Boxed-Up Commentary

After a decade of fighting on behalf of the Fox Theatre, Herb Stratford focuses on his art

Here's what is in the attic studio above Herb Stratford's garage in the West University neighborhood: a pinball machine, circa 1948, with the word "Tucson" blazing across a desert sky; an anatomy book in Spanish, with paper cutouts illustrating the layers of the eye; roll-down school maps; black-and-white photo-booth portraits; lenses extracted from binoculars; and an old-fashioned jewelry box, orange velvet on the outside, orange satin on the inside.

"I always liked older stuff," the artist says, looking over his treasures, all of them lined up in rows on tables, neatly stored in boxes or, in the case of the pinball machine, polished up and ready to roll.

The older stuff Stratford is best known for is in the Tucson Fox Theatre; as executive director and cheerleader for the nearly 80-year-old showplace, he labored for 10 years to restore it to pristine glory.

But Stratford is also a visual artist, and when he left the theater last April, he went back to making art.

"It was such a luxury to get back into the studio," he says, after a decade of "70-hour work weeks."

He's made good use of the time. This month, he's opening a show at New York City's OK Harris Works of Art gallery in SoHo, his second in the sought-after venue. Photographic Constructions will exhibit 13 of his sculptural works, pieced together out of old junk like the artifacts in his attic studio.

The base for his pieces is almost always some kind of old box, like that orange jewelry case, or maybe a doll trunk or a wooden box that once was filled with bolts. He finds the boxes on the Internet or in local antique shops.

"I don't pay more than $20 or $30," he says. "It's a constant battle to find more boxes. The materials have to bring in their own story," like, say, the 1910s celluloid necktie box in his studio. It's long and narrow, like a tie--or a coffin--in colored ivory and adorned with low-relief designs. So far, it hasn't made its way into an art piece.

"A lot of times, I'll lay stuff out, live with it, play with it, until it makes sense," he says. "I'm a stew-er. I stare at things. It has to resonate for a while."

Once he gets an idea, Stratford bolts or glues other objects to his boxes, screwing roller-skate wheels on the bottom of one, maybe, or gluing a map fragment inside another. A few years back, he was pouring melted colored wax onto the pieces, so they looked like buried relics to be excavated. In the new work, he's given up the wax but has incorporated vintage photos, putting the faded sepia underneath lenses, so that you look inside the box and see a shadowy image of, say, women on a prairie, through glass.

"My focus now is more multimedia," he says. "I have a lot of photos in there. They're not just sculptural." Nevertheless, the newer works still "speak about craftsmanship, about a different era."

"America-West," on its way to New York, is made out of a wooden hinged toy box that once belonged to a little girl named Lois Ann--her name is stamped on the lid in gold letters. The scuffed red paint on the outside has worn to a rich patina. Inside, visible through an "iris" viewfinder from an old movie projector, is a faded photo of a man in the desert. Its opposite number is "America-East," with a pinhole picture of turbines humming away in a factory.

"It's a subtle commentary," Stratford says. "We don't make anything anymore."

In "Status Quo," a peephole in a rough wooden box offers up a view of a vintage photo of an American flag, hanging upside down. Exhibited last summer at Davis Dominguez's Small Works show, it made a pointed political comment on the state of the union under President Bush. Most of his works, by contrast, are more elusive, touching on memory and things past, seen through the prism of commercial and crafts objects.

Stratford got his BFA at the UA in photography back in 1988, and returned a few years later for a master's in new genre. The multidisciplinary major, no longer offered, brought together performance, video and installation. At first, Stratford says, "I did installations, at Cabaret Magritte"--inside the former Café Magritte on Congress Street--"and at Central Arts and Dinnerware, but it was hard to find space. I started making objects that would be part of an installation."

As an inspiration, he credits the artist Joseph Cornell's elegant assemblages of humble objects framed by boxes. "I immediately started feeling a kinship with the box," Stratford says, and his installation pieces evolved into his own assemblages.

He hopes his New York show will recharge his art career. "I haven't seen anybody else doing what I'm doing," he says. The photographs, in particular, "might lead to other things."

Last time around, he had the bad luck to open his exhibit just weeks after Sept. 11, when lower Manhattan was still shell-shocked. ("People weren't going out.") This one debuts when nearby Wall Street has imploded. But coming out of a decades-long immersion in Tucson's bruising city politics, Stratford is philosophical about breakdown and risk.

Stratford first sneaked into the boarded-up Fox Theatre as a 21-year-old art student, and saw the glories of its Southwest Deco ceiling mural and crystal chandelier, still intact amid the desolation. Now 44, he says, "I've been dreaming of the Fox for 23 years."

In the late '90s, he spearheaded the nonprofit formed to buy and restore the old theater. He then pushed and shoved and fundraised and hired the people who did the authentic historical renovation. The old-time movie palace re-opened a little more than three years ago, on New Year's Eve 2005. It had been shut for nearly 30 years.

If he had to do anything differently, he says, "I wouldn't have said how much it would cost or when it would open."

Not surprisingly, restoration costs escalated beyond the original estimates, and Stratford had to chase down more money to complete the theater. The Fox had gotten a Rio Nuevo grant of $3.2 million. (It was one of the projects named on the Rio Nuevo ballot measure that voters OK'd back in 1999, unlike the arena now under discussion.) Stratford went on to win other grants and raised private money, but the city ultimately made a loan of $5.6 million to get the rehab finished and the doors open.

The total cost was $14 to $15 million, Stratford estimates, a price tag that's starting to look like a bargain for a pristine restoration of a building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Once the building was done, Stratford switched from restoration to programming, and presented a lineup of movies, live music, private parties and such extravaganzas as the annual Oscar night party.

"We could have gotten it in the black in four or five years," he says, but he and the board parted ways last year over the theater's progress. Since he left, the Fox has run through several directors, and events have dwindled.

"I hope things can turn around there," he says. "They're in a down cycle. I want to see it be successful."

He's doing his part by providing some children's programming for the coming summer; he'll revive some old 1920s/1930s cliffhanger movie serials, including The Green Archer and The Wolf Dog.

Stratford says he's enjoying having more balance in his life, including time with his wife, Kerry, and 12-year-old son, Matthew. He has plenty of old things waiting to be turned into new art. Still, he's trying to find another city project he can throw himself into, and "looking for other jobs related to downtown and the arts."

And he's proud of his work at the Fox. Despite its current woes, "It's still a success story. The community came together to restore a piece of its history."

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