Depicting Tucson's Soul

Raised in the church, growing up on the baseball diamond, Daniel Martin Diaz creates art large enough for a parking garage and small enough to hear through headphones

As a kid living near Mission Manor Park, a heavily Mexican neighborhood on Tucson's southwest side, Daniel Martin Diaz took readily to the local dusty diamond.

"I played baseball my whole life," the artist and musician says, sitting in a cool cafe on Congress Street near his even cooler gallery, Sacred Machine Museum and Curiosity Shop, ground zero for this weekend's Beyond the Sacred Music & Arts Festival.

"I did it as soon as I could throw the ball."

An outstanding center fielder at Sunnyside High School in the mid-1980s, he caught the attention of scouts at the city championship his senior year. Somebody invited him up to take a look at Yavapai College.

His first reaction: "Where's Yavapai?"

His second reaction: pure delight.

The two-year college is in Prescott, a mountain town in northern Arizona, and when Diaz paid a visit he was enthralled.

"It was beautiful up there," he says. "I'd played in the desert my whole life. This was a baseball field with pine trees around it."

Diaz accepted a baseball scholarship and headed north. But a funny thing happened up there in the pines. The outfielder started sneaking into a music room in the evenings after baseball practice. He had only dabbled at keyboards before but now, "I'd practice the piano into the late hours," he remembers. A professor finally stuck his head out of his office one night and asked, "Have you ever thought of studying music?

"We'll help you get money to study."

The baseball player said yes.

"I grew up listening to Mexican music and rock 'n' roll," Diaz says. But in a music appreciation class, he soon learned what else music could be. The teacher put on a recording of Bach's Fugue in G minor, an organ masterpiece whose notes seem to soar to cathedral heights.

"It blew my mind," Diaz says. "I had never heard music doing that. I got serious about music."

So much so that when baseball scholarship offers came in from four-year universities, he didn't even open the letters. He went off to Northern Arizona University on a music scholarship and never looked back.

Nowadays, Diaz is a musician whose band, Blind Divine, has released 10 CDs. He and his wife, Paula Catherine Valencia, have written hundreds of songs and sold many of them as soundtrack tunes for film and television. Diaz plays piano and guitar and Valencia handles vocals and lyrics, which she writes herself.

Tucson Weekly music scribe Gene Armstrong has praised Blind Divine's "baroque structures"—shades of Bach— "sonic textures (and) melancholic vocals."

"Listening to Blind Divine," Armstrong wrote, "one can imagine wandering through a crumbling Victorian mansion, the walls of which whisper subtle secrets."

Kind of like that cathedral conjured by those organ chords in the fugue.

But music is not the only art form that has captivated Diaz post-baseball. He came to visual art a few years after his music epiphany, and his paintings are now shown not just in Tucson but internationally—in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Rome. He has a waiting list of collectors willing to pay five figures for works of what Valencia calls "surreal iconography"—strange, edgy paintings filled with winged skeletons and drifting hearts

His third book of his art, Soul of Science, is about to come out, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign and essays contributed by heavyweight scientists at the UA and elsewhere. Earlier this week, his giant public-art piece "Journey Through Nature" opened at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A crayon-bright terrazzo piece that doubles as the floor, Journey stretches 500 feet through an enclosed pedestrian bridge. Hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers will walk daily over Diaz's twisting colored patterns.

Tucson already has a Diaz work of public art. Affixed to the parking garage at the entrance to downtown, "Desert Splendor" is a metal swathe of maize-colored plant forms softening the straight lines of Congress Street.

Diaz and Valencia can see the piece when they step outside their bustling art emporium up the street. Occupying a newish build-out space jutting from the former Martin Luther King Jr. apartments, Sacred Machine purveys all of Diaz's art forms. Blind Divine music reverberates through the galleries, a perpetual soundtrack for his painting exhibitions. And the art space often metamorphoses into a club by night, when Blind Divine and other bands play live.

"It's a little cultural center for downtown Tucson," Valencia says, not to mention a "showcase for Daniel's art and music."

But Sacred Machine also showcases the works of like-minded visual artists from out of town. Every fall, Valencia curates a show on the theme of Santa Muerte—Holy Death—the new death-head cult figure of the borderlands, timed to coincide with Day of the Dead and the All Souls Procession.

The annual spring show begins this weekend. Sacred Machine celebrates its upcoming third anniversary with the Beyond the Sacred Art & Music Festival, combining three nights of music with a monthlong exhibition of underground artists from around the U.S. The music opening is Thursday, April 11, at Plush, with a performance by Blind Divine. Joining Diaz and Valencia in the live show will be three other musicians, including their 20-year-old son, Damien, on guitar. Saint Maybe also performs and Horse Black opens the show.

Music from Bad Lieutenant opens the art exhibition at Sacred Machine on Friday night, and Chris Black plays the gallery Saturday night. (See info box for details.)

Usually, on art-cum-live-music nights, Diaz says, the joint is "wall-to-wall people."

There's a goth vibe to the place: the walls are painted black and plenty of the artists who exhibit there work through a repertory of apocalyptic religious imagery, with skulls and pyramids to spare. In Beyond the Sacred, just for example, Norbert H. Kox of Wisconsin has painted over a classic Jesus: in Kox's redoing, the son of God has blood-red eyes and frogs' legs sprouting from his head.

Diaz shares this aesthetic, to a certain point. But he's also seriously steeped in art history, and his beautifully crafted paintings and drawings point to multiple influences, from the 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck to Giorgio di Chirico, a 20th-century painter of haunted cityscapes, to the contemporary photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, creator of surreal tableaux.

And in Diaz's painted floating body parts, Latin texts and distorted saints and sinners and skulls, you can find traces of the retablos and ex-votos that were the visuals of his Mexican Catholic childhood. He got more than baseball skills from the old neighborhood.

Daniel Martin Diaz was born in Tucson in 1967, the child of immigrants from Sonora. His parents, Alfredo and Francisca, might have been far from home, but they were part of a big extended family. Alfredo had a business with his brothers, Diaz Garage, a car repair shop on Stone Avenue at Sixth Street.

"I was there all the time," Diaz says. "My dad would try to teach me about fixing cars." The son resisted learning about brakes and spark plugs and radiators. "Now I wish I had paid attention. The older I get, the more I admire him."

The family spoke only Spanish at home, but Daniel was the baby of the family and early on began picking up the English his two older brothers and his sister brought home from school. He went to public school, Liberty Elementary, but learned about Catholicism in after-school catechism classes, where, he says, "I was always in trouble."

The Diazes were faithful parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church on Ajo Way, a bilingual church where congregants could choose between Masses in English or Spanish. The spare, white exterior of St. John's is modeled after Tucson's first church, a chapel built by the Spanish at the base of Sentinel Peak in 1775. That simple, old Spanish church no longer exists. But a short drive away from the Diazes' neighborhood, another, far grander, 18th-century mission church still stands. San Xavier del Bac is a treasure house of Spanish colonial art.

"We would go to the mission, San Xavier," Diaz says. Every inch is crowded with painted and gilded angels, and animals and virgins and saints. Strange painted geometries cover the walls. A sculpted San Francisco lies in state near a side altar, and the faithful line up to leave him tiny silver milagros in the shape of a heart or a leg. The amulets are visual prayers that beg the saint for cures.

"To be brought up Catholic is serious," Diaz says. "That art stays with you. That was definitely an influence on me."

Diaz was one of those kids who doodles on everything. Despite this propensity, and his immersion in both in Spanish colonial art and Mexican folk art, "I had no inkling about art," he says.

Back in Tucson after college graduation, Diaz was soon a husband and a father. He and Paula had met in 1989, and immediately felt an affinity. She was from Tucson, too, by way of Douglas, the daughter of a Mexican father and American mother. And she was a singer who had long performed in choir. The couple quickly started working on music together. They married in 1992, and when their son was born the following year they dived into making music out of their home studio.

One of Diaz's uncles had gotten him a day job as a Procter & Gamble rep. The budding musician would wear a suit and tie every day, he says, and call on grocery stores in Mexican neighborhoods all over Southern Arizona, making sure they had enough Tide and Mr. Clean and Comet to fill their shelves.

The job had the bonus of providing Diaz with a flexible schedule. One day he casually wandered into Etherton Gallery in downtown Tucson. Diaz was dumbfounded by the show on view: photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's cinematic tableaux of hermaphrodites and dwarfs and limbless people and severed body parts.

"When I saw Joel-Peter Witkin, it was like listening to Bach," he says. And like that pivotal music moment in college, seeing Witkin was another epiphany.

"I kept going back to Terry (Etherton). I'd ask, 'What else do you have of Witkin?" In those pre-Google days, Diaz devoured Etherton's one Witkin book, but he soon discovered more volumes in Phoenix. He was going up to the Valley of the Sun regularly for P&G meetings and he learned that the Phoenix Public Library had all of Witkin's books. He went to see them every chance he got.

The same thing happened when he saw the Robert Márquez Soujourn in the Labyrinth solo show at the Tucson Museum of Art in 1994. A Mexican who had moved to the U.S., Márquez filled the museum with paintings of intense dreamscapes.

"I kept going back to study his pieces," Diaz remembers. "I'd say, 'This is so complex. How did he do this?'"

The day finally came when Diaz started to paint. He cleared the kitchen table in a house that already had a music studio and a toddler running around. He had supplies aplenty: His brother's girlfriend worked at the UA and she'd given Diaz the paints that art students left behind at the end of the school year.

The first painting he remembers was a "Virgin Mary upside down, hanging on a meat hook," he says. "Christ was floating. Paula said, 'You're onto something.'"

"I had no art experience," Diaz says, but he drew on the fevered religious imagery burned into his memory in childhood, turning more than virgins on their heads. He often added mysterious Latin words that mimicked the handwritten texts on the retablos and ex-votos of popular Mexican religious art.

Once he'd made a goodly number of paintings, he got up the courage to ask Terry Etherton to take a look. Remembering the eager young Witkin fan, Etherton went to Diaz's studio. He was immediately hooked, and took the unusual step of offering the untried artist a solo show in the Temple Gallery.

Pushing his luck, Diaz next called on Joanne Stuhr, then the curator at the Tucson Museum of Art. Stuhr had the same reaction as Etherton, and she scheduled a Diaz show in the museum's New Directions Gallery for emerging artists.

The exhibitions were hung nearly back to back in the 1997-1998 season, right around the time Diaz was turning 30.

"Terry gave me the whole show at the Temple. It was called Saints and Sinners—the saints were hanging upside down. People loved it. They hadn't seen anything like it anywhere."

In those days Tucson's two daily papers, the Star and the Citizen, and the Tucson Weekly and KUAT all ran regular art reviews, and the young painter out of nowhere got what Diaz modestly calls "good media attention. That established me. Those shows put me on the map."

But he was still his parents' son. Francisca and Alfredo are religious, and Diaz "worried that they'd think my art was blasphemous." But his mother and father turned up at both shows and "they were so proud." Ever since, they have gone to as many of their son's exhibitions as they can.

A gallery owner in Los Angeles, Billy Shire, came across a Diaz painting in a collector's California house. He gave the young Tucsonan a show at his La Luz de Jesus Gallery in 2001. Shire prides himself on exhibiting art "ranging from folk to outsider to religious to sexually deviant," according to the gallery website, and the art press pays attention.

"Magazines started writing about me," Diaz says. He's since had many exhibitions at Luz, and invitations from galleries in big cities in the U.S. and Europe.

Even with all his success, Diaz hasn't lost his fervid enthusiasm. In Paris for an exhibition, Diaz hurried Paula and Damien off to Ghent, in Belgium, for the sole purpose of seeing the Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck, one of Diaz's heroes. A marvel of double-sided paintings and hinged panels, the famed work from about 1430 depicts the great themes of the Bible in luminous colors.

Another epiphany awaited.

"It was beyond my expectations, phenomenal!" Diaz exclaims in his usual superlatives. "Van Eyck's technical achievements, his skill and talent—it's one of the most important paintings ever created."

Sacred Machine Museum was Valencia's epiphany. At a meeting with city officials in 2010 in the raw space that would become the gallery, she turned and whispered to her husband, "We need this space. Let's make an art gallery."

"Downtown was changing quickly," Valencia explains. "There was a great energy going on," and the Diazes wanted to be part of it. They raced to finish the space so they could open in May, in time for the first-ever Second Saturday. "We got a great response."

The pair started out running the place in the daylight hours, but downtown was turning into a nighttime scene. Sacred Machine switched to a night-owl schedule unusual for a gallery, opening the doors in the late afternoon through evening. The couple keep it open as late as midnight when there's a big event going on downtown.

"When the sun goes down, people in Tucson come out to play," Valencia says, and the twilight schedule has paid off. "We meet people from all over the world here. It's fantastic. Daniel gets the best exposure."

Many patrons tell the owners they've never been in a gallery before. "Daniel's work is so edgy, so rock 'n' roll they're not intimidated by it," she says.

Artists tell the pair they get inspiration from the work they see there.

"And we get kids coming in," Diaz says. "I want to do that, to show art to them.

"I remember being that kid."

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