Best Of Tucson®

Best Local Artist/Visual

Steve Farley

READERS' PICK: Find out more about photographer and graphic artist Steve Farley in our interview on page 22. (Also see Best Mural and Best Public Art Commission, page 33.)

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Visual artist Jim Waid

MORE MANIA: One of Tucson's favorite painters, Bruce McGrew is that rare being: a crossover artist whose work appeals both to lovers of traditional landscape and the proponents of pure painting. Best known for his landscapes of the Sonoran Desert and mountains, he's also an itinerant who paints wherever he goes, bringing back lovely pictures of Scotland's remote reaches and Mexico's coasts. McGrew pushed the conventional landscape -- never too far -- away from literal realism and into a paradise of painterly beauty. He's a dazzling manipulator of color against canvas and paper. His watercolors are as liquid as they come, their lights against darks breathtaking, their shapes bold and pared down; and his oils shine with an unearthly light. In fact, McGrew's rather like the 19th-century painters who sought the sublime in the western landscape. Silvery beams of light pierce his painted forests and shine down on his trademark rocks. Bright sun bursts through his rain clouds, signaling the sacred character of the natural world. His colors are wholly contemporary, though; his palette takes in pale pinks and yellows and lavenders to deep greens and blues.

In recent years, human figures began to sidle into his big oils, marking a new exploration of the traditional theme of nude in a landscape. Memorably, for an "Adam and Eve" in this series, he teamed up with his wife and frequent collaborator, ceramic sculptor Joy Fox. Fox made an elaborate clay frame for his painting of the first couple.

McGrew has contributed much to the local community beyond his lovely paintings. With his wife, he was one of the founding members of the now-venerable Rancho Linda Vista. The artists' colony in Oracle somehow managed to outlast its countercultural '60s origins, and remains today a pivotal center for arts in Southern Arizona. McGrew was an early member of Dinnerware Artists Cooperative Gallery, an important launching pad for legions of local artists. Through his long career teaching at the University of Arizona, McGrew helped shape a couple generations of young Tucson artists; he just retired this past spring. And though his work has traveled to Santa Fe and New York, he's remained loyal to his hometown, exhibiting regularly at Tucson's Davis Dominguez Gallery (which has a big McGrew show planned for February), and contributing to local group shows. A much-deserved lifetime retrospective show is in the planning stages for a few years hence at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Asked a some years back to characterize his work, McGrew replied succinctly. It's been, he said, "A lifetime of color, space and light." McGrew died from pancreatic cancer on August 10, 1999.