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Tohono Chul makes the case that artist family members inspire each other

The Littler clan is easily the biggest and longest-running dynasty in the Family Ties show at Tohono Chul Park.

Four artists from two generations of the extended family are in this unusual show, which exhibits the artworks of seven all-in-the-family artist groups from Tucson and environs.

Among the Littlers, there's the progenitor, the late Charles, a multiple-genre artist who was one of the co-founders of the Rancho Linda Vista art colony in Oracle. His daughter, Selina Littler, and her husband, Imo Baird, are both sculptors. Pat Dolan, Charles' widow and Selina's stepmother, does charcoals and pastels.

Charles, a UA professor who died in 1991 at 63, presides over the clan's display with a marvelous piece of modernism. In his geometric "Collage," rambunctious, irregular shapes are piled alongside and atop each other, painted and charcoaled in blacks, whites, grays, beiges and ochres.

This rhythmic abstraction is a bit of a surprise, coming from a founder of the nature-loving RLV. Stretched out below the north face of the Catalinas, the former dude ranch occupies a desert thick with trees and cacti, and many of its artists have been inspired by its beauties. In fact, when Littler and Dolan were married, they teamed up as an environmental art duo called Ruby Lee, and created site-specific nature installations at the ranch.

Dolan still does art inspired by nature, but it's mostly 2-D. Her "Trapped" is a metaphorical drawing in charcoal and sumi ink about nature and the built environment. Its two roadrunners are loosely drawn, one in black and one in white-gray, but two human-made arches have blockaded the path of these freedom-loving desert sprinters.

Selina Littler still carries on the family tradition, working, like Ruby Lee, directly with natural materials. Raised as one of the tribe of children in the art colony, she's returned with her husband to raise their own children in its creative precincts.

Typically, for her artwork, she roams the place, scavenging leaves, buds, berries and wood. Sometimes she constructs elusive figures, shaping papery reeds and aged bark into ethereal angels or brides. Other times, she lets the desert speak for itself.

In "Stick Box," for example, she didn't have to do much to turn some manzanita twigs into art. This desert wood is a beautiful red-brown, and all she did was polish and trim the twigs and arrange them in a tiny shadow box. Behind them, she added a mirror that exaggerates their beauty.

Her husband, Imo Baird, comments on encroaching civilization in sculptures fashioned out of trash he finds in the desert, most of it metal industrial junk that's rusted and splintered. His "Beast Comandante" combines a metallic cylinder with a small tire, bones and feathers. The thing looks like a monstrous vacuum cleaner come to life with an animal skull for a head.

Like her father and stepmother before her, Selina sometimes joins forces with her spouse, combining her creative energies with Imo into a single piece that blends both their aesthetics. Selina and Imo's art duo—Selimo—gets credit here for "Arc Angel," a heavenly figure with a Selina-style desert-wood body and an Imo-esque stretch of wings in red metal.

Do artist family members inspire each other? This show, curated by Tohono Chul curator Vicki Donkersley with an eye toward nature art, argues that they do.

A husband-and-wife pair in Family Ties, Stephen and Karen Strom, were astronomers by profession who took up photography when their teenage son David took a shine to the medium. There's no word on how David fared, but the senior Stroms have become accomplished photographers.

Stephen photographs like an astronomer turned geologist—he still likes distant views, but he aims his lens at the earth, taking in the canyons and crevices in big sweeps of land. Interestingly, there's hardly any sky to be seen in his digital color images.

Karen looks at the human-made, aiming her camera at an old stone wall or the interior of a historic house. Her "Inn at Titus Canyon" hangs side by side with Stephen's dizzying long views of the canyon near Death Valley. Karen's color photo—sharp, clean and lovely—evidently pictures the room where they stayed on the trip. But it's also a remarkable homage to her husband. Two mirrors against the wall capture reflections of the canyon outside, and the images within the mirror frames look just like Stephen Strom photos. The canyon's pink and amber curves fill the entire surface of the mirror, just as Stephen's canyons push against the edges of his photographic paper.

Julia and David Andres, another married couple, use different media but sometimes find their aesthetics converging. David is a printmaker and photographer who specializes in underwater and desert close-ups. His sepia-toned etching and photogravure "Casa Ironwood Series" zeroes in on flies, leaves and sticks.

Julia sculpts convincingly realistic bronze fruits that could have been lifted from an Old Master's painting. Yet she's begun to combine them with salutes to her husband's métier. In "Autumn Pears Senryu," for example, she's backed up her bronze pears with shiny zinc plates that conjure up her husband's printmaking tools.

James Cook and DeAnn Melton are two fine painters who happen to be married to each other. Cook uncannily bridges the divide between Western realism and contemporary abstraction, using thick brushstrokes and lusciously layered paint to depict sweeping landscapes, both industrial and natural. Two paintings here capture extreme weather—a thunderstorm and a prairie fire—on the open plains of Wabaunsee County in his native Kansas.

Melton paints oils of flowers, but they're not the least bit corny. Paintings like her oil on linen "La Martella—White and Black" use every vivid petal as an excuse for an exploration of color; one blossom goes from orange to pink to white, zippy, glossy strokes of the brush.

Now this art duo has expanded to a trio, giving the Littlers a chase for the dynasty title. They've raised their daughter, Ellen Cook, in the studio, and she's evidently imbibed its lessons. Now 15 and a passionate horsewoman, Ellen displays three lively little horse sculptures, choosing, perhaps, to avoid parental comparisons by using a medium different from theirs.

Not so over at the Waids', where father Jim and son Paul live next door to each other and, according to Jim, "share an interest in gardening, the natural world and the possibilities of paint."

Jim Waid has long done gorgeous interpretations of the fecund desert, magnifying its plants and painting them oversize. In his lovely "Black Ruby," an acrylic on canvas, seed pods and sacs and flowers pulse and grow, seemingly before our eyes. Their big rhythmic shapes roll across the canvas, a kaleidoscope of black and orange and green.

Paul Waid is attuned to the same subject matter. A small, untitled painting also pictures nature's minutiae, with red and green pods dangling above a lineup of cones.

But it's not always a case of like father, like son.

Paul prefers oil to his father's acrylics, and in his big painting "Sun View," he goes for different textural effects and a longer view. The paint is thick to the point of being sculptural, and its solidity conjures up a stillness and silence rare in Jim's unstill works. Seen through a filigree of vines and flowers, Paul's big yellow sun is rising (or setting) over the mountains, solemn and stately in the distance.

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