Bea Mason doesn't have a rule that employees in her framing shop have to be artists. It just turns out that most of the people who've worked for her over the years are painters or photographers or architects.
"It's not about creating jobs for artists," Mason says. "It's about hiring people who can help me accomplish my goal: creating perfection and beauty. You have to be able to 'see' in order to do it. If you can't see, you can't do it."
With a reputation for doing superb fine-art framing, Mason's Lewis Framing Studio has a long client list that includes many of Tucson's museums and galleries. Its list of artist-framers may be just as long.
A fun summer exhibition at Etherton Gallery, The Artists of Lewis Framing, puts a spotlight on seven artists who have toiled behind the scenes at the shop, some of them for years, framing other artists' work.
Just three, painters David F. Brown, William Wiggins and Doug Shelton, are still working at Lewis, while painting in the moonlight hours.
"I'm in my 19th year full time" at Lewis," says Brown, an MFA grad of the UA who's had several solo shows at Temple Gallery. "But I make time to do art. I have to."
The work of Brown and the six other artists—paintings, photographs, drawings, prints and jewelry—easily prove Mason's point. All of them "see" with an artist's eye.
Here's a quick look at some of their work:
Brown makes quirky paintings that veer between charm and angst. He uses the same symbols over and over—a brave little ladder striving for the heights, sturdy worn boots that have survived no end of troubles. He paints them against brightly colored, flat backgrounds that occupy ambiguous space. Often there's a turquoise oval floating around someplace, with a barely seen human drifting on the surface, just barely staying afloat.
"Kiva," in the show, is typical. A purplish ladder pushes up against that turquoise oval, which in this case has become a sky. A tiny airplane is flying leftward, about to enter deep space.
The recurring symbols radiate both anxiety and aspiration. Brown, who admits to climbing his first ladder at age 2, says the ladders and boots "represent not just self-portraits. They're human beings in general."
Brown also found love at Lewis: He's engaged to former staffer Leslie Wardlaw, a jeweler who's also in the show.
Wardlaw, who now works as a massage therapist, makes artistic one-of-a-kind jewelry. Among the earrings she's exhibiting at the gallery are her "little people" pieces, in which tiny naked human figures ride atop dangling stones and gems, reclining in poses worthy of a Rodin.
Doug Shelton, who's worked part-time at Lewis for 16 years, recently showed in the TAG exhibition at the Temple Gallery. Known in Tucson for his fantasy landscapes, he's also painted many murals, in Iowa, in the U.S. Capitol and at Tokyo Disney.
"Cactus Brand," an oil on canvas at Etherton, is a surreal vision of the dreamlike rock formations on Navajo land in northeastern Arizona. More startling than the rocks, though, is an owl sitting front and center on a ghostly green shirt whose human seems to have vanished.
William Wiggins, a 15-year full-timer at Lewis, relishes painting icons of his native Southwest: Day of the Dead skeletons, a black bird poised against a desert sky. He also makes Mexican-influenced block prints, with his skeletal "Mr. Muerto Dos" and "Katrina en el Sol" painted in vivid colors and outlined in heavy black.
The Lewis alumni contingent includes Dustin Leavitt, who worked for years at the Center for Creative Photography. Leavitt now teaches both art and writing at University of the Redlands. Besides some sensitive portrait drawings, Leavitt exhibits nine beautifully chiseled black-and-white photos. Organized into a grid, all of the images—an ant's eye view of looming skyscrapers, a lonely palm tree against a blank sky—are tinged by malaise.
Another Lewis veteran, architect David Kish, contributes a series of disciplined, elegant drawings in color, each repeating a single shape endless times. "Prickly Dance," in a pale lime-green, pictures infinite jostling prickly pear pads. Colored a rich summer green, "Agave Wave" likewise lines up a motley mob of cactus stalks.
The distinguished painter Joe Forkan, who right now has a major solo show at the UA Museum of Art, did a stint at Lewis in between his undergraduate years at the UA and grad school at the University of Delaware.
Forkan, who once painted lush covers for the Tucson Weekly, is now a professor at Cal State Fullerton. He's showing a number of his plein-air landscapes, ranging from lovely Irish paintings to desert scenes.
"Lifting Fog, Newport Back Bay," a small oil on panel from 2013, is a moody rendition of watery Ireland. The surface of the bay glistens white, and the receding fog hangs across the sky like a curtain.
Closer to home, "Silver Dusk, Anza-Borrego," 2015—another small masterpiece of soft-edged forms and muted colors—is a twilight version of the classic western landscape: blue mountains across the horizon, sky above, desert below.
Forkan is also premiering work that reveals an exciting new direction. He has long painted the geometries of the city he sees outside his studio windows in Santa Ana. Now he's turned entire canvases into geometric grids, transforming lush landscapes and cityscapes into small abstract squares of glorious color.
"Ballinglen—Grid Work" from 2014, named for an Irish village where Forkan did a residency, is a beautiful checkerboard of blue, green and yellow green squares. At least that's what it seems to be up close. When you step away, though, you stop seeing the squares. Right before your eyes—courtesy of the artist's eye—the shapes start coalescing. Suddenly, instead of a grid, you see an Irish village of small houses made yellow by the sun, and nestled into a green hillside beneath a big blue sky.