Luminarias del Pueblo

A new public art project will light up Tucson's winter nights

Moira Marti Geoffrion is already at work on her metallic "Prickly Pear Christmas Tree," a piece of plasma-cut steel colored in holiday red and green.

"I've been watching the prickly pear grow in my yard," she reported last week. "I started making the molds of the prickly pear fruit today."

Lynn Rae Lowe likewise is plotting out her "Milagro Luminaria," a 7 1/2-foot lighted metallic sculpture that will be adorned with cut-out milagros; and Rae Douglass is ready to go with "Lumanillo," a 14-foot steel ocotillo that will pierce the night with a neon-like glow.

All three artists won commissions in Luminarias del Pueblo, a new public art project that will deliver dozens of illuminated sculptural luminarias to the streets of Tucson before Christmas. In a follow-up to last year's successful Ponies del Pueblo, which had some 35 painted, etched and otherwise decorated horse sculptures stepping lively all over town, the Tucson Pima Arts Council this year called for artists to make one-of-a-kind luminarias, all of them powered by solar energy.

"They'll be interesting all day and magical at night," said Mary Ann Ingenthron, executive director of the Arts Council, which is coordinating the project.

Beginning Dec. 11, just 10 days before the winter solstice--the longest and darkest night of the year--the giant luminarias will alight in clusters around town. They'll stay up throughout the winter. Not all of the locations have been determined yet, but Ingenthron expects the greatest number to go downtown, where locals and tourists will be able to follow a lighted luminaria trail. Individually designed and made by mostly local artists, the works draw on the Hispanic Christmastime tradition of the luminaria--lighted candles placed outside in tins or paper bags to guide Mary and Joseph to shelter--while celebrating the power of Tucson's fierce sun.

"This speaks to us as a sunlight city," Lowe said. An artist who shows Judaica sculpture in galleries in other cities, she said she's excited to have won a Tucson public art commission on her first attempt.

It's not yet known exactly how many luminarias will see the light of day. Ingenthron said 89 artists submitted proposals, and 53 made it through a jury screening last month. But not all of those chosen will get to make a piece: Sponsors have to come up with the cash to get them started. The whole project is a charity fund-raiser culminating in an auction. (Last year's Ponies auction raised just more than $300,000 for local nonprofits, with the artists pocketing about $52,000 and the Arts Council about $78,000.) Each luminaria artist--and each sculpture proposal--needs a sponsor willing to come up with the sponsorship fee of $3,500, with $1,500 going to the Arts Council and $2,000 going to the artist.

As of last week, some 15 artists, including Geoffrion, Lowe and Douglass, and pony veterans Simon Donovan and Doug Shelton, had gotten picked by sponsoring businesses and nonprofits. The other artists are still waiting, but Ingenthron expects the number who get sponsors to rise significantly.

"We're hoping to do at least 35, probably in the range of 35 to 45," Ingenthron said.

Douglass said that the artists' $2,000 start-up fee is a little skimpy--"the honorarium barely covers the costs"--but Ingenthron pointed out that artists should earn more at the end this time than they did with the Ponies. The Arts Council is upping the percentage artists will pocket when their works are sold, evening out the money doled out to artists and Arts Council. After the April 2 auction, the artists will get 15 percent of the profits, up from last year's 12 percent, while the Arts Council's portion will decrease to 15 percent, too, down from last year's 18 percent. The cut going to the nonprofits, 70 percent, remains the same.

Luminarias del Pueblo is part of an art craze that's swept the United States and Canada in recent years, with municipalities from coast to coast putting outdoor sculptures temporarily on their streets. Chicago had its herd of cows; Washington, D.C., its donkeys and elephants; Vancouver, its orcas. Typically, the projects provide the artists with a standard animal form, which they are limited to ornamenting as they please.

The best of Tucson's ponies subverted the equine shell--Shelton barreled into his and created "Airstream," a tourist-oriented pony-turned-RV, and Barbara Grygutis covered hers with deeply three-dimensional river rock. But many were less interesting, with artists simply painting the pre-fab forms in their trademark styles. This time around, the shape of the luminarias is limited only by artists' imaginations.

"This project allows tremendous freedom," Lowe says.

Artists conjured up a dizzying array of hardy, outdoor-worthy materials in their proposals, from ceramic to metal to glass and Plexiglas.

"They have to be able to withstand extremes of temperature outside," Ingenthron said, and the possibility of winter rains. "Many of them have colored lights that will shine at night."

Ingenthron said that artists actually came up with the bright idea of sculptural luminarias themselves in a meeting several years ago. A focus group was "not too excited about the fixed forms" required by the Ponies, Ingenthron remembered. "They wanted something more creative. And the concept of sculpture with a light theme came up. We put that idea in our back pocket and this year decided to go back to it. The artists got extremely excited."

Artists are likewise pleased that the new sculptures have a close cultural link to Tucson.

"Luminarias are more specific to the region," said Geoffrion, a UA art professor who has several public art projects under her belt, including steel motifs of animals and plants along River Road between La Cholla Boulevard and Thornydale Road. "The ponies were successful but not as unique or as site-specific."

The artists are also glad to be trying out solar power to light their work, "using environmentally sensitive techniques," Geoffrion said. Tucson Electric Power is donating the solar equipment, and the artists boned up on photovoltaic panels and solar batteries in workshops. The TEP engineers, in turn, are hoping to get inspired by the artists' creativity, Ingenthron noted.

Douglass, who's done a public art piece featuring water and boulders at the downtown Pima Community College campus, likes the way the luminarias will illuminate the town's best qualities.

"Tucson is known for its light, clear skies and optics," Douglass said. And maybe someday, Ingenthron hopes, the city also will be known for its solar-powered luminarias. She envisions Luminarias del Pueblo as a "signature" annual event that will attract tourists and "celebrate the light of Tucson and our artists' creativity. ... It's a very accessible form of art. There's no admission fee. It's for everybody."