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Down by the Seashore 

Artists honor the Sea of Cortez in a display at Tohono Chul Park

When Nancy Solomon was wandering on the beach in San Carlos, Sonora, last year, a seaside tune popped into her head.

But the song was no sea shanty. Instead, it was from Philip Glass' dance opera Einstein on the Beach. The book artist/photographer, one of Tucson's more avant-garde artists, started singing the Glass piece that enumerates the numbers from one to eight. Then she picked up a bone from a pelican--the marvelously primeval bird so common in the Sea of Cortez--and traced the numbers out in the sand.

Once she etched the figures into the gray granules, she photographed them. Later, like a kid checking on what the tide had done to her sand castle, she returned and took more pictures of the numbers, now disappearing into the beach.

An accordion book, "Sand Numbers: Theme and Variation," 2006, is the delightful result. Dubbed a "collaboration between Nancy Solomon and the Sea of Cortez," the book is 10 pages of numbers, one to a page. The graininess and gray of the fine textured paper uncannily mimic the wet sand. Sea foam washes onto the book's cover, and washes away again on the final page. In between, the first set of numbers is boldly delineated in the sand, and the second set is eroding.

The book evokes the push and pull of the sea, and the back and forth of its tides. One can almost hear not Glass' music, but the waves crashing rhythmically, repetitively along the shore.

Solomon's piece is one of dozens of sea works in the summertime show Sea of Cortez: A Desert Sea at Tohono Chul Park. Curator Peggy Hazard put together the big multimedia exhibition after paying a visit last year to Kino Bay, a fishing village north of San Carlos. Lying between Baja California and the western Sonoran coast, the Sea of Cortez is one of the few bodies of water in the world washing up onto a desert, she writes in her gallery notes.

The contrast between wetness and desiccation is extreme. You can swim through the warm blue water of the Cortez, as I did recently, and at the same time, look back to shore and see what looks like the Tucson Mountains--only drier. It's as though an ocean were lapping at the base of Sentinel Peak. And as Hazard writes, "The juxtaposition of desert ecosystem with the ocean ... creates a diverse and spectacular marine environment."

Cactuses and scrub plants are among the few plants on the hardscrabble shore, but an extraordinary mix of birds thrive in the liminal space between sea and desert. Osprey hawks nest in the cactuses, and those antediluvian pelicans, their long beaks curving down to their chests, glide along on sea breezes and dive-bomb for fish. And the sea itself hosts all manner of creatures, from giant sea turtles to manta rays.

The several dozen artists in the multimedia show had fun with this rich subject matter, re-creating the place's flora and fauna in paintings, photos, drawings and new media mixes. David Andres likes to scuba dive in the sea by night, coming back with color photos of the creatures of the deep. Back on dry land, he converts them into monoprints, such as "Flowered Sea Urchin With Jeweled Moray Eel" and "Mexican Octopus," big works on paper whose rich oil colors--in pink, purple and ocher--are rolled on with brayers, printed and intensified with pastel.

Gwyneth Scally plucked a single sculptural "Jellyfish" from an installation of sea creatures she exhibited earlier this year at the Mesa Arts Center. A ghostly sea creature in fiberglass, glistening white, her translucent jellyfish drifts in the air from a string attached to the gallery ceiling.

The ubiquitous pelican captured the imagination of clay sculptor Mary Bohan, who crafted a funny plaque of a smiling bird with a fish on its belly. Judith Nylin, a gifted draftswoman, made the beautifully rendered "Diving Pelican," an old-fashioned pen-and-ink drawing of the serial actions of the bird--flying, circling, diving and floating.

The photographers tend to concentrate on the unusual landscape. Adriel Heisey, the well-known aerial photographer, captured a view of Punta Sargento in his color photo "Islet of Sand Bars," a place he poetically calls a "spit of white sand thread(ing) its way through shallow waters." Shot from high above the earth, the picture is a lovely abstraction of sea greens and blues, bounded by the curve of white sea foam. William Lesch also took the long view in his "Kino Bay Triptych," though he stayed on land, recording the horizon line dividing sea and sky. The three-part photo glows in sky blues and sand ochres.

David Burckhalter, another Tucson photographer, has long made a specialty of photographing the Seri Indians who live along the coast and on Isla Tiburon, the immense island just across the treacherous Canal del Infiernillo (Little Hell) from the mainland. (He published a book on the Seris' traditional culture, Among Turtle Hunters and Basket Makers, in 1999.)

His color pictures, part anthropology, part art, picture a fisherman alone at sea in a tiny boat, raising his arm to harpoon a turtle; a male dancer in a wooden crown performing beside a giant turtle on the beach; a little girl with her face painted for a New Year festival. The Seris are also represented in the show with their own artwork, fine ironwood carvings that represent, say, a shark, or a woman, in just a few simple curves.

Hazard says this art form, which began only several decades ago with the work of José Astorga, is already beginning to fade. Cheaper machine-made sculptures have supplanted much of the fine handwork, she says, and the ironwood stands are being lost to development.

Similarly, the Sea of Cortez itself is endangered. Overfishing by large-scale factory ships has threatened its rich marine life. The Colorado River, which once flowed freely into the sea, has been diverted to give water to thirsty Arizonans and Californians. Las Vegas-style hotel construction at Rocky Point has tested the fragile seaside ecosystem.

Several artist-scientists raise the alarm in their works. Marine biologist Katie Iverson re-created a threatened Rocky Point tide pool in "Everybody out of the Pool!" a circular ceramic sculpture paying homage to an octopus, a sea star and "red encrusting coralline algae." UA geologist Peter L. Kresan demonstrates in a photo how the formerly rich Colorado River delta has become a barren mud flat.

Heather Green honors the traditional Sea of Cortez fishermen whose livelihood is at risk. (A Kino Bay woman told me on my recent trip that her husband had hardly caught anything in months, though he goes out daily in his boat.) Green has scavenged the beach, retrieving pieces of sea glass, fishing weights and other debris that's washed up on shore. Collaborating with poet Katherine Larson, whose words are etched onto glass, Green arranged the found objects into small shrines that she calls "Fishing Boxes."

In one, a green fishing line is tangled around a series of weights and bobbers colored orange, white and charcoal. Above them, Larson's words praise the beauty of the place where the fishermen try to practice their profession. The poem reads in part, "There is a lightness of brightness and another of escape. Of orange foam ... split with sun."

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