The Need to Paint

Some 125 of the city's artists open their studios to the general public

Mary Theresa Dietz's studio is the very definition of cramped.

A large painting stands on an easel in front of the fireplace. A stack of abstract animal works lean against a wall; above those, tacked onto the plaster, are smaller architectural studies. To get to the art, you have to maneuver around a dining table crowded with a coffee pot and cups, a couch, a computer, a big dog named Basil and an inquisitive cat named Schubert. Not to mention Dietz's affable husband, Jeff Panther, who sits at a desk under the window.

In short, Dietz's studio and the living room of her tiny Armory Park twin are one and the same.

"Yes, I paint in here," Dietz says cheerfully. "And I paint in the kitchen, too." Around the bend, at the far end of the kitchen sink, Dietz has piled her painting supplies tidily in a corner, underneath another big canvas, this one of a figure peering through foliage.

"I just put a drop cloth out," Dietz says. "Then I put my music on."

Luckily, in good weather, she and her supplies can spill out into the big back yard, where one day, she hopes, she can build an honest-to-goodness studio. A full-time veterinarian's assistant (the backyard canine, Mama Dog, came home from the office a few years back), Dietz paints whenever she can.

"I'm still struggling, still painting. After work I paint, and I paint all day long on weekends. I have to paint."

This weekend, art lovers can get a look at her set-up, and see for themselves how the impulse to make art can take over a life--or a home. Along with more than 125 other artists all over the city, on Saturday and Sunday, Dietz will open her studio to the public for the semi-annual Open Studios Tour. While many of the artists will welcome guests into classic warehouse spaces, this time around many others will be showing out in the neighborhoods, in the houses and garages where they live and work.

"Just because they're not downtown doesn't mean they're not artists," says David Aguirre, an artist who helped organize the tour for the Tucson Pima Arts Council.

Previous tours have concentrated on downtown. Aguirre had hoped to make this one county-wide, but for now, he's settling for city-wide. The new geographical boundaries go as far northwest as the studio of Nancy Denzler, a figurative painter, on Linda Vista Boulevard near Interstate 10, and as far northeast as the Clamwood Studio of Sam Chandler, a sculptor and furniture maker, near the intersection of Tanque Verde and Houghton roads. The southernmost venue, Carlton Star Gallery, will exhibit clay, both fine art and functional, on South Sixth Avenue near 24th Street.

Still, the majority of the studios are in the heart of town.

"Downtown is the still the apple core of the Baked Apple," Aguirre says. "There are lots of artists downtown," including Aguirre himself, who will open his ceramic studio in the Historic Steinfeld Warehouse, 101 W. Sixth St., which also houses Ed Davenport and Cynthia Miller, among others. Another big group warehouse, the Seventh Avenue Arts District Studios, 549 N. Seventh Ave., has some 12 artists, including weaver Robert Redding and photographer Kathryn Wilde.

The tour also offers up arts of the performing kind. Odaiko Sonora will play Japanese drums in the Ortspace studio, 121 E. Seventh St., on Saturday afternoon only. You can check out some renovation projects, too. The Wilde Playhouse, a theater occupying the former Dinnerware space at 135 E. Congress St., shows off its portrait banners of Irish playwrights by Paula Carpenter Baloun. Saguaro Artisans gallery throws open the doors of its new digs in the restored Historic Train Depot, 410 N. Toole Ave.

"We're the first people to get a business going in there," co-owner Jerry Harkins says proudly.

Way back in the late '80s and early '90s, the arts council ran the studio tours under the rubric Art Expo; then some independent artists took on the job, dubbing their version Expo Chango. The task fell to the Tucson Arts District Partnership through much of the last decade, with Aguirre organizing the tours as a volunteer. But the Partnership virtually fell apart in the past year, tumbling from a full-fledged organization with director and staff and some city funding to a small volunteer group that must raise its own money. It just opened the Arts Partnership Gallery for emerging artists downtown, says board member Stan Krzyzanowski, and may do a tour again later.

"We're not out of the picture," he says. "We're going back to our old mission."

But for now at least, most of its activities have been parceled out to other organizations, with the arts council taking over the open studios project once more.

"The Arts District Partnership still exists, but the resources are not there to carry out the tour," says Mary Ellen Wooten, an arts council staff member who, until 2 1/2 years ago, worked for the Partnership. Wooten believes it's important to keep the tours going.

"They give the artists exposure," she says. "And people in the community learn more. They see where the art is being produced. They see the process, with the equipment and materials. And the artists are selling their work, at a variety of prices."

The studio openings are particularly useful for artists who are not well known. Dietz, a ceramicist turned painter who came to Tucson from Vermont in 1977, has shown her paintings at a number of small galleries and cafés. But she hasn't hit the big-time--her vet's assistant job testifies to that--and the tours help connect her with the public.

"One guy came in and said, 'I want to see your old stuff,'" she says. He ended up falling in love with a portrait Dietz had painted, and his wife came back and bought it for him for Christmas. Armory Park boasts a number of artists, including reverse-glass painter Janet K. Miller and photographer Linda Rosenfield, and the density helps bring in tour-goers.

"I don't get as many people as the Warehouse District does," Dietz says. "It's sporadic but at times the room fills up. It's like getting to have your own gallery for a while."

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