Behind the Culture

Almost 120 of your closest artist friends open their doors this weekend

Sandwiched in between the railroad tracks and 13th Avenue on Tucson's rundown westside, the old Splinter Brothers Studios has long been a hotbed of alternative arts and culture.

Take sculptor Charles Tearney, for instance. Late on Halloween afternoon, under a rising moon, Tearney is working away in his large Splinter studio.

Apart from his handcrafted furniture and metal gates--some of them twisted into delicate filigrees of butterflies or flowers--Tearney makes tall, skinny bells out of discarded metal oxygen tanks.

"I get the oxygen tanks from the UA and other places," he explains. "Jet fighters use them for their oxygen supply, and hospitals use them."

Fitted with big wooden gongs ("I get the wood from Argentina"), the cylindrical bells chime out a surprisingly lovely trill of notes.

"I'm tone-deaf myself," the Tucson native says genially. "I do a lot of gates, but the bells are one of my fun things."

Art lovers can get a glimpse of Tearney's idiosyncratic bells, sculpture and handmade furniture this weekend, during the annual fall Tucson Open Studio Tour. The two-day tour this year features 117 artists in 61 different locations, representing every possible medium, from glass to paint to wood to oxygen tanks, according to Liz Bustamante of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, the tour sponsor.

"It's countywide, but the studios are pretty heavily concentrated downtown," Bustamante says. "It's a great event for the public to meet artists and to go into their studios and see art being made. It's great for the artists, too."

The easternmost artist is Mary Cate-Carroll, near Tanque Verde Road and Soldier Trail. Tie for farthest west goes to the Tucson Mountains studio of Glory Tacheenie-Campoy and the double studio of Betsy Evans-Banks and Brian Banks. Farthest north is Nancy Denzler, a painter and sculptor working on North Linda Vista Place. The five artists of Elephant Head Art Guild are so far south, they're not even in town: The guild is in Amado, 45 minutes south of Tucson.

But the majority of artists throwing open their doors are in the center of town. Quite a few are housed in warehouses with multiple studios, giving tour-goers more artists per stop. The joint studios include the Historic Steinfeld Warehouse, 101 W. Sixth St.; the Seventh Avenue Arts District Studios, 549 N. Seventh Ave.; and the Sixth Street Studios at 44 W. Sixth St. Splinter Brothers, more equitably rechristened Splinter Brothers and Sisters by a new owner, is at 901 to 911 N. 13th Ave.

Tearney, like many of the artists on the tours, plans to do demos for the public, and nearly all of the artists put out refreshments for art travelers. Fin Reed, a potter at Splinter who used to be in the restaurant biz, usually has eats that are a cut above. He's considering serving kippered herring with sour cream sauce, he says.

Splinter Brothers will showcase more than a half-dozen artists, including painters Eric Twachtman, Jack Wahl, Kira Dixon and Susan E. French, sculptor Seth Schindler and potter Burt Cureton.

"I'll probably have a painting on my easel," says Wahl, who makes plein air landscape paintings and portraits. "I'm a realist, but I paint in a loose style."

Twachtman says he doesn't do painting demos, but he'll bring out work to show his visitors. "I try to get new stuff ready for every tour--I use it as a deadline."

A painter who's descended from the American impressionist John Henry Twachtman, the present-day Twachtman says he hates to describe his style, but admits to going "back and forth between expressionistic landscapes and abstracts. It's all based on landscape, but some of the landscapes could be anywhere--trees, water, sky."

A recent real estate deal may end up costing Twachtman the studio that he'll be opening to the public this Saturday and Sunday. He's not in the historic adobe warehouse, but in an adjacent Quonset hut in the Splinter compound; the hut is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new residential building.

Tearney moved from his Quonset hut studio to another one in the big warehouse, but so far, nothing suitable has opened up for Twachtman.

"It's a nail-biting situation," he says. "There are hardly any studios available in Tucson."

The property was divided in two, with Los Angeles artist Elizabeth Tobias buying the warehouse on the southern end from former owner Janelle Curry. Curry retained ownership of the northern end, now occupied by the Quonset hut.

The Ronstadt family built the adobe warehouse some 82 years ago, Tobias believes, taking advantage of the site's proximity to the tracks for shipping and receiving goods. Her plan is to keep it as an arts space, retaining its nine studios.

"I'm an artist myself, and I have a studio there myself," she says. "It's always been a dream of mine to have a place like this. I'll maintain its integrity."

Her media are photography, video and performance art, she says, and she'll be opening her space for the tour. Still, she's making a few changes to the compound, including adding an outdoor stage.

"I am in the process of reintroducing the live element Splinter is so famous for."

On Dec. 2, she'll debut the new performance space with a multimedia show benefiting the arts program at City High School. The stage is not quite finished, but art tour-goers can get a sneak preview of Tobias' renovations this weekend.

Tobias bought a house near Sixth Avenue and Drachman Street about three years ago, but she still keeps a home in L.A.'s Echo Park. She commutes back and forth.

"I completely fell in love with Tucson," she says. "It's a balance to living in L.A."

She long had a dream to have an arts space, she says, and was delighted when Curry put the old Splinter place on the market. She doesn't even mind the trains slicing by her new property's western edge, just inches from the warehouse.

"I like the trains," she says. "I'm in the middle of the city here, but it's an enclave that's set apart. It's like the Wild West."

She's entranced by the Splinter's arty history. Home for years to a changing roster of artists' studios, the place was once legendary for its wild parties.

"Every contractor I bring in says, 'Oh, this place!'" she exclaims. "They say it had the best parties."

If painter Twachtman is discouraged by the changes--"When I first moved in, it was all idealistic. Then reality set in," he says--potter Reed believes Tobias' enthusiasm is revving up the place.

"We're going to see some new energy here with the new owner," he predicts.