss as to how I could be something important here, other than occupying the space."
Herb Stratford, the Partnership staffer who runs the Storefront Studio program, says his group is happy with Dunne, though they may not continue the program after this year. The Partnership has often sponsored downtown residencies, but never before has one of its artists in residence been tethered to a particular space.
"With so many empty storefronts, we thought we'd have a residency in both spirit and location," Stratford says. "We're real pleased. He's been producing, he's been there, he's getting the space enlivened, full of art."
Dunne draws no salary, but the Partnership pays rent and utilities. Both artist and the Partnership would have preferred the livelier streetscape of Congress to Pennington, "but we could not afford the space on Congress," Stratford says. Dunne was selected because the Partnership staff was impressed by his "really cool stuff. He's somebody who wasn't known. And that's another purpose of the program, to promote emerging artists."
The painter, 45 years old, grew up in Chicago in a family of eight kids, and studied art at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He worked as a jeweler and silversmith, and as an art restorer in Chicago before heading west. After landing in Tucson 15 years ago, Dunne "had a lost weekend that lasted a couple years. Then I thought about going into nursing. Then I sold cars...I hope I don't have to do that again," he says, shaking his head. "The car salesman-painter."
In fact, old cars slip in an out of his strangely static paintings. A Cadillac glides out of Saguaro National Monument in one, and an antique Rambler, like one Dunne used to own, is parked by a turquoise trailer in another.
"Everyone has a love-hate relationship with cars," he says. "They're ruining our planet. But I like the fact that cars don't rust here. That's an attraction for a gear-head kid from Chicago."
As a matter of fact, after his year of painting solitarily--and staying put--Dunne is dreaming of the open road. After the residency, he's hoping first to get a showing of his sculptures, and then he'll head for the highway. He's already bought a 1958 panel truck, and he intends to convert the back of it into a screened-in art studio. He's hoping to get subscribers who'll pay him for a painting yet unpainted, and use the funds to paint all across the country.
"I'm going to make an artist studio on wheels. I want to travel Route 66, from Grant Park in Chicago all the way to the Santa Monica pier. It would be nice to catalog what's still on Route 66. I'd like to set up an easel out there, look for the big horizon, the vast prairies, and look at the animals."
Patrick Dunne opens an exhibition of his oils and sculptures during Downtown Saturday Night, from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, October 17, at the Storefront Studio, 61 E. Pennington St. Regular gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through mid-December. For information, call 623-1689.
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