FOR YEARS, HERB Stratford has been an arts guy-about-town.
Lately he's been trying to save the Fox Theater downtown, directing a nonprofit intent on overhauling the old movie palace. Before that, as an arts administrator with the Tucson Arts District Partnership, Stratford oversaw creation of new artists' studios. He helped found the Contemporary Art Society at the Tucson Museum of Art; with the Tucson Arts Coalition he worked to restore the old Lewis Hotel on Broadway; and he's part of an artist team on a Golf Links public art project. And then there was his stint with Cabaret Magritte, showcasing performance art at the former downtown restaurant, and even a job as a fine arts photo printer.
But now it's starting to look like the artist-of-all-trades may someday have a shot at doing only what he's always wanted to do: his own art.
"Maybe it is possible to make a living as an artist," Stratford said wonderingly one afternoon last week at Dinnerware, where he's showing a dozen of his box constructions. (The two-person show also exhibits austere figurative works by the young painter Gwyneth Scally.) Fashioned out of aged wooden boxes gleaned from yard sales and eBay, Stratford's strangely alluring works are filled with old objects--magnifying glasses, found pictures, a wooden model of a molecule--fixed to the boxes' lids or suspended in wax. "They are encapsulations of a memory, an event or an emotion," he explained. "They're little communiqués from my subconscious, about what's out there."
The art world evidently has begun to receive the communiqués. Ivan Karp of New York's OK Harris Gallery saw Stratford's work during a Tucson sojourn and recently signed the 30-something artist to a show next season. Helix in Santa Fe will get the Dinnerware collection after the show closes this weekend, and a Scottsdale gallery is considering taking on Stratford as well. Closer to home, Terry Etherton is giving the artist a one-person show at the Temple Gallery in January, and the Tucson Museum of Art will feature him in a solo New Directions show next September.
Like most apparent overnight successes, Stratford has years of hard studio labor already under his belt. The boxes are only the latest in a long line of artistic experiments.
"I feel satisfied I've found a niche. I've gone from photography to performance art and installation," said Stratford. A 1995 MFA grad in the UA's New Genre program, he got a BFA in photography in 1988. "In Tucson it's very hard to sell people on installations. I thought of the boxes as elements from an installation without the installation. They're not sculptures. They're like relics from a bigger thing."
He's not exactly sure why his work is suddenly commanding the attention of dealers and curators, and he's a little wary about believing in his own success.
"But it's good that after 15 years of doing work, people are responding to it. So many people are doing good work it doesn't seem fair. It's not just about working hard. ... There's no way for you to have any control over the response to your work. Possibly this could be a springboard, or it could be just one shot. I feel confident I might be able to take this beyond Tucson."
Etherton first became aware of Stratford years back when he was a young printer at Western Color Systems, proving that an arts day job does sometime lead to bigger things.
"He was printing Bill Lesch's work"--surreally colorful photos of the desert--"and he really knew what he was doing," Etherton remembered.
"He's a very talented guy. He has an unbelievably great imagination and he pays attention to craft. He never does the same thing twice."
An exhibition of box constructions by Herb Stratford and paintings by Gwyneth Scally closes Saturday, October 14, at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Gallery hours are noon to 7 p.m. Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. For more info call 792-4503.