"I was having the best time," he recalls, all smiles on a hot day in Tucson.
Eventually, though, he began chafing at the dancer's lot, wherein artistic directors imperiously impose their own vision on the performers. Zelens decided to give it up and begin choreographing his own life. Ever since, life has been an improvisation for Zelens, who just three months ago opened an art gallery in one of the least likely Tucson quarters.
Wedged in between a littered desert lot and the Royal Automotive repair shop, Gallery Four Ten takes its name from its address on Fort Lowell Road. The new gallery owner is showing the works of Tucson artists he's met since arriving in town last year, Maurice Grossman and Carol Thaler among them. And he's also showing his own work, large abstract oils from his early painting days in the 1970s and color-burst flower paintings he's done since he arrived in the desert.
"It was wonderful when I got down here" in April 1999, he says. "The cactuses were in bloom."
"Night Blooming Cereus" and "Pop Corn Clouds" hang on the walls of his new gallery, their stylized, undulating shapes and hyped-up colors at odds with its immaculate white walls. The polished gallery, in the block between First and Stone avenues, gives not a hint of its former life as a machine repair shop. By contrast, though Zelen's eyes now are pleasantly crinkled and his grey hair circles a bald pate, the painter's erect carriage and lithe movements are a physical reminder of his long-ago dancing days.
When he left the ballet world, Zelens ventured into more free-form dance. He performed with some downtown modern dancers, and even rented legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham's studio for a solo performance of his own dance works. But he also plunged into visual art.
"I got into Cooper Union," he recounts. After studying painting at the prestigious East Village art school, Zelens had some success as a painter, showing at 112 Workshop Gallery in Soho. He earned a living by doing functional art, making one-of-a-kind painted fabric for noted interior decorators Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, painted caftans for the clothing designer Halston, and hand-painted silk kimonos commissioned by Bergdorf Goodman. Some of these silks still float in the living room in Zelens' house adjacent to the gallery, gossamer fabrics blossoming in flowers rendered by the lost-wax dyeing technique.
After 20-odd years of this serendipitous New York life, he abandoned town for country, for a time residing in a Tibetan monastery, and eventually establishing a new art life in an old schoolhouse he bought in Woodstock, N.Y. During the next decade and a half, assorted dancers and artists taught in his classrooms, and he painted. Often the subject was the rolling golden fields of rural New York or its snowbound hills; once it was several hundred years of American history, when he was commissioned to paint a 40-foot-by-60-foot mural for the Hudson River town of Kingston.
After a steamy winter in Palm Springs, which spawned some tropical paintings, Zelens characteristically grew restless again. He got one recommendation after another to head to Arizona. He pinpointed Tucson as his potential destination.
"I came out for a few days in October 1998 and then in spring of 1999 I rented a house on Second Avenue. I loved it! People were so nice. Maurice (Grossman) took me under his wing."
By summer, determined to establish another art base, Zelens had purchased the property on Fort Lowell, snagging "the whole thing for very little money." Spreading over three-quarters of an acre, it includes a huge two-story house that was originally a four-room adobe, the storefront gallery and a free-standing studio.
"It's not downtown," he acknowledges. But the space is near the Fort Lowell furniture district, which he considers an advantage, and not too far from the new galleries at Joesler Village and El Cortijo in the near foothills. And coincidentally it's just one neighborhood north of Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, which shows cutting-edge European and New York art in a low-rent stretch of Grant Road.
The art Zelens has shown so far is more accessible than Cherry's.
"I don't want the art to be so far out that people won't want to buy it, but I want it to be more than decorator art," he says.
Zelens opened the gallery with Tucson Friends, a show honoring the artists who have helped him find his way on the local art scene. Besides ceramics artist Grossman, it included Thaler, a colorist who tends toward abstraction, folk-art sculptor Rod Jacobson, clay artist Miles Thompson and others. The second show, Driven to Abstraction, features Thaler's mixed-media handmade paper works, colored woodcuts and monoprints; landscape-inspired abstractions by Bisbee artist Robert Beyers and paintings on glass in comic book colors by Bernd Zabel, a former Biospherian. A summer group show starting June 2 will include metal sculptures by Steven Derks and paintings by Pasqualina Azzarello. Even when the exhibitions change, Four Ten has so much space, stretching back out into the dusty backyard, that Zelens intends to keep work on hand by every artist that he shows.
Now that his operation is set up, he's ready to do his own work. A brand-new kiln sits out back. It turns out that the dancer-painter-fabric designer-gallery owner also makes ceramic pots.
"In my career as a craftsperson and artist," he says, "I've always liked functional art."
Gallery Four Ten, 410 E. Fort Lowell Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Ring the buzzer on the gallery's front door. For more information, call 740-1947.