Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 22, 2008

Go West…Middle-Aged Woman from Springfield…Go West

By Shera Cohen

When a friend moved to Arizona in 1995, I was given an open invitation. “But there are no arts in Tucson, just cactus,” I replied. Thirteen years later, I finally traveled out West to learn that I was completely wrong about my perception of their arts.

I jam-packed about 20 arts and cultural activities into one week. My friends thought that this was not the definition of “vacation.” Relax, sleep late, enjoy the cool weather (86 degrees), eat Mexican food. None of that was for me.

Art in nature was surely abundant. Yes, cacti (about 100 varieties) were everywhere – the ones called barrels with yellow flowers on top that are chewed up at night by wild hog/pig creature, the flat purple Mickey Mouse ears-type, and the tall ones with arm that seem to say “hello.”

The majestic perimeter to the city were the mountains, some grassy, others all rock, or with snow atop (a beautiful sight from the plane). At times, their height and breathe looked like a child’s drawing of the outline of mountains in the background. It was not until moving closer that the 3D, cinematic scope loomed. After all, this was the location for many western movies and TV shows.

There were also sights not often found in New England – my first ostridge farm, pistachio groves, never-ending trains, bridges over what once was water, and snakes that come within inches of you with no Plexiglas in between. Another reptile, of sorts, was a long walking bridge which linked two sections of highway. Drivers had the best view of the head with open mouth, body with scales, and rattler tail of perhaps the world’s longest (yet happy) rattlesnake.

On sidewalk corners, highways, and tree belts was a plethora of public art. Sculpture, murals, pottery, paintings and other genres could not escape my view. Many were whimsical, others Mexican, some brass and others multi-media and colorful. I thought, wasn’t it wonderful that a city appreciated its artists by displaying their work for all to see.

What follows is a diary of the highlights of my arts education in Tucson.

Day #1

Bookman’s Used Bookstore – For those who remember the wonderful Johnson’s Used Bookstore, this site was ten-fold in size and contents. You might not think of a bookstore as culture, but this was unique by its unabashed lack of décor, sheer volume (literally), and crowds of readers.

Congress Hotel – Its floors were made of wall-to-wall pennies, there’s the same old switchboard, message boxes, beds, and the over-night stay is probably the same price as it was in 1919. The hotel is infamous on the map as the location where John Dillinger was caught.

Tucson Children’s Museum –Pioneer Valley families would be lucky to have such a wonderful place for youngsters to play and interact without ever realizing that they are also learning. On any given day there was enough to do to tire out any kid, let along his chaperone. With under a one million budget, it’s amazing how much TCM has done over the years, recreated their physical space into multi-use areas, and educated/entertained youth. The emphasis is on “play” in all aspects and for all ages, as the Children’s Museum is very much a Family Museum.

Day #2

Sabino Canyon – It was time for a “city girl” to venture into the great outdoors. This

Was a tram tour through miles of mountains, dried but beautiful stream beds, green rocks, and homes for scorpion. The driver’s talk of the Canyon’s history brought me back to the days of volcanoes, rooming buffalo, and John Wayne (in that order). The Canyon is a living museum of Tucson’s past.

DeGrazia Gallery – Not only was the gallery of this famous artist (known for UNICEF cards) packed with works representing Spanish and Indian culture; the entire grounds were as well. Each room held artwork which flowed in sequence to create mythical stories. The prolific DeGrazia made 1500 paintings and thousands of sculpture in nearly all media, and placed it from floor to ceiling in a large house-like gallery. One room is devoted to a Christian art-theme, another displays works of his wife, and in a tranquil environment outdoors is DeGrazia’s own grave surrounded by his creations in wood, mosaic, glass, and ceramics. In protest to taxation of inherited art work, DeGrazia burned hundreds of his own paintings. It’s hard to image such a waste, not only for the artist but for art-lovers. Exhibits rotate, so a visit is possible whenever one arrives at what is called “Gallery in the Sun.”

Tucson Jazz Society – While my vacation timing did not fit their concert schedule, this hard-working staff of jazz lovers told me the story of their agency. For someone in the arts field, learning about jazz genres and musicians, audience likes and dislikes, hiring the best musicians, selecting venues, the importance of collaborations, and funding sources was information to take back home.

Day #3

San Xavier del Bac Mission – Aside from the mountains and the cacti (the later grow one inch per year), this gorgeous mission from the 1700s represented an important part of Tucson’s history. On the grounds was a one-room chapel with rustic benches, candles, and no window. A wedding took place that morning, and anyone could attend. The mission is a national landmark and huge in structure. At its center is a circular garden and fountain, straight out of a Zorro movie.

Tubac – If all that I had seen in Arizona was Tubac, this would have been enough. It’s a dream village for anyone who loves visual art. Hundreds of artists sell their works from their small galleries, all aligned row upon row. Just when you think you have seen every shop, every craft, every painting, there are more. I allotted three hours, and could have spent the entire day.

Arizona Theatre Company – It was a privilege to interview the director of “To Kill a Mockingbird” immediately prior to the performance. Her perspective into the making and nuances of this wonderful play were enlightening. Everything about ATC was professional onstage and lovely outside in the front courtyard. The stage is quite large. Unique to ATC is its two venues – one in Tucson and the other in Phoenix. By means of collapsible sets, the entire cast and crew performed in both cities, back to back. This particular play was also co-produced with Kansas Repertory Theatre. [See sidebar]

Day #4

Tombstone – I am your typical tourist, and proud of it. But this wasn’t the pretend, shoot ‘em up, cowboys & Indians – this was the real Tombstone, a whole town/museum of stores, taverns, inns, dirt streets, the O.K. Corral with the Earps vs. the bad guys played a dramedy in the streets. And, yes, photos of Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner were also on sale.

Boothill – The famous graveyard with dozens of outlaws, town folks, and many unnamed souls was “The Real McCoy.” I walked through the aisles of stone graves, each marked with wooden signs; i.e. “He was hanged by mistake, and now he is ded.”

Day #5

Beowulf Alley Theatre Company – This small, young troupe took on the ambitious undertaking of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Talking to the founder and director after the curtain fell was an up-front and personal theatre education. It wasn’t enough that each had her/his role, each also handled the box office, concessions, and swept the floor. No prima donnas here; that’s what thespians do. [See sidebar]

Day #6

Tohono Chul Park – I strolled through this lovely garden with its landscape of familiar flowers among cacti. The latter were “deceptive,” as some look soft and light with prickers that could wound. The “beware of rattlesnakes” signs didn’t scare the prairie dogs, but did me, especially when a huge black snake (so it wasn’t a cobra) slid faster than the speed of light after an equally large lizard.

Day #7

Invisible Theatre – This theatre was so tucked away and nearly hidden that its name was appropriate. Yet, for 30 years, the troupe has presented hundreds of plays with a bent toward the new and unique. With no show on this day, I interviewed IT’s stalwart/founder – an Edith Head look-alike, who also tours the world in her own play about this famous designer. [See sidebar]

Presidio Arts – A walk along an avenue of paintings, crafts, jewelry, and more was the place to buy gifts that I promised to bring back. In spite of, or because of, the lovely buildings that linked together, I guessed that prices for this art were prohibitive for my budget. I was wrong.

I must especially thank the staff of the Greater Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, who gave me lessons on the history of Tucson and its cultural sites. A recommendation to any traveler is to first contact the CVB. My friends asked if it would take me another 13 years for me to return. I only made a dent in all of the arts and culture that Tucson had to offer. I think I’ll make it before 2021.