Out of the Clouds

From a forbidding black corner of the sky, a streak of light cascades over the Tucson Mountains, sweeping golden sunshine across the desert.

The scene inspires awe, reverence and even fear—and in John Edwards' panoramic photograph "Light Conversation," the moment is captured forever.

"It's probably a sky I'll never see again," Edwards said at the opening of the Monsoon! exhibit at Tohono Chul Park. "A lot of times, you'll take a million photographs and not capture it. But this time, I was able to."

The exhibit showcases works by 20 contemporary artists from Southern Arizona, as well as a few pieces from the gallery's Native American art collection. Through paint and pottery, quilts and collages, the artists highlight the diverse emotions and energies that come with the rain.

"There are just such powerful forces at work when the monsoons arrive," said Vicki Donkersley, curator of exhibitions at Tohono Chul Park. "The desert is just alive again ... in this window of three months."

Carolee Asia's set of four "Desert Portrait" collages captures the progression of an Arizona rainstorm with vibrant color. The shimmering clouds shift from cirrus to cumulus as the parched desert day becomes an Ansel Adams-inspired night scene. The calm of the piece breaks momentarily as golden rain falls from the dark sky; then dawn comes, topping the bucolic landscape with a glittering rainbow.

The spirited energy of the collages communicates the renewed vitality of the desert after it rains.

"As it gets damper, you see the foliage start to grow, and the saguaro cactus blooms," Asia said.

Other artists used wildlife to build on the theme of summer rebirth. In her pastel "A Magic Moment," Fran Odum painted a delicate baby javelina, whose pink eyes match the tiny blossom it is sniffing.

In Odum's "Whispering Words," another pastel, billowing clouds gather over a lone horse grazing in a field of yellow flowers. Odum, who has lived in Tucson since 1968, visited a friend's ranch as a storm was coming in and captured the kind of picturesque moment she says is becoming rarer.

"We're not getting that kind of rain anymore," Odum said.

Other art in the exhibit shows the more frightening side of Southwest storms. Photographer Alexandrea Arnold contributed an image of jagged lightning in a jet-black sky, noting that one of the bolts she captured on camera started the Helens II fire in the Rincon Mountains in 2003.

Donkersley said the variety of interpretations of the theme show how diverse summer storms can be, from gentle rain that makes one want to curl up with a book, to violent rain that inspires worry or fright.

"I tried with artwork to pinpoint that whole evolving story of the dynamic place that we live (in)," Donkersley said.

She said the exhibit is meant to de-simplify the way people think about summer weather and to connect each visitor to nature, which is part of Tohono Chul Park's mission.

"We want to kind of bring that reawakening to people," Donkersley said.

The Native American artwork, all of which dates from the mid-to-late 20th century, uses symbolism to show how important rain was to early desert-dwellers. Diamonds on a sash represent clouds, while its fringe represents falling rain, for example.

Donkersley said the Monsoon! artists are all from Southern Arizona, in an effort to honor both local history and contemporary Tucson talent.

"I feel like my role is to help people understand that there are people in their neighborhood doing amazing artwork," she said.

Marcy Wrenn's abstract "Monsoon Pots" were quite literally shaped by summer rain. Wrenn fired the pots in the summer, but because of storm-related humidity, her kiln wasn't working quite in the way she wanted it to. The results are magnificent works in a Japanese ink-like style that reflect the energy of the monsoon. Wrenn said one piece was inspired by the way the bougainvillea suddenly bursts forth after being pushed in the wind.

"I have a big bay window in my studio, and I see the storms coming in," Wrenn said. She and her children spent many summer afternoons watching rainstorms outside of their house in the Catalina foothills.

"That was entertainment," Wrenn said. "It was like a movie."