The Beauty of the Land

Rancho Linda Vista remains a part of Tucson's artistic history

On a sunny morning in 1968, artist George Harkins painted a watercolor of a lush piece of high desert an hour north of Tucson.

In the painting, now at The Drawing Studio, thick stands of saguaros, mesquites and agaves cascade down the slopes. A rattlesnake curls up in the sun near some red-roofed cottages and a pair of Gambel's quails soar overhead.

And in between the beater cars, a bearded man—stark naked—gallops full speed ahead on a horse down the hill.

This is Rancho Linda Vista, the now legendary artists' colony, in the year it was founded. In his joyous watercolor, Harkins, an early member, captured the colony's hippie heyday. In free-spirited RLV, rules were made to be broken—and art was meant to be made.

That art would be shaped not only by the fertile desert garden that Harkins painted, but also by the gorgeous north face of the Catalina Mountains looming overhead.

During the next 44 years, that ridgeline of the Catalinas would be painted over and over again in works by dozens of Rancho Linda Vista artists. You can see it, for example, in an untitled litho/collage by James G. Davis, also at The Drawing Studio. (It's one of 15 works in Contemporary Masters of Tucson, a show that traces spheres of influence on the city's artists.)

Davis is a longtime RLVer known for edgy urban work inspired by his long sojourns in Paris and Berlin. This piece, like much of his art, is all sharp angles and uneasy surrealism: a man in a dark room gazes out a window, watching as a woolly mammoth does battle with an elephant. A mysterious woman stands in shadow nearby.

But out that big window, Davis has drawn that beautiful craggy line of the Catalinas.

Rancho Linda Vista—the Ranch of the Beautiful View—helped trigger what you might call the Tucson Landscape School. The late Bruce McGrew, another early member, here represented by the luminous watercolor "Catalina State Park," defied '60s art trends by sitting out in nature and painting what he saw. That newly radical art forced viewers to pay attention to the Earth at a time it had begun to be put at risk. And art-wise, McGrew pioneered a technique of painting that lay somewhere between abstraction and realism. You could see the rocks, mountains and sky in his works, but they were transformed into pure color.

Not all the ranch artists were interested in representation. Founder Charles Littler and his wife, Pat Dolan, operating as the environmental art team RUBYLEE, didn't depict the landscape—they used the actual desert and its plants and soil as elements in their site-specific sculptures and large-scale installations. Inside RLV's lush patch of desert, they created art literally out of the landscape.

But the ranch's artists were not tied down to Oracle. Like Davis, Andrew Rush, another longtime RLVer, often ventured to Europe, where he made lovely drawings of hills, rivers and stone buildings that he converted into soft-ground etchings.

Rush went on to found The Drawing Studio, a downtown art school and gallery now celebrating its 21st year. For Contemporary Masters, The Drawing Studio solicited donations from some of Tucson's best-known artists; their work will be auctioned off to benefit the nonprofit school.

The nicely curated exhibition demonstrates that Rancho Linda Vista was just one of a number of artist-run enterprises that helped shape Tucson art in the past 40 years. Others are Dinnerware Artists Cooperative, The Drawing Studio itself and the UA School of Art, which each year produces a dozen or more freshly minted MFAs.

The founders and earliest members of Rancho Linda Vista—Littler, Rush, McGrew and Davis—were all professors of art at the UA. They bought the run-down dude ranch not only because they were captivated by the very '60s idea of going back to the land. They were also disillusioned with academe, and wanted to re-establish an alternative system for teaching and creating art, Rush said in an interview.

Even so, the four profs stuck it out at the UA long enough to teach hundreds or even thousands of students. A number of the show's artists, including Jim Waid, Nancy Tokar Miller and Cynthia E. Miller, got their MFAs at the UA. All three of these UA grads are influenced by landscape but, like the RLV artists, they approach it in radically different ways.

Waid takes the desert's surrealistic cacti and critters, magnifies them into surreal sizes and paints them in hot, ratcheted-up colors. His "Chelsea #2," a pastel on paper," is pure Waid: colored in neon gold, ultramarine, pink and cerulean, its undulating organic shapes could be desert flowers or birds—or maybe the sun breaking over the mountains at dawn.

Tokar Miller has lived in Tucson for years, but she rarely paints its landscapes. Instead, the frequent traveler conjures up Asia, Spain, Hawaii in gorgeous semi-abstractions. She paints quickly, in broad strokes of acrylic; her layers of paint are lush but thin, a distinct contrast to Waid's thick impastos. "Etude No. 7," is a small but typical work, an acrylic and pastel on canvas that suggests sea and sky, but barely. Black calligraphic lines darting across the surface evoke Asian characters.

Cynthia Miller delights in multiple media mixes—oil stick, paint, pastel, glitter. Lately, she's been painting long, horizontal paintings on paper, whose unusual shape mimics Chinese scrolls and whose multiple images tend to tell stories. In "Orchid Fever," all manner of orchids cascade across the long stretch of paper. On the right, a white orchid is planted sedately in a pot. But in the middle panel, the orchids have turned into shooting stars, exploding into the black night.

Waid and Cynthia Miller were also founders of the old Dinnerware Artists Co-op in 1979. For years, nearly every serious Tucson artist joined Dinnerware, and a stint of several years at it was a rite of passage. (Poor business decisions eventually led to the sale of its Congress Street gallery.)

Artist Betina Fink, interestingly, embodies all four of the spheres of influence that the show examines. She lived at Rancho Linda Vista for years; she got her MFA at the UA; she once served as president of Dinnerware; and now she's a Drawing Studio teacher and head of the youth program, nurturing a next generation of artists.

Her "Reflectore," is a pure landscape—populated by two birds in mirror image of each other—that goes back to the McGrew practice of close observation. A lovely plein air painting in oil, it pays careful attention to the colors in the clouds, to the variations in the blues of the sky, to the land turning from leaf- to earth-green.

"Reflectore" returns to the old Rancho Linda Vista reverence for the land—and to the pure joy to be found in its beauty.

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