Faculty in Focus

The artists/teachers of Pima Community College reflect upon nature as an escape

Nature is not always as benevolent we might hope.

Especially lately.

Over the weekend, storms pounded Colorado, and torrents of water poured down the Rocky Mountains. Outside Boulder, floods nearly drowned the small community of Jamestown. Just to the north, around Fort Collins, the Poudre River overflowed its banks, knocking out roads and flooding backyards. Hundreds of Coloradans were stranded or missing, and a few were dead.

Mariana Carreras' painting, "Water," now on view at the Faculty Exhibit at Pima Community College's West Campus, depicts the Rockies in a blessedly calmer moment.

In good times, the towering mountains are a fountain of life, not death; their snows melt into the Colorado River, providing water to millions in the Southwest, including those of us in parched Arizona. In "Water," one of five oils on canvas in Carreras' Element Series, the streams flow gently down the slopes and a bare-breasted woman holds the life-giving water in her hands.

Carreras' paintings draw on the ancient Greek idea that five elements—water, earth, air, fire and "aether"—are the basis of all living things. Her paintings pair a beautiful beatific being with a beautiful natural landscape symbolizing one element. Each of her painted men and women is nude, but they're like medieval saints: each has a golden halo, and their hands are raised in a kind of prayer.

A native of Uruguay who has lived for many years in the U.S., Carreras has roamed wide in these works. "Fire" gets a serene man in the mountains of Chile. The fertile "Earth" is represented by Mount McKinley and a woman with a green plant in her hands, rootlike tendrils in her hair and stems shooting up her body. A chilly looking man blows visible breath onto his hands on Mount Everest in "Air," and "Spirit"—a stand-in for "aether"—is a self-portrait of the artist standing joyfully on a beach with a sunset-kissed ocean behind her. She closes her eyes in pure bliss.

Carreras is likely not the only Pima prof who has lately tried to take a calming respite in nature. The college has been pounded by its own storms: a chancellor felled by a tawdry sexual harassment scandal and a board that inspired rage for failing to remove him in timely fashion.

So it's a good moment for the Faculty Exhibit, a reminder of the hardworking Pima profs whose labors uphold the radical idea behind the community college movement: that the working class has a right to a college education. All 15 artists in the show are full-time faculty, a rare commodity in a college that employs large numbers of poorly paid adjuncts. (Their shockingly low salaries are a scandal in itself.)

The exhibition brings together teaching artists from all five of Pima's main campuses, and it demonstrates their impressive command of media. Genres jump from painting, photography and sculpture to ceramics, digital arts and fashion design.

Featured artist Carreras, who won the Outstanding Faculty of the Year Award in 2012, is not the only artist to use nature as metaphor.

In "After the Fire III," Claire Campbell Park, head of fiber arts at the West Campus, has converted a deadly fire near Tubac into something lovely, translating its terrors into luminous bands of color. Her medium is not paint but linen thread, woven into a wall hanging that echoes the landscape. Midnight blue at the top gives way to green and pale sky-blue. Reds rage across the horizon line and yellow ochre blazes at the bottom.

Likewise, Mike Stack, the only full-time art teacher at the East Campus, abstracts the landscape into a series of tranquil colored bands. In his "Past Refuse Rocks," Stack laboriously painted narrow horizontal stripes across a linen canvas, colored every possible shade of pink and violet. Within this rigid structure, Stack manages to convey nature's changing light. Deeper shades are gathered around the edges, and the center is lit by a glowing pink.

Ann Simmons-Myers, who directs Pima West's acclaimed photography program, mixes her media in her nine-work Moon Series. She shoots close-ups of the same silver orb that floats so serenely over Carreras' distant landscapes. But she attacks her moons prints with paints, creating unexpected textures and tones. One's been gotten up to look more Earth than moon, with cracked continents painted pink. Another is a classic lunar surface, all pockmarked gray and white, surrounded by the speckled black-and-white of deep space.

Christina McNearney, head of drawing, painting and printmaking at the West Campus, similarly builds up surfaces and textures in her nicely painted abstractions. Phthalo blue and teal pop out next to rust in "Untitled," and gray stalks shoot skyward. Before long, you begin seeing in her painting those same rushing streams that tumbled down Carreras' Rockies.

Stephen Romaniello changes the conversation from nature to nurture in his huge painted portraits of the artist Andy Rush and the writer Ann Woodin. Expressive and vivid, the portraits capture the faces of this local couple in old age, their faces lined, their eyes piercing. Surprisingly, given his deftness as a painter, Romaniello teaches digital arts on the West Campus. Michael John Nolan, head of design at the same campus, turns in moody oil on linen paintings, one a portrait of a brooding young man, the other of a frantic young woman with her hair on fire.

Hiro Tashima's ceramics are just plain fun—check out his fired-clay snowboarder lounging in a banana peel—but Barbara Jo McLaughlin, who heads the Desert Vista art department, turns somber in her sculpture. "Tzompantil," the name given to skull racks in Mesoamerica, is a kind of ladder made of carbonized pine—read: burnt wood—lined with trios of ceramic skulls.

That sculptural harbinger of death and disaster has its counterpart in the masterly painted chaos created by Matthias Düwel, the lone full-timer at the Northwest Campus art department. He routinely depicts the destruction of cities and cars and other consumer goods in swirling near-abstractions filled with discs and ribbons flying through the air.

His oil on panel "Fuyu II" is an all-over tumble. There's no sky, no breathing room. The tapes sailing around look a bit like the old-fashioned audiotapes of old-fashioned spies, precursors of the invisible digital files of the spy-geeks of the NSA. The colors run to tech-y, too: steely gray, rust, orange. Stack and Park and Carreras make art that counterbalances the discomfitures of scandals great and small. But Düwel dives right in, painting one debacle after another. You can see almost whatever disaster you want in his metaphorical work. Careening through his collapsing worlds, you can glimpse the scandals and wars of civilization or the floods and fires devastating the battered natural world.