Tucson Salvage

Crafty beauty from Tucson’s dark crevices

“I don’t like things that are shiny.”
“I don’t like things that are shiny.”

A warm patio hang on a cool October day and the cigar between Mario Patino's fingers, a new tradition replacing the cigarettes he swore off years ago, speaks of contentment. Landscaping immaculately trimmed and kept, citrus and gravel and wrought-iron folk art, and bike trails curving up around the bend. He is inside a mobile home park as nice as I have ever seen and it feels like a retirement joint in some Midwestern town but the Sonoran forest and resplendent Rincon Mountains in the eastern foreground give it all away. A put-togetherness that defies this man's art.

Patino and his wife purchased here four years ago, after selling off to a slum lord in the trailer park behind a casino on Tucson's far southside. The couple's quality of life there had soured slowly from great to sad to shit. Maybe the final straw was the home invasions they had witnessed, or that they couldn't play with their grandchildren outside in daylight because their safety felt threatened. Maybe it was the time that shooter used a baby to shield himself from bullets. Likely, it was all that. All that which continues to inform the extreme spiritual edges suggested in his work, which has the quality of found art, but isn't.

And that work?

He'll deadpan: "I don't like things that are shiny."

To learn of his art is to learn of him, of course. Mid-50s, raised inside Tucson barrios, son of a Mexican-born Tucson plasterer and his Mexican-American housewife. A bilingual pre-teen armed with a slingshot and fascinations bigger than his surroundings. Bailed on high school and home but not before his mother had sent him at 14 years old to an art school in downtown Tucson, where he learned the basics of painting and drawing—perspective, composition and form—to feed the anxious inner-need to create.

He grew up on Mexican folk music but get him talking classic white rock and stuff gleaned from Tucson's old KWFM radio and hear his love for The Babys and Deep Purple and Sabbath. His entire face lights up. He'd rather talk that than his art. Working-class rock 'n' roll.

Left home and found survival dishwashing-busboy gigs, one at the restaurant inside the old Travelodge off I-10 near downtown. It was a kind of heaven because touring bands playing the Tucson Convention Center would often stay there. Arena combos like UFO and Uriah Heep would come in to the restaurant and he'd be beside himself. Johnny Cash and entourage strolled in to said restaurant after playing the Convention Center one night in early 1980. It was Cash's birthday and June Carter ("man, she was very nice") threw a celebration. Patino and the other restaurant employees strolled out from the kitchen and served the man, dressed hair-to-boot in black, a candle-lighted cake. The roadies proceeded to defile the dining room with sticky birthday festivities.

Met his wife Jeannie at 17, been together all these years. He found work as a lot attendant at a cab company, he did landscaping. Their son is 30-year-old Michael. Life was never so easy because there are always the brutal years, the artless parties and money struggles when Patino nearly careened off the rails for good. Those years are long behind him. Hence the cigar and the kept yard and the daily hours in the bedroom-turned art studio, where he sometimes works across from his wife, a retired county worker who is also a miniaturist. Sometimes any of their three little grandkids co-occupy and work on their own crafts here.

It is strange Patino was born with essential tremors. Strange because one might consider a slight trembling of hands a severe handicap for an artist who started out drawing, switched to painting, developed an interest in sculpture and became a miniaturist. Lately he takes natural supplements to aid his memory, which he says is fading with age.

But the work hits. So much that the prestigious Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, one of the finest in the world, has been exhibiting his work alongside many greats in the field. Patino's wonderous efforts stick out, the busted barrio elegance, truth and strangely accurate symmetry. Depictions of the tin and the adobe and the forgotten and the overlooked, the darker crevasses of impoverished and lost Tucson, the beautiful stuff disregarded by idiot-wind Tucson boosters and cash-cow developers. It stands to reason that the first piece sold from his museum display is a toilet, a scarily rendered pooper with a beer bottle perched on the tank and scattered toilet paper, disgusting enough to resemble one found years ago at the old Pearl's Hurricane Bar in downtown Tucson. 

The work sits alongside internationally renowned miniature dioramas, the whimsical lost kingdoms and Victorian fairies and plantation houses and western scenes and haute couture ensembles, the kind that forever awe children and retirees and anyone rapt by tiny things. Patino's "Ravaged Landscapes and Rundown Interiors" display sticks out like Bukowski on a literary syllabus at a posh university.

Lisa Hastreiter-Lamb, executive director of the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, was introduced to Patino's work through his wife at the Tucson Miniaturist Society. She headed out to Patino's house for a studio visit and was struck by the gritty realism of his work, how it captured Tucson in the 1970s.

"You can almost smell the aromas," Hastreiter-Lamb says.

She arranged the museum exhibition and says there have been zero negative comments so far. Just the opposite. "Even the toilet," she laughs, "gets a big response."

Patino himself finds it hard to believe, she says. "He said, 'Who is going to like this stuff?'"

There's an entire universe and culture of miniaturist art, national and local groups and associations dedicated to the work as both a utilitarian form (film set design, for example), and a serious art form. It is dedicated inside the White House, inside the Smithsonian and curated and funded in some of the best museums of the world.

An overall conceit of miniaturist art is a quest for perfection. The artists create a perfection they themselves never had, or they go for perfection because most people don't care to, or simply can't, remember the imperfections. Maybe that is the point. Or maybe they are creating for children, inner or otherwise, which is hardly a dis on the art. Patino's work is an anomaly at the museum, and among peers, though he counts certain artists who trade in similar aesthetics as inspirations and reference points, such as small-scale TV/film set maker Rand Hage, photographer Loir Nix, miniaturists Ken Hamilton and Chuck Doan.

Patino's studio is organized and well-vacuumed, filled with drawers containing the accoutrement of his work, and rows of dolls and model cars. Patino points to a diorama of a house modeled after one from his childhood neighborhood, says, "These are the things people take for granted in life."

He encodes fragments of his external and internal life, and myriad remembrances, into the work. He incorporates detritus left behind by the destitute and the busted. The elements of the city's streets, sometimes a tableau vivant of urchins and unemployed and work-a-days. It is all visible inside the details, where the devil may live in the shot-out road signs, even the pigeon shit caked on a rusted out old Chevrolet and the floorboards around it.

He works in 1:24 scale mostly, dioramas up to three-feet long document grim realities of city settings, detailing everything from aging burlesque theaters and crumbling adobe facades of lovely homes, to fading corner storefronts and graffiti-splashed phone booths. A pristinely weathered tin roof, a trash can filled with refuse, dirty white lace curtains would never escape his eye. The Virgin of Guadalupe and the weed-grown penury.

A blown-out trailer home reveals a cracked TV stuck in its floorboards, and there is certain sadness and loss. A kitchen shows dirty dishes in the sink and yellowed newspaper covering a busted-out window. Graffiti tags a tired air conditioning box on another. Yes, his dioramas are mostly Tucson-centered barrios, era 1960s and '70s, yet he'll insert twists into the work, like the creepy woman wall hanging above a tiny rusted 1950s-era Pepsi refrigerator, which shows a mind-blowing level of detail. (He scratch-built the cooler from a sheet of plastic and a picture could fool anyone into thinking it real.) He created an auto shop whose sign reads Gein, after the serial killer. His boyhood crushes show up. A '60s record console with Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass album jackets on top: "My mother had those albums and I had crushes on the women on the covers."

Though he rarely titles his work, he calls this one "American Garage." He remembers it from childhood, "started by a guy who lost his job and he didn't know anything but fixing cars." It boasts a red five-drawer tool box weathered and with stickers (Champion spark plugs) and a tiny striptease show poster for Scanty Panties held in place with tiny strips of duct tape. Miniature jacks and an air-hose, the rust and grime streaks and weather damage authenticate a small-scale sweat shop.

It's easy to overlook beauty in Patino's work just as it is easy to overlook such beauty in our immediate lives. But he nails it. This isn't about the insane math involved getting things scaled correctly, by leveraging disparate tiny objects, or fabricating them from foam board, wood, glues, and plastic. Whether he believes it or not, he can make us question our own reality. It is easy to see his derelict scenes, but look closer and discover narratives, imagined or real. The sadness for countless heartbeats that have passed through, the hundred Christmases gone or the countless drunken bar fistfights or the working-class inequalities. The long workday hours suffered under Arizona summer sun and blown away in shame and loneliness in some adult arcade at night. Even pangs of nostalgia for simpler times, of phone booths and porch conversations. Ghosts everywhere.

But calling all of it nostalgia is an easy dismiss.

Patino may just stop creating dioramas one day, he says, like he did the painting, and move on to some other discipline. Lately he and his wife are getting into Phicen dolls, simulated skin and inner skeleton, for customizing. He's working on a cowboy drinking beer in a tin bathtub. A few shelves in his studio are dedicated to such work.

His pieces sell by word-of-mouth. Some folks have entire rooms filled with them. Fans look for him at area events such as the Tucson Toy Show, sometimes from Mexico City or Minnesota. In-person sales only because he will not ship his work. "I don't like to hear any rattles inside the box," he laughs. There is no website or business phone; he doesn't bother. You can track him down on Facebook.

His underbelly stuff sells best—the adult books stores, the burlesque theaters. Sometimes photographers or filmmakers come looking for set backdrops.

Lawyers and doctors and one guy who owns well-established local stores pony up for desk and room décor. Sometimes collectors of miniaturist art buy the stuff, and sometimes fans of the kind of beauty others will never see in a million years.

Patino has difficulty pricing and selling, but his work is hardly costly. A little diorama of some lost Tucson scene might set you back $125. That is all. He is as embarrassed putting a price tag on the work as he is receiving attention from it.

The semi-retired landscaper who creates rust from Brillo pads shrugs.

"If you want me to clean your yard, I'll give you an estimate, but to price this.. .."

Patino works with discipline, two hours here, four hours there, mostly every day. He estimates he's good for maybe three dioramas a month, and 80 to 90 percent of them sell. He won't create on demand, so he won't commission anything. He creates only for himself and only from feel, sometimes peppering it with thrift store discoveries and internet images. The work shows some inner ache, and other intangibles, as if he's exorcising something from his system. How it is pushed out through his heart and then his fingers, which miraculously stop shaking the moment he connects to the work. His dioramas entertain and challenge, they can unsettle and enlighten, and there is integrity and beauty, so it is art.

I say some of this stuff to him and a long moment passes. Then he says, "The beauty is you don't have to dust them off!"

He lifts a palm-sized object off a shelf in his craft room. "Look at this, an antique sewing box. My wife made this and I still freak out." He places it on the table and opens it up so its shelves unfold, revealing colorful microscopic yarn bundles. "I could never do this."

The well-kept place, the lasting marriage, the son and daughter-in-law, the grandkids, the cigars, the work, it allows him to gaze backward to the familiar and find poignancy in it.

What will likely never be in his lifetime now is some dude outside his house in the street holding up a baby as a human shield from bullets. But that might one day be inside, at 1/24 scale. ■

Mario Patino's "Ravaged Landscapes and Rundown Interiors" runs though Dec. 15 at the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, 4455 E Camp Lowell Drive. 520-881-0606.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.