The Artists Speak

Five powerhouse Tucson artists at Bernal Gallery describe what art means to them

“Split-fingered Smile” by Bailey Doogan, graphite on Duralar with Prismacolor on verso, 2013.
“Split-fingered Smile” by Bailey Doogan, graphite on Duralar with Prismacolor on verso, 2013.

The acclaimed painter Bailey Doogan endured a debilitating bout of depression for more than a year a decade ago.

She had dealt with depression before, but this episode "was the drug-defying, therapy-proof mother load," she writes in an artist's statement.

It was art that pulled her out of it.

The art in question, a series of paintings and drawings of her pulling her face into outlandish shapes, is on view at Pima's Bernal Gallery in Sustained Visions, a group exhibition of work by Doogan and four other distinguished Tucson artists.

In a recent talk at the gallery, she explained how the series came about. Laid low by sadness, "I didn't want to go to an opening," she said. She went into the bathroom and peered at herself in the mirror. How could she possibly make her melancholy face look more socially acceptable?

"I started pulling my face in different directions," mimicking polite expressions, she said. Tugging her face hither and yon, she looked so comical that finally she laughed, and laughed some more.

Her depression broke, and she got to work. She hired a photographer to take portraits of her with her face pulled like Silly Putty. Then she dived into image-making, drawing and painting her distorted face again and again.

In "Split-Fingered Smile," a graphite drawing, she curls an arm around her head, the better to grab a cheek and stretch her lips into a forced smile. In "Chin Finger," an oil painting, she tries another angle, pushing the flesh of her chin up to her mouth.

The artworks, she said, fit right into the work she had been making for years about women's bodies: as holy temples, as objects of desire, as aging bodies.

The new pieces were about the "idea that women should look pleasing and pleasant," she said. And sometimes getting to that ladylike pleasantness requires a woman to go through mental—and physical—contortions.

Doogan's work is partly inspired by the painted images of her Catholic childhood—of saints and sinners and tortured flesh. "Ora," Latin for "pray," is a sumptuous oil that pictures a naked woman hanging upside down. But the painting is ambiguous: the woman hangs against a backdrop of glittering gold. Is this luminous mortal a saint, taking flight toward heaven, or is she a sinner bound for doom?

Sustained Visions is a beautiful show that gives the white-walled Bernal gallery the look of a jewel-box chapel. Doogan's seven works, drawn from the dark side of religion, are at the entrance, but beyond them Jim Waid's abstracted landscapes are the color of stained glass and Tom Philabaum's glass pieces shimmer in the light. Philabaum's "Window into the Past," a fused glass wall work, has the unmistakable contours of a church window.

Barbara Rogers' lustrous paintings of floating pods and posies echo the glorious tapestries of the Middle Ages, while Fred Borcherdt's sculptures are in somber charcoal and black. His "Relic Marker" is in the shape of a fallen cross.

At a gallery reception, each of the artists described what art has meant to their lives.

Painter Waid, maker of joyous work, declared that "I try to make paintings as gorgeous as I can. I get to do this. I'm a lucky guy."

Waid's art was shaped by walks through the nearby desert when he was a young art instructor at the fledgling Pima Community College. He eventually left teaching, but that early connection with the desert still animates his art. His paintings feature desert seeds and stems and flowers, dramatically enlarged and brilliantly colored.

"Moon Scent," one of his two works in the show, is an incandescent rendition of the deep-blue night sky, with constellations of desert plants colored yellow and violet sailing across the sky like shooting stars.

Rogers, like Doogan is a longtime art prof at the UA, explained that her paintings are about "transcending the ordinary."

"Everything about my work is how I stay sane," she said. "It's you in a studio creating art and creating the life you want to lead."

Rogers is exhibiting one large painting and 14 small works. "Swimming at the Lake Palace" is so big it almost covers an entire wall. Lozenge-shaped figures in yellow and green glide tranquilly across a color field of shifting hues.

Her small paintings are gems: red and pink flowers, gold seashells, green stems undulate across a passage of pale blue-gray in "Pieces of a Dream #4"; bronze lozenges and triangles float against rich brown in "Pieces of a Dream #17."

The sculptor Borcherdt declared that "doing work in your studio makes life worth living."

Borcherdt uses heavy natural materials: stone, mesquite, metal. Sometimes he recycles materials from scrap yards; other times, he goes back to literal roots, "making a wood sculpture but starting with a tree, or making a stone sculpture starting with a rock-strewn riverbed."

The fallen aluminum cross in "Relic Marker" is embedded in a polished chunk of mesquite. In "Wishing Post," a dark post in forged steel heading for the sky rises up out of patterned stone.

Renowned glass artist Philabaum waved off the opportunity to speak about his art, instead inviting viewers to examine the work. His array of pieces show off his remarkable range within the category of glass art, from blown glass to fused to painted.

A blown-glass piece from the "Black Canyon Series" is a graceful pile-up of irregular glass spheres. It gracefully mimics both saguaros and river rocks while remaining a simple abstraction of shape and color.

And the mischievous "Hear No, See No, Do No" brings us back around to the religious realm. More comic than serious, "Here No" recreates a lush Garden of Eden occupied by a naughty painted devil. From his blown-glass capsule, this goblin leers out at us knowingly, cheerfully anticipating every one of our sins.