Public Artist

Tucson's Barbara Grygutis takes the time out of her busy schedule to discuss her work.

Barbara Grygutis has lived in Tucson some 37 years, but she's always traveling out of town--the better to monitor her multiple public art installations.

"I've got 13 projects around the country right now," she said by telephone the day after Halloween, while cleaning up at home after a dinner party that honored some visiting Italian scholars. ("We provided masks," she said. "It's an American tradition.")

The winner of a pair of artist awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Grygutis has been making public art for about 25 years. Just last weekend, at the Ponies del Pueblo auction staged by the Tucson Pima Art Council, her "Stone Pony" sculpture sold for the highest price, a whopping $80,000, most of which will go to charity.

Grygutis estimates that she's completed 30 to 40 major outdoor works nationwide, but only a small portion are in her adopted hometown, most notably "Front Row Center" outside the UA's Marroney Theater and the well-loved Alene Dunlap Sculpture Garden in the El Presidio neighborhood downtown.

Grygutis will be in town long enough on this sojourn to give a talk on her work, Saturday night at Las Artes in South Tucson. Sponsored by POG, the Poetry and Arts Collective, the evening will also feature a reading by poet Jennifer Moxley, author most recently of Wrong Life: Ten New Poems (Equipage, 1999).

Grygutis' current works are all over the map, literally and figuratively.

"I have a project at the Santa Clara (California) Public Library, an L.A. fire station, Texas Tech in Lubbock--they have an aggressive public art program, an amazing person running it--and a plaza in Center City Philadelphia," she said.

"I have a really exciting project with the Washington, D.C., metro. It has very high visibility, in downtown D.C., in an area they're renovating next to the Bureau of Alcohol (Tobacco) and Firearms."

The three-part metro piece includes a 500-foot-long railing separating the indoor portion of the station from the outdoor, a sculpture towering some 26 feet high and images carved into the granite pavement underfoot. The gigantic work, she said with satisfaction, is "a whole urban environment."

The big Washington project is emblematic of the changes Grygutis has seen over her more than two decades in public art. Early on, art programs, pioneered by the federal government and such progressive cities as Seattle, brought the artist in at the tail end of the design process. Artists had little alternative but to construct outdoor sculpture and drop it willy-nilly in an already-designed space. Opponents derisively called the results "plop art."

But those practices have undergone a sea change.

"Initially, I was commissioned to do stand-alone pieces," Grygutis said. "But that has evolved to getting the artist involved with the site--to consider the walls, the glass, the architecture. The whole environmental earthwork (aesthetic) kicked in. Now artists are members of 'design teams.' I'm working on a streetscape in Austin. There's a whole team--10 of us--throwing around ideas."

Grygutis finds the bigger environmental canvas exhilarating.

"It allows me to do more. It's intellectually challenging. It's art that's not just in a studio or a museum. The entire world is the audience." Vast numbers of pedestrians and drivers in passing cars will see her Washington metro piece everyday.

On occasion, Grygutis is still brought in too late to have the impact she likes. On a recent River Road widening project in Tucson, she came in after the walls were already designed.

"I would have done the walls differently, undulating, with curves," she said. She had to put her own sculptures on top of somebody else's straight walls, but she's optimistic that the whole installation will look better when the landscaping matures.

"The sculptures are basically abstracted forms that borrow from desert forms. It's designed to work with the landscape. When the trees grow in, in three or four years, it's all supposed to blend together."

By contrast, the UA's Marroney Theater plaza, is a whole "sculptural environment. É I made a canopy, chairs, put in trees."

Grygutis got her bachelor's and master's fine art degrees from the UA, and she also studied ceramics in Japan. For years, she was known primarily for her ceramic art. The Alene Dunlap Sculpture Garden, which combines plants with constructed shapes and benches, won an award in Italy in 1988 "for use of ceramic in public space," she said.

But today, she's given up the colored tiles that were once her trademark, and she no longer builds her pieces herself. Her own artistic evolution, she said, has mirrored the changes in public art. The smaller-scale pieces tended to be ceramic, but nowadays, her large environmental works demand heavy-duty steel or granite or concrete.

"(Workers) fabricate the work, from my very detailed drawings. I build models. The scope is so large that I have an engineer look at everything. These are very complex pieces."

Born in Connecticut but raised in Israel, the artist chose the UA for its hot, sunny climate. She's away from her desert home "too much," she said, but the more she travels, the more she appreciates the Old Pueblo.

"Tucson is a wonderful place to come home to. It's so beautiful here."

A sense of place has been her stock-in-trade as an artist as well as an activist. Long known as a downtown preservationist--the Dunlap garden is a tribute to an El Presidio neighbor who helped save Tucson's historic neighborhoods--Grygutis moved to the desert Foothills several years ago. The artist still has her studio in a historic building downtown, but the move to the desert has given her a new sense of urgency about saving Tucson's remaining wild lands.

"Just in the few years I've lived in the desert, I've seen beautiful tracts of land demolished," she said. "As a community, we should take a hard look at what we're doing."

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