Thursday, April 8, 2010
Written by Victoria Blute/ArizonaNewsService.com
Alex Streeter pours hot water into a plastic coffee filter as he pinpoints the origin of his fascination with the west. Jacob, Streeter's tiny dog, trots about in a tattered knit sweater. The museum is an odd mix of media: Photoshop art featuring the ghosts of Hotel Congress, towering cases filled with Streeter's most prized trinkets, and Yaqui masks alongside painted angels. When Streeter opens the refrigerator and asks if a visiting reporter wants a spot of milk in my coffee, I realize this isn't just a museum—this is also where he lives.
Streeter stands tall over his kitchen countertop, recalling his childhood in New York, where his grandmother regularly took him to the annual championship rodeo. It was there he first saw cowboy star Roy Rogers and his famous horse, Trigger.
"It definitely all started there," he says, filtering the coffee into an oversized white cup. "Being here started there."
Streeter, a world famous jewelry artist and silversmith, has relocated to Tucson after a successful 30-year stint in SoHo—the Manhattan area known for its cast iron architecture and thriving arts scene.
He is busy preparing the Alex Streeter Museum and Gift Shop, located at 551 S. Meyer St. His long-time fascination with ghosts, gold mines and cowboys, the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase (a jewelry artist's dream!), and the rodeo connection brought him to Tucson.
Though his desert muse may have come alive with '60s television cowboys, Streeter's attraction to the Wild West never diminished as an East Coast youngster. As a kid on New York City's Upper West Side, Streeter says that Central Park was his childhood wilderness. But when he wasn't playing with cowboy boots, toy pistols or bows and arrows, he honed his design skills. Streeter assembled model sailboats under the guidance of Al Harding, a craftsman later known as the "Kite Man of Nantucket".
"I joined a gaggle of boys ... and I built boats with the other kids," he says. "Once a year there would be trophies ... little kids with big trophies. They were heartbreakers to lose, but I was never really a technician. I was more of a romantic."
Making His Mark
The six-foot-plus Streeter takes a swig of his coffee, pointing without reservation to a school expulsion letter framed in the entryway of his house-slash-museum.
His passion and talent for design took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1966—an institution from which he was quickly kicked out.
His class was "highly experimental"—a group of students selected by administrators who decided to ignore poor grades, among other things.
"They overlooked everything but talent," he says. "It was a wild class in an extreme cusp of the cultural revolution."
The school's choice of students upset powerful people in Providence "so the school did a blanket expulsion—a cultural purge."
Streeter went to San Francisco, where he continued his work during the Summer of Love. He created some of the earliest hippie art in the movement's epicenter—the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. He sold his work on the street and began wholesaling to some of the first psychedelic shops.
Soon after, Streeter opened his own store. He then returned to Manhattan, opening a shop on Prince Street in 1971. SoHo was not yet a commercial shopping hot spot, and keeping business afloat was sometimes difficult. Originally an industrial hub of New York City, Streeter says SoHo was filled with artists living in illegal loft housing, leaving the neighborhood quiet. He managed to continue business while balancing family time with his wife and his daughter, Lily. Streeter still has the cast iron post that stood in front of his shop as a memento of his experience.
"It was the post that I leaned on out in front of my shop for years going, 'I dunno how I'm going to get through this'. I'd take a break, lean on this post."
Hitting the Big Time
Streeter's perseverance paid off. He was commissioned to work on Angel Heart—a 1987 Robert De Niro film that is now a cult classic.
"There were two gentlemen that came through my shop and then left silently," he says. "They came back a week or two later and introduced themselves. They said they were looking to do a project for something quite strange, and that I was the strangest designer they'd ever seen." Streeter created a pentagram ring for the movie to connect with its eerie, occult theme.
Streeter's work on Angel Heart solidified his name as an artist—his work can be seen on celebrities like Madonna, Marilyn Manson and "Captain" Kirk Douglas—the guitar player for hip hop band The Roots. Streeter gained celebrity status in Japan, where his Angel Heart jewelry is widely popular. He has toured the country three times.
Tucson isn't the busy borough of Manhattan—but Streeter's enchantment with the Southwest drew him here.
"All of that Western history I've always been a buff for, so really I'm in my element," he says.
Friend David Turner says Streeter's move to live out his cowboy dream was a good one.
"He'd just about done most everything he'd wanted to do here in Manhattan," he says in a phone call from Central Park over the sounds of a jazz combo.
"He's a Manhattan boy. But the rugged Western independent, the Mexican thing, the Indian thing—it gets his creative juices flowing."
Streeter's Western state of mind gained attention early on.
"He was doing belt buckles and silver tips for cowboy boots in the early '70s. You'd be at a club somewhere—and in those days everyone wore [silver tips and belt buckles]—and you'd say, 'Alex Streeter!' "
Turner says people assume artists are able to "gush stuff out" for years on end. He says the West motivates Streeter, blending with "his own inimitable style," citing the local gem show as jewelry inspiration, too. Never afraid to experiment with different media, Turner says Streeter's move has him painting and sculpting more than in New York.
What Locals Are Saying
Streeter sells his pop jewelry at Bohemia, located at 2920 E. Broadway Blvd. Owner Tana Kelch says his work intrigues her.
"Alex is definitely one of a kind," she says. "He is quirky and intelligent, sweet and considerate, inventive and motivated...and a really incredible jewelry artist. He also has the most amazing collection of vintage Western clothes." Kelch says Streeter's unusual designs, alongside his Angel Heart series, interest her. She also took interest in his perspective on skulls and his interpretation of Dia de los Muertos.
"They were extremely unique from the other jewelry we had in stock," she says. Kelch says Streeter is constantly selling work.
"People who get his work just need to own it," she says.
Sharing His Work
With construction on his museum and gift shop nearly finished, Streeter plans to host an open house in late April. Streeter is looking forward to sharing his work with Tucsonans.
"I'm generally doing something unusual," he says. "It's all an improbable success in a way."
To reach the reporter or ArizonaNewsService.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org