Trees, Fire, Rust and Quilts

Galleries and museums off the beaten path offer serious art

“Lone She-Oak by Ocean, Kangaroo Island, South Australia,” hand-colored archival pigment print © Kate Breakey. Showing at the Tucson Botanical Gardens Legacy Gallery through Jan. 13
“Lone She-Oak by Ocean, Kangaroo Island, South Australia,” hand-colored archival pigment print © Kate Breakey. Showing at the Tucson Botanical Gardens Legacy Gallery through Jan. 13

Two years ago, the Tucson Botanical Gardens made a giant splash with a garden-wide art exhibition about the influence of plants on Frida Kahlo's artwork.

Right now, the Gardens have snagged another big-name artist, Tucson photographer and multimedia artist Kate Breakey. She may not be as famous as Frida—at least not yet!—but she's renowned around the country for her singular images culled from nature. (The Gardens' two galleries tend to showcase nature-oriented works that relate to the retreat's lush orchids, cacti and butterflies.)

Breakey first came to prominence for exquisite, large-scale painted photos of dead birds she'd found on her desert property north of Tucson. Since then she's made heartbreaking photos of pale moons that make me swoon; hand-colored photos of ocean waves that glow goldenly; and photogram shadow images of coyotes and other desert critters.

In the new mixed-media work at the gardens, Breakey is laser-focused on trees: big trees, little trees, desert trees, everywhere-around-the-world trees.

A native Australian who's lived in the U.S. for year, Breakey travels far and wide to make her art. For this show, she's photographed trees from Nebraska, Bahrain and New York City to Texas, Sicily, Australia and New Mexico.

A gold-tinted full moon rises over a Bahrain mesquite in one work; a pair of tidy trees rise out of the flat Nebraska prairie in another. White aspens glisten in Colorado and a stand of trees in New Mexico is reflected in the water in nearby ditch. The skies and the water are a delicate, barely there pink.

A few of the archival pigment prints are pure black-and-white, but most of the photos have passages painted in thin color.

For the beautiful "Lone She-Oak by Ocean, Kangaroo Island, South Australia," the most elaborately colored of the show's 36 pieces, Breakey has hand-painted ochre onto the dry grassland, pale blue for the sky and subtle earth green for the tree.

As always in Breakey's work, nature is both gift and heartbreak, powerful one moment, fragile the next. The artist describes that she-oak as "lone," a wonderful word that succinctly notes the struggle of this solitary tree to survive in arid land. That tree alone has made it.

The haunting trees in these pictures can be read metaphorically as human counterparts. Like us, the feisty she-oak and the other trees just keep on keeping on, through storms and sunshine, through wet times and drought, sometimes together and often alone.

Kate Breakey: Trees through Jan. 13 at the Heritage Gallery, Tucson Botanical Gardens, 2150 N. Alvernon Way. Open seven days a week 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed New Year's Day. Entry to the Heritage Gallery is free; the space is located across the breezeway from the gift-shop entrance.

Visitors to the gardens must pay a fee: adults $15; students, seniors, military $13; children 4 to 17 $8; free to members and children 3 and under. 326-9686; The exhibition is a partnership between the Gardens and Etherton Gallery. An exhibition at the Porter House Gallery within the fee area displays nature artworks by Drawing Studio students.

And speaking of trees, photographer Joseph Labate has chronicled the damage the 2017 Sawmill Fire unleashed on Southern Arizona. The fire laid waste to mesquite trees, pinyon pines and junipers, Labate reports, raged over a riparian woodland, and consumed cacti, succulents and tall grass. The disaster was human-made: an off-duty Border Patrol agent caused the fire by lighting an explosive tinted blue at a "gender reveal" party intended to announce that the baby his wife was expecting was a boy. No people were harmed, but the damage to 470,000 acres of wilderness was immense.

Labate, who's exhibiting his photos at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, began roaming the charred land about two and a half months after the blaze was vanquished. His early photos show blackened trees stripped of leaves and needles and terrain laid bare.

But soon nature began to work its miracles. Abundant monsoon rains helped bring the flora back to life; photos show green shoots popping up between the ashen trees. Within weeks, "traces of the fire [were] disappearing," Labate writes in an artist's statement, "recovery (with scar) [was] rapidly progressing."

The photo project, he says, is not a story about this one fire; instead, "it is landscape as metaphor" for recovery and rebirth.

The Sawmill Fire exhibition runs through Wednesday, Jan. 9, at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, 7000 E. Tanque Verde Road. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Adults $10; seniors $8; students $6; children $4; members free. 202-3888,

Rust and lace may not seem immediately compatible, but mixed-media artist and printmaker Katherine Monaghan is inspired by both.

Some years ago, Monaghan developed a unique technique of using rusty metal washers to make rust-colored patterns in mesmerizing abstractions. But recently a discovery of old-time family needlework added a new twist to her rust art.

While rummaging through an old trunk at her mother's home, Monaghan writes on her webpage, she discovered beautiful lace handmade by her grandmother. Diving in deeper, she unearthed homemade patterned quilts, embroidery and needlepoint work, all expertly crafted by female ancestors.

The art world has traditionally disdained these fiber media as lowly "women's work," but Monaghan honors the contributions of her foremothers in new works at ArtsEye Gallery. She's still using rust, but her new designs hearken back to the curves and swirls in the lace and needlework painstakingly made by generations of her family's expert women artists.

Katherine Monaghan: Elements runs through Jan. 17 at ArtsEye Gallery, inside Photographic Works, 3550 E. Grant Rd. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays. Closed New Year's Day. Free. 327-7291;

To see some contemporary fiber art, check out these two exhibitions:

Ranch House Art Gallery in Agua Caliente Park is exhibiting Fiber Art Quilts by Bill Meek and Denny Peterson through Jan. 9. Gallery open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The park, 12325 E. Roger Road., is open 7 a.m. to sunset every day of the year. Free. Pima County Parks phone 724-5000.

H2Oh! An international juried show from the Studio Art Quilt Association, exhibiting quilts about water by 34 artists, runs through Feb. 10 at the Ironwood Gallery, in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road. Varying entrance fees, from free up to $24.95. Open 8:30 to 5 p.m. every day of the year. 883-2702;

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