Monsoon Joy

Tohono Chul celebrates the summer rains with the works of local artists

In Arivaca, on el Día de San Juan, the rains came.

Not in torrents, to be sure, but in a shower strong enough to send campers like me scurrying for shelter. San Juan, known to us Anglos as St. John the Baptist, had done his job, bringing water to parched Arizona on his feast day, June 24.

But San Juan was being a bit of a tease--those raindrops were the only ones Southern Arizona would see for a couple of weeks. In the interim, between the driest days and the real monsoons, the best place to conjure up thunderstorms was at Tohono Chul Park, where Monsoon!, a lively exhibition by local artists, is paying homage all summer to the seasonal rains.

Several dozen artists depict the welcome raindrops in every possible medium. Luna Rivera's blue rain beads spill out of a clay basket painted with clouds, held by a wooden statue of San Juan himself. Paul Mirocha's chalky white lines of rain slant across a colored pencil drawing of a desert storm. Rand Carlson's charcoal storm clouds are rendered in tin.

In fact, there's water water everywhere in this show, but the first rain paintings you see at the entrance are the best. James Cook reprises two lush oils on linen seen earlier this year at Eric Firestone: "Monsoon Tucson #1" and "Monsoon Tucson #2." These glistening pictures depict full-scale storms over the Old Pueblo. A wild blue sky dominates "#1"; painted in frantic brushstrokes, its rain gusts off in all directions. Far below, trees glow uncannily green, hyper-lit by the strange storm sun so characteristic of the Old Pueblo. In "2" the rain falls diagonally, in more disciplined sheets, pounding the pink roofs of downtown; a fierce wind blows a tall palm halfway to the ground.

Cook's expressionism is right next door to Lynn Taber's realism. Living on a perch high above the Tucson basin, Taber has long specialized in Tucson's skies, bringing them to vivid life in exquisite pastels. In the two works here, she evokes the wonders of the monsoon sky, in which rain clouds jostle incongruously against clear skies. The clouds of "Late Summer in Tucson," a small picture with a long view, are lit pink-gold high up in the stratosphere and deepen to a blue-gray below. A torrent of rain tumbles from one dark cloud; in Tucson, this storm may be a monster monsoon, but in Taber's vast sky, it's a mere tempest in a teapot.

The aerial photographer Adriel Heisey also takes advantage of high altitude, though his is courtesy of his plane. In "Monsoon Rainshower at Sunset," a large chromogenic color print, he and his camera are at the same height as the storm clouds. The clouds are dark and threatening, but the setting sun in the distance, seeping through the darkness, gives them an orange lining. It's an astonishing work; one can only imagine Heisey high in the atmosphere, like a latter-day Icarus daring to try for the sun.

A few clay artists have stayed strictly on the ground. Wendy Timm fashioned "Spadefoot Toads: The Gathering," a clay tableau of the toads that spring to life after a monsoon; a group of five preside on a humble brown mound. (She also dips a little more hokily into a monsoon of the absurd, with her clay rabbit "Tubing on the Santa Cruz" and another rabbit pair, "Monsoon River Rafting.")

But a couple of ceramists have kept their eyes on the skies as much as any of the painters or photographers. Marcy Wrenn captured a "Storm Over Pusch Ridge" in six vertical strips of glazed clay. Divided though they are, her blue-purple mountain and the blue-green storm manage to coalesce into a single image. Pamela and Tim Ballingham have teamed up on an 8-foot-tall clay piece, "Striking," a wall work shaped like lightning and topped by a cloud. On this clay base, the artists have used colored porcelain to "paint" a western landscape riven by black and white lightning.

Among the many Native Americans in the show, the late Tohono O'odham artist Leonard Chana is represented by two charming little paintings. His "Saguaro Harvest Triptych" pictures three women stretching their poles to pluck the saguaros' red fruit in the annual O'odham ritual; a fine landscape fills the background, its familiar mountains blue and purple and its cacti bright green. Hopi artist Imogene Tewa has made a quilt painted with the Hopi symbols for rain--red arrows pointing up to the sky, black lines of rain falling downward--and for the sun--a round face in red, yellow and blue, surrounded by a ring of feathers.

The show eclectically mixes high and low art, but it's fun, and right on target about the pain of drought and the pleasure of rain. Janet Miller aptly captures the delight desert dwellers feel when the rains finally come. In "Desert Shoes," one of her characteristic reverse glass paintings, Miller has painted a classic Western landscape: green desert in the foreground, blue-green mountains on the horizon, blue-gray sky above. But white lightning has cracked the parched sky, and raindrops have started to fall.

A young woman in a pink party dress and heels--this is a celebration, after all--holds out her hands to feel the raindrops. She closes her eyes and grins, her face the very picture of monsoon joy.

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