Steven Meckler Photographs Tucson Artists is a book of 100 full color portraits of Tucson artists, captured in their homes, studios and on location. The artists in the book represent the broad spectrum of creative souls working in Tucson, from the nationally renown to the locally obscure. Longtime downtown denizen and photographer Steven Meckler didn't attempt to comprehensively document all Tucson artists, so don't be surprised if your favorite artist is not included in the book. What the book does achieve, however, is the creation of a vibrant portrait of the muse at work in our community. Published by Black Spring Books, a project of Tucson Weekly publisher Douglas Biggers, the book is a fundraiser for the non-profit Tucson Arts District Partnership, the management entity of downtown's Arts District. All profits will be donated to the Partnership's Arts Space Development and Artists in Residence Programs. Support Tucson artists and get a fabulous book of photographs as a bonus.
What follows is an excerpt from Margaret Regan's introductory essay to the book, which chronicles the history of the art scene in Tucson from the earliest days to the present.
JUST ON THE EDGE of the Tucson Arts District, sandwiched between the Greyhound bus terminal and a plasma donation center, is the sprawling warehouse studio Steven Meckler calls home. From this cavernous space, hidden behind a storefront gallery, Meckler plies his commercial photography trade.
Three years ago, Meckler was asked to make a portrait of Buck McCain, a Tucson artist who does cowboy paintings and sculptures, for a brochure extolling the city's cultural and historical high points. It was the kind of routine project that's all in a day's work for a commercial photographer, but something about the experience clicked for Meckler. He shot McCain in the artist's own studio, a beguiling downtown warehouse filled with bits and pieces of unfinished sculptures, eerie wax hands and truncated plaster heads. Meckler decided, casually, to make similar "environmental portraits" of other artists in their studios or homes. This modest project eventually evolved into an ambitious, year-long enterprise: photographing an even hundred of Tucson's artists.
"I chose artists because I felt they live interesting visual lives," Meckler says, "and they're interesting people. They're passionate about what they do. It was exciting, going to all these artists' homes and studios, looking at them, seeing their environments. You can go to a gallery and look at a piece in a show, but I was in their homes and seeing a body of this work. You get an appreciation, a sense beyond the image they're working on. The canvas or sculpture ends here but they have all this outside. The studio and the life frame their canvas."
It wasn't the first time the 39-year-old Meckler had embarked on a total-immersion venture. When he was a fledgling photographer in his native Brooklyn, he made a photographic portrait of Coney Island, for two years haunting the tawdry amusement park and beach neighborhood that's now entered into an unseemly old age. Just as the whole glitzy breadth and tumbledown depth of Coney Island made a fine subject for the photographer, so would the artists of Tucson, posed in their studios and homeplaces. Their garage studios splattered with paint and arty body parts, their houses crammed with paintings and sculpture, their scrubby backyards and wide-open desert spaces would become just as important to the photographs as their owners' faces. And if Coney Island became a character in the earlier series, so would Tucson become a lead player in this project.
Meckler journeyed all around the valley as he made his way through the months of the project, from March 1994 to March 1995. He visited remote desert homes made by the artists' own hands and sweltering adobe studios in the barrio. He ventured into rickety warehouses rattled by passing trains and respectable backyard studios in middle-class neighborhoods. These wildly diverse studios, he found, housed an equally diverse mix of contemporary artists and western realists.
Meckler's list of names, gleaned from friends, artists, gallery owners and museum people, didn't cover all the artists in town, not by a long shot, but it hit on all categories. The one hundred include the famous and the obscure, traditional cowboy painters and radical performance artists, contemporary painters and sculptors and cutting-edge photographers. The artists work in every conceivable medium from glass to computers to oils to stone. A few were old friends of Meckler's, but most of the time he first met his subject on the day of the shoot and had to make some quick decisions.
"I tried very hard to stay away from shtick or some repetitive technique," he says. "It reminds me a little of jazz improvisations." And he didn't pretend to sum up the artists for all time, nor to imitate the style of their own art. "You can't make a definitive portrait of someone in three hours. How well could you know someone in that time? The best you can do is make an interesting photograph....It matters how much they want to give you. Doing a portrait is a kind of conspiracy. You have to conspire with the person being photographed."
Only a few conspiracies were planned in advance. For his portrait of photographer William Lesch, who's best known for pictures that bathe the desert in artificial colors, Meckler posed his subject among the thick saguaros of Pima Canyon. "I told him, 'I want to do to you what you do to the desert.' " More often, Meckler relied on serendipity. Margo Burwell, a painter turned craft artist who lives at the fabled Rancho Linda Vista art colony, suggested that she jump into the ranch pool for her portrait. Jump she did, wearing one of her own painted caftans. Meckler set up Darla Masterson, a Pima Community College art professor, in her backyard just as the angry black clouds of a summer monsoon storm rolled in overhead. They had only a few minutes to shoot before they were obliged to flee the sudden torrents of rain.
Usually Meckler manipulated his array of lights to achieve exactly the colors and shadows he wanted; sometimes, as in his desert portrait of sculptor Aureleo Rosano, he allowed the sun to have its way. He indulged in symbolism in posing the photographer Harold Jones, a teacher, among the fertile plants he's cultivated in his backyard, and he paid homage to the eminent, long-lived photographer Todd Walker by picturing him in a studio where the technology goes from elementary clothespins to high-tech computers. In pictures of painter Jim Waid and photographer Frances Murray, Meckler worked against type: He photographed the painter of colorful scenes in austere black and white, and bathed the photographer of black and white in a gold and rose light.
The portrait of Chip Piqué, a painter who recently moved to town after many years at Rancho Linda Vista, turned out to be what Meckler considers the signature photo of the series.
"He had an enormous collection of paintings that he's saved," Meckler says. "And he had this interesting palette, with paint in deep blobs, that he keeps using. The space where he stored the paintings was very dramatic. I asked him to take away one of the paintings and underneath was a wonderful splatter of paint. This photo represents how the project turned out. It's a surreal rendition of the artist, his work and his environment. It shows the quintessential artist's studio in a different way."
Piqué in some ways has also had the quintessential Tucson art career. He got his master's at the University of Arizona, did a stint at the legendary Ranch and for years has run his own contracting business to support his family and his art habit. He's painted all this time, passionately, without much acclaim, achieving a modest commercial success only recently. To be sure, Tucson has some big names, such artists of national repute as painter James G. Davis, photographers Todd Walker and Judith Golden, sculptor Fred Borcherdt, and western realist painter Howard Terpning. Painters Jim Waid, Nancy Tokar Miller and Bailey Doogan are well known in town and out. But Meckler also chronicled many artists like Piqué who are known primarily in Tucson, and others who have yet to make a name for themselves even here. Making no judgments about the artists or the quality of their work, he shot young downtown upstarts and old downtown hands, Rancho Linda Vista artists, professors at the university and at Pima College, members of the artists' cooperatives Dinnerware and Central Arts, and artists who get by with no institutional affiliation at all.
Somewhere along the way, as Meckler ricocheted around town, his personal project evolved into a public snapshot. His portraits of the artists became a portrait of the pulsing Tucson arts community. Artists, it seemed, were everywhere. And their presence in the Baked Apple is a bit of a puzzle. Traditional cowboy art sells well in specialized galleries around town, but buyers for contemporary art are few and far between. As a memorable newspaper headline once put it, in Tucson there is plenty of scene but practically no market. So what are all these artists doing here?
TUCSON IS THE SANTA Fe of thirty years ago," says Dian Magie, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. "Artists can't live in Santa Fe anymore. Artists want a thriving, intellectual, creative community, where the cost of living is not high. Tucson is like that now."
Artists being a cantankerous, individualist lot, there's no exact accounting of just how many there are in Tucson and in surrounding Pima County. Some 648 visual artists are registered with the council, with 378 calling themselves painters and 215 sculptors. The rest are variously distributed in photography, film and the crafts. Council bean counters estimate that about one-third of the city's artists don't register at all, implying a grand total close to a thousand.
Tucson is not alone in harboring artists. The big cities for art fame and fortune are still New York City and Los Angeles, but a number of cities around the country--Seattle, Charleston, Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul--have, like Tucson, thriving local arts scenes. Painter Bruce McGrew, who's a big name in Tucson and who also shows in Santa Fe and New York, likens the phenomenon to the boom in regional theatre: You no longer have to play New York to be respectable. If artists have to sell and be seen in the coastal cities to hit the big time--and a number of Tucson artists do just that--they can also stay where the living is easier and carve out lower-key careers.
Each of the regional centers is unique, of course, and Tucson likes to boast of its own gifts. It's endowed with a triple-strength culture, a visually rich brew of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo. It has a major university art department and a feisty community college with an influential photography program. The powerhouse Center for Creative Photography anchors the major art institutions, which also include the Tucson Museum of Art and the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Tucson has one of the longest-lived residential art colonies anywhere and a pair of surprisingly durable artists' co-operative galleries. The arts community even has an official seal of approval: In 1988 the city legally designated a wide swathe of the downtown core as the Tucson Arts District.
At 750,000 population in the metropolitan area, Tucson is small enough to retain a hometown feel and big enough to maintain a lively cultural life. "Tucson is a good enough size that you don't feel it's a hicksville," says Nancy Tokar Miller, a painter who was raised in California and who's lived in Tucson 27 years. "There are nice restaurants, interesting things going on, cultural things to do. I go to Los Angeles several times a year and I'm always glad to come back."
The laid-back atmosphere gives them time to work, artists say, and in the absence of high-pressure galleries demanding certain styles they have the freedom to do what they please, turning out art in such a variety of genres that it's impossible to speak of a "Tucson school." With hardly any local market, there's not much competition between artists. Artist after artist swears there's genuine support and goodwill among them. "At our artists' party last year," says Mike Dominguez, co-owner of the contemporary art gallery Davis Dominguez, "some artists from Santa Fe said, 'You'd never see that in Santa Fe, 60 artists in the same room.' "
And the living is cheap, when it has to be. At one extreme is performance artist Dennis Williams, who lives behind chain link in El Rio, one of the poorest barrios in the city. His opposite number is the noted sculptor Fred Borcherdt, whose mountaintop aerie has a view of the whole valley. Somewhere in the middle is Tokar Miller, who put up a studio in the backyard of her university-neighborhood house, and Jim Waid, who did the same thing in his yard in Menlo Park, a working-class neighborhood west of downtown. Sculptor Susan Kay Johnson is tucked away with her skulls and bones in a downtown storefront. Allen Meartz lives and works in a desanctified church. Will Saunders paints in the dining room of his foothills apartment. Zac Zakovi crafts his massive stone sculptures in the yard of an outlying desert home he built himself.
Few can afford to do art full-time. Terry Etherton, a photographer who runs one of the few thriving contemporary art galleries in town, observes, "In Tucson, you can make minimum wage and still exist as an artist and have a little studio." A lot of artists teach. Some work in arts-related jobs at the museums or at the Center for Creative Photography. Others indulge in such time-honored artists' jobs as serving up coffee or banging down nails.
But all other explanations for Tucson's art scene fade in the laser beam of the Southwest light, prized equally by photographers and painters, by realists and abstractionists. Much of the built city of Tucson is about as ugly as a city can be, what with its strip shopping malls, bristling signs and heat-producing concrete. But even from the visually brutal fast-food parking lots you can see the towering peaks of the blue and beige Catalina Mountains to the north, the smudgy Rincons to the east, and the short, jagged Tucsons to the west, all changing hour by hour in the light. The mountain-ringed city is plopped down in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, one of the lushest collections of cacti in the world. "The Sonoran Desert is the underlying thing for me," says Waid, who can boast of having a painting in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "I think it's the desert for me and for a lot of people. Or maybe the heat just burns our brains out and we stay here."
Steven Meckler Photographs Tucson Artists is a fundraiser for the Tucson Arts District Partnership's Art Space Development and Artists in Residence programs. All profits from the sale of the book will be donated to the Partnership. The book is $30, available at The Book Mark, Borders, The Haunted Bookshop, Coyote's Voice, Tucson Museum of Art Gift Shop, Etherton Gallery and the Tucson Weekly office. The book is also available by mail for $30, plus $2 shipping and handling from Black Spring Books, P.O. Box 708, Tucson, AZ 85702. A limited number of hardback editions are available for $75, plus $2 shipping and handling. For more information, call 743-4376.
Photo Retro: Black and White Photography by Steven Meckler: New York, 1976-1978 and Tucson 1978-1980 continues through November 16 at Bero Gallery, 41 S. Sixth Ave. There's a closing reception and booksignng for Tucson Artists from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, November 15. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Thursday Art Walk and Downtown Saturday Night. Call 792-0313 for information.
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