Art Goes to the Birds

Tucson Botanical Gardens' annual 'Art al Fresco' show is a winner for both the artists and the gardens

St. Francis of Assisi is no stranger to gardens, but the good monk typically presides over the flowers or birdbath as a statue in ceramic.

So artist Sue Betanzos strayed a bit off the garden path by rendering the animal-loving saint in paint on glass. Her St. Francis painting, called "It Is in Giving That We Receive," is one of the more charming entries in the Art al Fresco garden art exhibition at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Taking her title from a line in the lovely Prayer of St. Francis, Betanzos has pictured the saint in glowing reverse glass. In this tricky technique, the artist must apply her pigments to the back of a piece of glass, essentially painting the image backward to get the look she wants forward. Robed in familiar monk's brown, her lovable saint stands in front of a starry blue sky punctuated with shiny gold paint. A tortoise and collie loll in the ground at his feet. Birds fly all around. An owl perches on one hand, while a Gambel's quail gambols in a tree.

The whole thing is contained in a roughly painted wooden box and lighted with small white bulbs, suitable for hanging on a garden wall, the better to bring the saint's blessings to growing plants.

"It Is in Giving" is just one of some 102 pieces of outdoor art judiciously placed outdoors in the 30-year-old botanical gardens, among the verbena, between the mesquites and under the ramadas. The pieces go all the way from unabashed kitsch made by earnest crafters (in the spirit of St. Francis, we shall name no names) to some surprisingly contemporary works from well-known local artists.

The visual and performing artist To-Reé-Neé Keiser, for instance, has made an abstracted assemblage out of found objects. "What Blooms" stands upright in the dirt like a totem pole. Keiser wittily stuck to the garden theme by using a rake as the vertical axis of this piece--its tines splay out at the top--and added a copper plate studded with fragments of glass colored blue, green and lavender. A broken blue jug saucily completes the composition.

Likewise, Eleanor Kohloss has made a sculpture that would be at home in a cutting-edge gallery. Her "Something to Squawk About" is a vertical ceramic work, its three poles planted in the earth and joined together by mid-air swathes of clay. The pale ceramic is delicately colored in cerulean and yellow. Kohloss' only concession to the garden theme is a yellow-breasted clay bird perched atop the pole.

"The theme was birds, but it was not strictly enforced," executive director Nancy Laney cheerfully admits.

Still, there are plenty of birds, painted, sculpted and otherwise. Chris Bubany, famous for her lively dinnerware, made a flat tile wall work, "Mi Nidito Es Su Nidito," with bluebirds flying between birdhouses in a rainbow of colors. Susan Gamble's Santa Theresa Tileworks opted for pink-green doves flying around a mirror, in "Las Palomas."

For "A Day in the Desert," blacksmith Jerry W. Harris fashioned a roadrunner and Gambel's quail out of copper, and placed them among the metal plants winding along his spectacular four-panel fence. Jill Jankowski stenciled birds and dragonflies on a painted canvas floor rug called "Flight."

Birdbaths abound, and so do birdhouses. Leiloni/Kim Kammerer gave the birds a glass bowl bathtub, ornamented it in blues and greens and placed it atop a three-legged black metal stand. A glistening glass ball in brilliant royal is caught between the legs. Janet B. Davis' whimsical "Mallow House" is a ceramic birdhouse in peach and green. The roof looks like an upside-down flower; the house proper is made of sinuous lengths of coiled clay.

Birds aside, artists tackled plants--Rick Phantom made a fine facsimile of an agave out of twisted wire and called it "Red Hot Poker"--and planters. Most interesting of the pots for plants is Ann M. Holt's "Reclining Woman"; the haunting image of a woman's face lies across the front of the planter in low relief. And just for fun, Jerry Hall made a painted wood-and-metal choo-choo. With its red and black engine, red caboose and yellow passenger car, "Runaway Train" would add a fine flash of color to anyone's yard.

Now in its 13th year, the annual Art al Fresco show is an important fundraiser for the gardens; the works will be auctioned off May 11. The show stepped up a notch in quality this year, in part because local arts mavens Nancy Lutz and Lee Karpiscak, formerly with Center for Creative Photography and University of Arizona Museum of Art respectively, chaired the organizing and jurying committees.

Even more crucial is the fact that this year, for the first time, the artists will get a cut of the profits. Local nonprofits are constantly hitting up hard-pressed artists for free work; this time, the Art al Fresco artists will get 30 percent of the selling price of their work.

If the switch is good for the artists, it's also "really positive for us," Laney says. The gardens did the right thing, and the artists, knowing they'll be compensated, at least in part, donated better and bigger work.

St. Francis would be pleased.

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