Simon Donovan

One of Tucson's best-known artists is a renowned joker--but he's serious about his art.

On a golden January morning, Simon Donovan is looking up into Tucson's blue sky at his biggest work of art.

The Diamondback Bridge stretches a languid 300 feet across Broadway Boulevard at the eastern entrance to downtown, its fanged mouth aimed at the city center, its tail slashing into the air and its silver ribs glittering in the sun.

The artist is excitedly pointing out details on his big snake, most of them unnoticed by the motorists who zoom beneath its belly. The painted diamonds that evoke the skin of the Southwest's most venomous snake, he says, alternate from brown to beige in six repeating patterns. The body hovers in the air above the central supporting pillar. The pedestrians and bicyclists who travel through the snake's innards are greeted by an ominous rattling sound when they emerge at the tail end. And the segments on the snake's underbelly, he notes with satisfaction, slice across the bridge every 2 1/2 feet.

"During construction the foreman came to me and said, 'Every 2 1/2 feet is too many,''' he remembers. "'Our construction workers are not ballet dancers. They can't move around on forms so close together.'"

Donovan is experienced enough to know that public art demands compromise, but this wasn't a point he was inclined to cede. He told the foreman to hang flags along the belly at 2 1/2- and 5-foot intervals. The artist then hopped into his banged-up Dodge pickup--its orange paint closely approximates the color of his carrot-top hair--checked out the flags and reached an instant decision.

"I went right to Fourth Avenue, and bought a ballet box, and a tutu and slippers," he recalls. "Then I put a note on it for the foreman that said, 'Start listening to Swan Lake.'"

The story is pure and simple Simon. A big, red-headed Irish American by way of Boston, Donovan is a relentless jokester who's dead serious about his art. Details matter, even in a gargantuan project like the Diamondback, a bridge that's won kudos for its ingenious merging of architecture and art. Nowadays he's one of the town's best-known artists--he's unnerved, he says, to find that people on the street know who he is--but he remains garrulous and hilarious, not to mention outrageous.

He doesn't mind confessing for instance, that he can't stand the animal who brought him fame.

"I have an aversion to snakes!" he bellows from inside the bridge.

This engaging persona has helped him, at least in part, to win a slew of public art projects in his adopted hometown during the last half-dozen years, from the first, the 1997 Flying Books at the Woods Memorial Library, to his latest, the still-to-be-built Phase Three of the controversial Mountain Avenue project.

Public art, he declares, with its politicking and public meetings, "is a little bit of performance art."

David Hoyt Johnson is associate director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, which manages many of the public art projects in the city's and county's 1 percent for art programs. He remembers how Donovan galvanized the jurors at his initial presentation for the Diamondback Bridge, not only with his infectious charm but with a design that cleverly merged form and function. The snake is the bridge, and the bridge is the snake, an idea that the artist says was "obvious" to him.

"They were looking for something that would be an enclosed caged structure, somewhat tubular, long and narrow, going across the road," Donovan says. "The architecture of a bridge, the skeleton of a snake, with the ribs and spine, were perfect for creating this pedestrian bridge."

The jury thought so, too.

"Simon came in with a rather preliminary drawing, obviously done quickly," Hoyt Johnson recalls. "He's enthusiastic, with a great sense of humor, and he's wont to self-deprecate. Everybody saw the concept as so appropriate. Frankly, it stole the show."

Donovan's over-the-top creativity also helped him snag the unofficial title of Tucson's artist of the year last April. Now in the last months of his reign, he's using the prize money from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona to build, at long last, a studio of his own. Officially called the Arizona Arts Award, the unrestricted grant of $25,000 is given each year to a local established artist. Each of the five finalists, nominated anonymously, has just two weeks to come up with a display that sums up their art. (Last year's finalists also included painter Catherine Eyde, jazz musician Lisa Otey, classical guitarist Matt Mitchell and world music player/instrument maker Matt Finstrom.)

"The other artists made more traditional presentations, paintings on the wall and so forth," says Barbara Brown, vice president of programs. Donovan, though, constructed a star-shaped room, 10 feet per side. He painted it shiny gold and punctured it with star holes, filled in with red stained-glass paint.

The judges walked inside to find a gold-painted television playing a video on Donovan's career. The tape begins with the artist in full Vincent Van Gogh makeup. He's a dead ringer for the suicidal artist, explaining how seeing a portrait of the artist at the age of 16 set him on the path to art.

"This painting seemed so real to me," he says on the video. "It was a transcendental experience as far as painting goes. Pretty much then I decided that I would try to become a painter."

After describing his transition from painter and sculptor to public artist, with some 10 major works to his credit, Donovan concludes the video in another all-out makeup job. This time around, his face itself is painted gold, and a sparkly star surrounds his head. Quoting from a Boston talent show of his youth, he sings, enthusiastically, if off-key: "Star of the day, who will it be? Your vote may hold the key."

He finishes the song sadly, then grimaces, in resignation, as if to say, "What the hell."

The judges were smitten. The next day, Brown called Donovan and sang back to him, "Star of the day, who will it be? It will be you."

Donovan's up early on a Tuesday, eating eggs and chugging coffee at downtown's Cup Café. He's brought along a box overflowing with glowing clippings about his art. In a town critical of public art, his whimsical Snake Bridge has won near universal acclaim.

Hoyt Johnson, who's recently had to field complaints from angry neighbors about the new, sewage-like water sculpture on Mountain Avenue, has heard one--and only one--criticism of the Diamondback.

"An art patron, well-heeled, told me, 'What a waste of money,'" Johnson says. For the record, Donovan's fee as "idea man" and "overseer" for the five-year project was $24,000. Cost of the bridge itself: $2.3 million.

Tucsonans tell Donovan they go out of their way to drive under the rattler's sleek belly, and those of a poetic bent like to sit inside its screened skin to watch the sunset. Even the tech guys like it.

"It was an exciting project," says city engineer Craig Saltzman. "He came up with the idea, and the engineers worked at how they could take a regular bridge and turn it into a sculpture."

Since it went up last May, the bridge has won three engineering awards: from the Federal Highway Administration, the Arizona chapter of the American General Contractors, and the Land Surveyors and Civil Engineers of California.

Yet, Donovan insists that he doesn't think of himself as a big success.

"I have a lot of things going right now. I've persevered," he says. "But when I was 30, I was still cleaning bathrooms at the (Tucson Museum of Art)." It's a bit of irony he was at pains to point out during the ceremony announcing his Arizona Arts Award. He got his prize in the museum lobby, 6 feet away from the johns he had so recently scrubbed.

Even today, at 43, he earns the bulk of his income teaching at-risk high school students at TUSD's alternative art school, Artworks Academy.

"This year has been great for me. With the Snake Bridge and the award and the show at Etherton (his first gallery show in a half-dozen years). There's an element of luck and folly in my success. I'm hoping for a long life," he adds, "because I'm a late bloomer."

Donovan grew up working-class in the Boston suburb of Winchester, in a house where the art veered between bland Sears seascapes and rococo Catholic saints.

The town was well-off, but the family was not. His father worked for the telephone company and his mother labored as a clerk in a local emergency room. But the parents had "aspirations for their children to do better," he says, and they showered the kids with extraordinary ancestral tales.

The fourth child and the oldest son in the family of seven children, the artist is Simon VIII. His great-grandfather, Simon V, was an Irishman and a bigamist who abandoned his first wife and children in London, and started a new family in Boston.

"I'm descended from the bastard branch," Donovan declares.

Simon V hooked up with John Francis "Honey" Fitzgerald in Boston, the father of Rose--and the future grandfather of President John F. Kennedy.

Before the plane crash that killed JFK Jr. in the sea near Martha's Vineyard, Donovan used to do a party piece about his lapsed Kennedy pretensions. The way he told the story, Honey Fitz swindled Simon V's widow of the family fortune, thus leaving the Donovans penniless and the Fitzgeralds on their way to becoming American royalty.

The punchline, delivered with characteristic Donovan panache: "I was supposed to be JFK Jr.!"

His mother's father, Gentleman Jim Meagher, had to flee Ireland in the 1920s, falsely accused of an IRA bombing, while his wife, Donovan says, who really was a member of the IRA, was hiding bombs under the floorboards. Once in Boston, Meagher got a job laying tile in the long dark hole that became Callahan Tunnel, a straight shot under Boston Harbor. Meagher showed his aspirations--and got his nickname--by wearing a suit and tie every day on the job, and he eventually became business agent for the union. These Irish grandparents lived with the Donovans off and on, hoping that young Simon would become a priest.

"I thought I had two choices, being a priest or an artist," he says. "I saw art as a vocation similar to the priesthood--they both have a vow of poverty."

Growing up in a family "laden with priests and nuns," Donovan was extremely pious, practicing such mortifications as throwing off the covers in the middle of the night "to chill my body." Early art projects included competitions with his six siblings to make shrines to the Virgin Mary, with Simon favoring a "modern stylized Madonna of clear glass" surrounded by arches rendered in colored Kleenex.

His father, Simon VII, sent his daughters to be educated by the nuns, but Simon was a worry. Donovan says he was a "troubled kid, unbelievably uncoordinated," and his dismayed father packed him off to public school to toughen him up. Fortunately, the teachers there encouraged his art.

"They would say, 'Have Simon draw the leprechaun--he's really good,'" he recalls.

Donovan jokes that "like most 16-year-olds I was pretty mentally ill," but the situation at home was not funny. By his mid-teens, he stopped going to church, game up thoughts of the priesthood and plotted to get out of town.

"Art," he says, "was a way out."

He applied for an art study program at the Phillips Academy Andover, and went for his senior year, counting among his classmates JFK Jr. and a Rockefeller. Though he fondly remembers that his Kennedy doppelganger made a "bong with naked women on it" in ceramics class, boarding school was hard on the scholarship student.

"I worked really hard to succeed, but I was a social misfit. I didn't have the clothes, and I had a thick Boston accent." Still, the Andover art program propelled him to a full scholarship at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. There, he majored in painting and sculpture, and dreamed of becoming a Venice Biennale superstar, a Julian Schnable toast of Soho.

"I had delusions of grandeur in art school," he says. "I thought people would recognize my genius when I was walking down the street, going to the right clubs."

And upon graduation, he tumbled hard. His scholarship-funded days among the rich were over. While his well-off fellow grads moved on to Soho, he crawled back to Boston, rented a studio over a pizzeria, and worked by day in window display.

"I spent a number of years just reeling from the reality of having to make a living, trying to find time to have a social life and to do art," he says. He didn't want to go to grad school, believing then as now, that "self-education through painting was the obvious course," but he was floundering. Like his father before him, he started drinking.

After a lost year, he got sober and later met David Longwell, a painter and photographer who now has been his partner for 17 years. They then fled the East. They chose to settle in Tucson, which Donovan at first found a "cultural desert." But the Old Pueblo gradually seduced him.

"It was so different from my childhood. I felt like I was living in a foreign land. The Yaqui Easter ceremonies, the Mariachi Espectacular endeared Tucson to me. I felt I had the time and space, literally, to paint. I started really painting at age 26 in Tucson."

At the Artworks Academy--improbably located in an El Con Mall storefront that recently housed the Gap--Simon Donovan stands in front of a troop of teenage artists. Their hair is variously pink and purple and brown, and their unofficial school uniform dictates bare midriffs for the girls and oversize jeans for the boys.

They're supposed to be painting creatively on discarded furniture. One boy is turning an end table into a silver rocket ship, but another kid is idling by a computer. He mumbles an excuse.

Donovan rolls his eyes, and launches into an imitation of a stern teacher: "Waiting for paint to dry is a poor excuse for doing nothing," he intones, then shuttles the boy back to his paints. "They call me things," Donovan says, amused. "I'm lucky if I get 'Simon.'"

Many of the students here are renegades--one girl offers that she got kicked out of Catalina High for fighting--and Donovan believes that as a former troubled teen, he's got a shot at helping them. He even hired some of them to lend a hand on his Snake Bridge, making templates for the scales. One of his best success stories, he says, is a high-school dropout from a troubled family who came to his school and "blossomed. She just got a scholarship to an art school in California."

Kitty Rivers is puzzling about what to paint on her end table. She looks up. "Simon's a really good teacher. He's a little odd. He has his own methods. He nags. He does everything his way but it sinks in more efficiently. Everyday is art here. Maybe we won't be Picasso, but, hey, aim for the moon. If you miss, you'll hit a star."

With such unexpected--and gratifying--leaps into metaphoric space, Donovan finds teaching teens rewarding. And it sure beats his first gig in Tucson, as a receptionist at a colonic clinic. His stint as janitor and security guard at the Tucson Museum of Art followed, giving him an inside look at what the public thinks of art.

"It was incredibly discouraging," he says. "People spent less than two seconds looking at a painting." But Donovan eventually found his way to a series of jobs, more or less art-related, that gave him the skills for his future career.

He got hired to paint fabric by the yard, a functional art destined to be cut up for couch covers and bedspreads. "It was so liberating; I was painting hundreds of yards of fabric. It was total improvisation." He started making furniture, collaborating with metalworkers.

"I realized I could envision furniture, have them make it, and split the profits," he says. He and his team made a metal grape arbor bed and "monumental gates" for fancy houses, with the results making design magazines. And he began teaching part-time.

"Suddenly, I had the skills to be a public artist: I'm a teacher; I can speak to an audience," he says. "I've collaborated with fabricators. I can oversee the productions of things. I realized I could work on a scale that was larger than the canvas or a bust."

Meanwhile, he was slogging it out in the galleries. His debut as an artist in Tucson was a prescient installation at Central Arts Collective, with stylized water forms, spiral and crosses surrounded a copy of a poem in Gaelic by his great-grandmother, Maire ni Thuama. Her poem is an earthy bit of Irish naturalism, with a line that's not a bad slogan for a future public artist: "ag deánamh ceol ó clocha."

Translation: I will go... "extracting music from stones."

Donovan agonized over his artistic style. "It was, 'What am I interested in? What about symbols, what about self-expression?' Who the fuck cares about my inner turmoil?"

Public art released him from such quandaries. His "consistently inconsistent" style is a virtue when every project is site-specific, tailored to a particular place, solving a particular problem. His first project, for the Woods Memorial Library, had to be about books, involving the library façade. The crayon-colored, metal Flying Books, attached to the somber modernist walls, still do their job six years after they went up. On First Avenue's dreary landscape of anonymous buildings, they cheerfully announce: Here is the library!

Likewise, the artist's Hohokam figures in the plaza of the city's community resources center west of the Santa Cruz River--a giant head, a bird with wings outspread--remind viewers of the long history of human occupation along the riverbanks. The snake bridge solved the problem of pedestrians and bicyclists wanting to cross a busy roadway, but it also "had to do with site: being next to Arroyo Chico, the desert environment in Tucson, a Southwest theme. ... Each piece is a response to the culture or the nature, to the reason people are here."

And his public art has given him a way to make his most personal studio art in years.

"I approached the Etherton work as a project, much like public art: This is a gallery that has photography. I'm going to put three or four months making things, I don't care if it reveals elements about me." The mixed-media painted photographs now on view at Etherton, he says, are his "Catholic show."

The quiet figures in the paintings have the stolidity of the painted Catholic saints who graced the walls in his childhood home. There's a tension between their body and soul. They float in ethereal space, with a rosary here and a Blessed Mother image there, but they're flesh and blood as well.

His public work also helped him bridge the gap with his father. Simon VII gave up drinking years ago and spent much of the rest of his life helping other recovering alcoholics. He lived long enough to see the son he worried about get a commission to build the Diamondback.

As he lay dying in the hospital six years ago, his wife, Eileen Donovan, tried to encourage him to hold onto life by saying, "We're going to go see the bridge Simon is doing."

The first meeting for the Snake Bridge project was scheduled for the day after Simon VII's funeral. The artist arrived at the meeting carrying a rattlesnake cane he had coincidentally given to his father some years before.

"I don't know if he understood me as an artist," Donovan says. "But I know he was proud of me."

He says his father's service to other alcoholics has taught him a lesson. He's planning to create a residency program in Tucson for artists in recovery. And he hopes to continue serving the town, making his mark, via public art.

"In a time of strip malls and sameness, to get to create a unique sense of place, is a privilege," he says. "An environment of beauty is a respite, an intellectual stimulus. These things are important. My intent is to embellish what is already there, or to beautify a mundane city, with something of beauty."

On hold at the moment is another pedestrian-bike bridge commission he's won, this one at 36th Street and Kino Parkway. He's planning a punctured saguaro design that will glow like a luminaria by night. And he's got plans for the Phase Three of Mountain Avenue, in conjunction with Geoff DeMark his fellow teacher at Artworks. The design is still under wraps, but it gives a nod to Mountain's first phase, a subtle mix of patterned walkways and rock art between Speedway Boulevard and Grant Avenue.

And, he adds, it will take its inspiration in part from his great-grandmother, "extracting music from stones."