Blooming Indoors

As desert wildflowers remain dormant due to a lack of rain, artists come to the rescue with color

Spring is here, but the wildflowers are not.

Biologists have warned Tucsonans that our bone-dry winter will yield few desert blooms. By contrast, last year's torrential winter rains triggered a landmark blossoming. At Catalina State Park, golden poppies and lavender-blue lupines turned the western slopes of the mountains into proverbial carpets of color.

This year, though, the plants are drab and dusty. They're hunkered down in the drought, shriveled and thirsty, waiting for the summer rains.

In the interim, fortunately, artists have stepped up.

Painter Cynthia Miller has turned the Temple Gallery into a bower. Her mixed-media paintings of flowers and birds dance across the wall with a Matisse-like joy. Pink, blue, yellow and green color these newest entries in the Domestica series, Miller's long-running translation of the small things of home life into the big joys of painting.

Miller draws in a deliberately naïve style, paring down the objects, while her media are deliciously complex layerings of acrylic, chalk and oil pastels. The smallest, and simplest, of the 18 works in this solo show are flower paintings from 2008. Given the French name of "Fleurs," these pieces are classic still lifes, with single vases of flowers set on tabletops. But within this narrow tradition, Miller finds plenty of room to move.

From picture to picture, the pots literally move from side to side, from front and center to side and off-kilter. Tabletops go up and down, and background walls get bigger and smaller.

"Fleurs, 2" has a pale-pink pot at right off-center, set on a brilliant blue tablecloth edged with chalky cerulean. The rose-colored backdrop trembles with life. The flowers themselves jump up out of the vase; a pink posy explodes like fireworks, petals dropping everywhere. Flame-like yellow blooms shoot up, interspersed with tiny bright blue blossoms as spiky as stars.

A green vase brings the action back to the middle in "Fleurs, 4." White cherry blossoms curve out of the top—and even the ceramic pot is painted with flowers. In "Fleurs, 1" the vase has gray and white stripes that somehow conjure up the stockings of the Parisian dancehall girls who danced in Impressionist paintings. Inside the vase is a spray of springtime blossoms.

Miller has traveled to the some of the world's most glamorous cities in recent years—Paris, London and New York (where she had a major exhibition)—but even in these trend capitals, she looks for the domestic things that shape a life.

England's biggest city has perhaps never been as cheerful as it is in "London," from 2006. A red pitcher and three gleaming glasses of wine sit on a table in lamplight. It's an urban nighttime scene, but leaves and flowers flourish on the edges.

Miller captures the Big Apple in the promise of spring in "New York, April." The skies are tinted a blushing pink, and lone trees sprout green tendrils among the towers. In the foreground, in the open window of an apartment, a sprig of grapes sways out of a green pot, the city dweller's hopeful homage to the longed-for bounty of summer.

Now in its last few days, the Sixth Annual Encaustics Invitational at Conrad Wilde Gallery is resplendent with lusciously textured wax paintings. They may not depict flowers, but their strong pigments are as bright as those found in any garden.

Among the 20 artists, gathered from around the country as well as from Tucson, Molly Geissman paints in an orange as luminous as a tiger lily. The orange square of "Doing Time 38" is cross-crossed with loosely drawn black lines and vertical drips of white wax. A few strokes of leaf-spring-green stretch out horizontally across the surface.

As a kid, Geissman writes in her artist statement, she used to pass a beautifully landscaped mental hospital; on fine spring days, the patients were allowed outside. They'd press their faces against the iron bars of the fence that hemmed in the manicured lawn. Grim as her story is, Geissman's piece is lovely, a tribute to the coexistence of pain and nature's beauty.

Margaret Suchland also takes an interest in the lines and marks that trace out human life, and like Geissman, she has a signature color: radiant turquoise. In "Marking Time No. 8," that blue-green is struck through with yellows and reds. Rodney Thompson re-creates landscapes whole, in earth tones that blurrily evoke a horizon, a sky, a foreground.

It may be unintended, but Cari Hernandez's black-and-white work comes closest to what our desert looks like right now, or might soon look like if the serious rains hold off. "My Fractured Life," an encaustic and tar on panel, is full of cracks, spidery lines that light out across the work's surface. Evidently, it's intended as a piece of psychological introspection, but to the thirsty desert-dweller, Hernandez's fractures suggest the parched earth, and a landscape waiting for rain.

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