Garden Party

Artist Janet Miller opens her Armory Park home for an outdoor show of her work.

These are the days of golden spring weather, as Paul Simon might say, this is the desert aflame. Beyond Gates Pass on Sunday, for example, the Golden Gate trail was living up to its name, or more precisely, living up to its color.

Lit up by the sun of the early desert spring, brittlebush flowers glowed lemon yellow, poppies orange, lupines blue-violet. A broad sky of cerulean blue spread an arc over the flower-dappled desert peaks, their green lushness the happy result of this winter's rains.

Painter Janet Miller loves the desert blooms as much as anybody, and this weekend she stages her annual outdoor show of her paintings, as brilliantly colored as flowers, in the "secret garden" of her Armory Park home. She promises that the heirloom plants from Tucson's historic barrios, now planted in her backyard will be at their "overwhelmingly flowerful peak of spring bloom." Her bright reverse glass paintings will be set among the blossoms. Not a few of them glorify the flowering desert, its prickly plants sprouting out of the ochre sands, denim blue mountain crags looming in the distance.

"In the Desert" features one of Miller's typical heroines, a plucky woman who's entirely at home where she finds herself, in this case in our beloved Sonoran. In fact, just like the fairy-tale character Rose Red, she's so good and so gleeful that a cascade of flowers and bluebirds tumbles out of her mouth when she opens it in a smile. Intertwined among the blossoms is a jubilant banner scrawled with the joyous words "Glory! Glory!"

Glory, in fact, might be the theme of Miller's happy paintings, nearly all of them celebrating some particularly blissful bit of women's lives--from pink cake ("Pink Cake") to female friendship ("The Opium Girls Tea Party"), and from artistic creation (the portrait "Elizabeth Frank in Her Studio") to maternity ("Flower Child," a picture of a modern Madonna nursing her child).

The unusual technique of reverse glass painting helps ratchet up the color on these already richly pigmented works. At a pre-garden preview display of the paintings at the new Women's Gallery in the offices of the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona and the Amazon Foundation, Miller included an artist's statement explaining the technique.

In the 1980s when she was living in West Africa, she discovered peinture sous verre (painting under glass). She never studied under any of the sous verre masters she encountered there, but she learned the craft by looking at the works of a Senegalese painter by the name of Babacar Lô. Reverse glass painters take an ordinary sheet of transparent glass, randomly decide which side will be the front of the finished piece and which the back, and then proceed to paint only on the back. Because the completed image will be seen through the glass, the artist must paint it "inside out and backwards," like a mirror image, all the while keeping the right-side finished image in her head. Miller explained that as she is both left-handed and dyslexic, the making of the paintings "feels natural and comfortable."

The glass does more than provide a left brain, right brain exercise. Its slick surface endows her painter's enamels with a high sheen. And unlike canvas and paper, which absorb color, the hard glass forces the colors to pool on the surface, only adding to their brilliance. Miller likes to mix glitter into her paints as well, and a number of the works glisten in shiny gold or silver paint.

This cheerful pigmentation lends itself particularly well to Miller's playful subjects. She loves to take ordinary domestic objects--like corkscrews--and turn them into witty stars of a painting. "Wedding" records the nuptials of a couple of silver corkscrews, one all angular, the other all curves, tenderly holding each other's handles. Food is a favorite subject. Besides the luscious cakes, her preview show lionized chiles of the world in the checkerboard painting "Chile People." And the flowers are just the start of her homage to fertile life. Painted borders on these paintings bloom with anatomical hearts, with feathers, with branches and with bones.

Still, the best of the lot are the desert works, in which her women are lifted out of the kitchen and on into the wide world. "Shortcut Through the Stone Desert" features a woman all dressed up in a red sundress, flying through the Sonoran sky courtesy of a blackbird that gives her a lift. She's upside down--just like a reverse glass painter--and as she sails through the cerulean sky, she's smiles broadly, gazing rapturously at the deep blue mountains and the yellow-tinged desert, queen of her world.

Janet Miller opens her garden art show from noon to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, March 24 and 25, at her Armory Park backyard, 522 S. Fifth Ave. For more information call 624-8709.

The Women's Gallery at the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona and Amazon Foundation, 3610 N. Prince Village Place, one block east of Campbell on the north side of Prince, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Photographer Sandy Smith exhibits her Refrigerator Project through Friday, April 27. For more information call 795-5288, ext. 103.