Ajo Arts Weekend: Splashes of Spring Color in the Sonoran Desert

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Ajo, Ariz. is a unique community in transition. A former copper mining community, through the support of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance nonprofit, the town is remaking itself with a community non-profit gallery, beautiful living/working space lofts, and the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center, a former elementary school that is now a unique and beautiful destination inn.

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Above, a room at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center

Another part of the transition is a dedication to arts and culture, and the weekend of March 24-26th proved that undeniably with an arts program that included a stunning musical and dramatic performance by New Orleans-based Mondo Bizzaro and ArtSpot, three days of mural-painting in what is known as the town’s Artist’s Alley, and a buffet dinner of regional Tohono O’odham cuisine by Desert Rain Cafe.

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Above: performance, mural art, and Native American cuisine.

The mural painting was a profound aspect of the weekend: the vastness of the project, the beauty of the work, and the way it spread from Artist’s Alley into the facades of buildings facing the street, was as natural and as vivid as the striking desert sunsets.

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Above, Kat Anderson with her son – who contributed his artwork to one of her murals.

According to Kat Anderson who administered and coordinated – as well as participated in – the mural project, “It was amazing to watch this event take on its own energy and transform into something collectively that we would never have attained individually. We started with a budget of zero, a crazy dream, and a handful of artists with the dedication to organize and see it through. Now Ajo has 50 new murals and another impactful commUNITY experience to bond us closer, and empower our shared goals of revitalization.”

Muralists included:
Neoglyphix (a team of 8 led by Dwayne Manuel)
Porter McDonald
Micah Perry
Leanne Miller
L.T. Sparrow
Jah Rome
Caitlyn Allen
Nellie David
Amy Juan
Harriet Wood
Victor Garcia
Hop David
Kat Anderson
Silas Anderson
Delbert Antone
Maria Singleton
Harold Curtis
Ghazal Ghazi
Niki Ortiz
Jimmy Fennewald & Mitch Jacobs
Michael Schwartz
Valeria Hutchings
Izrael Rios Garcia
Mauriel Morejon
Catherine Ecker
Emma Bayne
Adan Alvarez
DaWolf Baker
Jake Boyd
Bike Ajo
Ajo CSA
Women Act Now

NCCC TeamKat

Anderson is an artist who lives in Ajo nine months of the year; the other three, in the height of the summer months, in Alaska. “I stumbled into murals. I’ve always been an artist, but never worked on anything bigger than canvas. Two years ago was the first street art happening in Ajo, and the first mural I ever painted. I got hooked on Ajo and on murals.”

Since that time, Anderson has created 12 murals in Ajo, Mexico, and Alaska, as well as continuing with her own studio paintings, poetry writing, and poetry readings. She describes her style as “a little surreal, a little abstract, vivid colors, some landscape and some my own imagination.”  She adds that “I really tend towards thinking about things in colors and a collage of concepts. My painting and my writing both just pop into my head in pieces and then I put them together to create a greater motif.”

For Ajo’s mural festival, she created five murals, including a collaboration with artist Leanne Miller, as well as curating the event. “The first one, I took ten days to finish two years ago. I knew I couldn’t undertake that and run this, so instead I did smaller pieces. I had to have a paintbrush in my hand,” she laughs.

“This is the first year for me being in charge of the murals. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance didn’t have a grant for us, but I was able to see the vision of doing something out of nothing. The grass roots community really came together to show we could make something beautiful out of nothing,” she attests.

Anderson feels that with this year’s festival, the town has “broken through the threshold” in terms of the location of its murals, and that the town will be looking forward to welcoming murals throughout the community.

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Artist Harriet Wood, based in Barcelona and previously from London, created one of the larger, most vivid pieces this year with her “Sonora.” The image covers an entire side of a two-story building.

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“This piece is based on the wild life I stumbled across visiting Arizona. I never saw anything like it before. There’s a nod to native history in the headdress of my female figure, which I made as colorful as possible. I paint female characters for female empowerment,” she notes.

In terms of technique, Wood uses primarily spray paint with some brush work, but says she would’ve used all spray paint if she’d had enough available to complete the impressive work.

“I started spray painting eleven years ago at age fifteen. My dad was an artist, so I’m lucky, it was an accepted goal. My oldest friend lives in Tucson, and when I visited him in September I was introduced to Michael Schwartz and the Tucson Arts Brigade, who got me a wall,” she explains. “I’m staying here just a week, but I don’t want to leave this magical place,” she says.3R1A2544

Wood could not afford the cost necessary for paint, and crowd-sourced the project, which was extremely successful.

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Wood’s participation in the arts weekend was long planned, but Mauriel Morejon merely drove by, saw the project, and wanted to join in. The professional muralist titled his swiftly and beautifully created project “Arizona Hurricane.”

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Morejon creates dynamic, sweeping landscapes and stories.

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Above, Izrael Rios Garcia created a stunning spray and air brushed acrylic work whose rich black background fills a large building corner and loading dock area.

Below, the muralists’ worked all day and into the night.  The festive, creative scene was open to the public.

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One of the strongest supporters of the mural project is Michael Schwartz, who brought Wood into the creation of murals in both Tucson and Ajo. He describes himself as being “all about community building.” A muralist and studio artist, he has gotten high school students involved in the artistic process, and is working on a multi-year collaboration between Tucson and Ajo involving young people.

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Above, Schwartz with a young artist, Val Hutchings.

He’s created 125 murals over time. “Here I feel like it’s taking on a life of its own, the mural project. It’s great to start a wind-up toy and let it keep going. I talked to ISDA early on as to what culture is, we talked it through, and Kat ended up handling 90% of it all, we just did fundraisers online. Really, this is a hundred grand project, but we just came together. Normally, you wouldn’t do something like this without a grant, but we needed to be re-energized to do something for the community.”  Schwartz believes that going “back to our roots” feels good particularly in our current political climate.

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Along with the incredible, large-scale art work, the New Orleans-based Mondo Bizzaro and ArtSpot performance, funded by the National Performance Network, offered an immersive outdoor/indoor show that was as profound as it was beautiful.

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Community artist and former ISDA community arts coordinator Morgana Wallace Cooper saw the performers in North Carolina and knew they would be a passionate fit for the festival.

Performing troupe member Monique Verdin noted that while their primarily outdoor performance is not usually done at night, creating their work at dusk “added a new quality. Everyone really let loose with the Fais de Doux.”

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The eco-performance combined historically-based drama with hauntingly magical music. The subject matter dealt with the Army Corps of Engineers reconfiguring the Mississippi, industrial pollution, and environmental racism, a subject that might have been set in Louisiana culture, but which still resonated for Ajo with its mining past.

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The group led its audience from Ajo’s town square indoors to the beautiful auditorium  at the renovated Curley School adjacent to the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center. Haunting melodies were paired with floor to ceiling photographs of the Louisiana region, while the backdrop to the auditorium’s stage was the rolled-open loading dock, creating an amazing intermingling of Arizona sunset sky and Cajun melodies.

It would be hard to put into words both how powerful and how dream-like the performance was, and how well it fit the almost dream-like quality of Ajo itself: here is a town that is in the process of reinvention, painting itself into revitalized life with enormous murals, serving up a spring arts festival as beautifully realized as any in a much larger community.

Don’t wait to visit Ajo and view the murals and absorb the town’s special magic, from it’s sprightly farmer’s market to it’s art gallery openings; and do look forward to the town’s next Spring Arts Festival.

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Above and below: farmer’s market; opening at Under the Arches Gallery.

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Above, artists’ renderings of mural works; below a delightful crafts project.

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Below, another look at some of the beautiful murals created during the Spring Arts Weekend.

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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

 

 

 

Paint the Town Red: Ajo, Arizona and the Sonoran Desert Conference Center

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The hills appear to be painted red and gold around the former copper mining community of Ajo. The town name means garlic in Spanish, but it was probably a translation error: the Tohono O’odham tribe in the area had a similar word for paint, and they took their red paint pigments from those vibrant hills.

Ajo’s name is just one interesting story in a town filled with them. Here is what could’ve been an abandoned community, revising, renewing, and revitalizing itself when the copper mine that gave it a reason to exist was closed. In the middle of the raw and beautiful desert the sparkling white Spanish-colonial town square and a series of beautiful murals all around town draw the eye like a very pleasant mirage.

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Perhaps most interesting of all is the town’s former Curley School, a large and beautiful structure that now houses artists residences in one wing, and in another, an incredible hotel. How such a place came to be is a story in itself.

The Sonoran Desert Conference Center is a beautifully designed, industrial-chic hotel with high ceilings, luxurious bedding, and expansive rooms that were once school classrooms. It is one part of the former Curley School; the complex also includes a community garden, a courtyard with a fire pit, an auditorium, and renovated, low-income artist’s lofts. The entire campus is gorgeous.

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According to Emily Siegel, who manages the property along with husband Stuart, there are 21 completed rooms at the hotel, with construction being completed on two additional small dorm-style rooms designed for large groups and families. The school campus was originally built over a period of time from 1919 to 1948, with the hotel wing being the most modern construction.

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While The Sonoran Desert Conference Center is a truly wonderful vacation destination, it does in fact contain the space for conferences. The original high school auditorium has been redone and features retractable walls that offer an incredible view of the property and desert beyond. Group activities such as yoga retreats and large reunions are naturals for the property, but so are visits from couples looking for a romantic getaway, family vacationers, and adventure travelers.

To see this spot is to fall in love with it – the ornate architecture, the wild javalinas occasionally scurrying through yards, the spectacular sunsets. And that’s precisely what Emily and Stuart did when they were passing through Ajo a few years ago.

“Stuart and I made the unconventional decision to leave jobs and home and take a great American road trip. We planned it to be ten months long, but five and a half months in, driving from Joshua Tree, California to New Mexico, we got in a touch with a friend who lived here in town. We came by for just one night and were fascinated,” Emily relates.

That fascination led to a meeting with Tracy Taft, who owns the non-profit that owns the former school, and led to the Siegels’ signing on as volunteers onsite six weeks later. They helped furnish the units – which are hip, comfortable, and employ recycled materials; they hired housekeeping staff; and they set up the website for the property. The next thing they knew, they were asked to stay on and run the place.

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“We love this place, and the important mission this non-profit represents in improving and restoring the town,” Siegel says.

Taft herself ended up in Ajo somewhat by accident. “Driving past the Crater mountain range fifteen miles north of here, I found the scenery compelling,” she attests. “I bought a house the same day I drove through in 1992.”

Taft didn’t move to Ajo full time until 2000, when she discovered the former school occupied by several small non-profit organizations. A new, modern school has been built on the other side of town. “I came here to retire, and within a year I joined a non-profit, and hatched this idea of renovating the Curley school. The first project was creating thirty units of live and work space for artists. We worked with the department of housing and the state as a way to save the building and bring skills and a new economic niche into Ajo.”

Below, a glimpse at one of the few vacant units in the artist’s residences, where large loft live/work space rents for $300 to $625 a month.

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There were already artists living in town, and it was clear that there was plenty of interest from artists outside the community to come and live in the large, low cost studio and living space. The building was purchased in 2006, and the artists’ residences opened in 2007.

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“Our mission is about community development. We want to draw more people here who create art, who invent things. And we want to encourage them to open other businesses,” Taft says.

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The non-profit now also owns the historic town plaza, which is part of what was once a carefully designed, planned community that supported the mining industry. Both mine and property were owned by the Greenway family, the same family whose descendants still run the elegant Arizona Inn in Tucson. John Campbell Greenway was a beloved figure in town, and when he passed away in an untimely death, he left $100,000 to the miners of New Cornelia Copper Company.

But all this backstory is merely an entry point to add to the appreciation of a truly cool community and an attractive, peaceful hotel that is more than worth a visit – and a repeat visit or two.

Like Taft and the Siegels before us, we were smitten by the place. The craggy hills, the cactuses, the quirky and wonderful murals throughout town, the historic and beautifully preserved town square, and the spotless, sleek hotel rooms won us over fast.

At first glance, there isn’t a lot to do. But look again. Take a stroll through the pretty plaza, which contains an art gallery and coffee house, and should soon be adding a craft brew pub to its quiver. Drive, bike, or hike the scenic loop road that starts just a few blocks from the hotel, catch a sunset.

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There’s a mining museum that pays tribute to and allows a good look at the Ajo mine which was purchased from the Greenway family and by the Phelps Dodge company who shut it down in 1984. The mine is still a sight to see: it measures a mile and a half across and 1200 feet deep to the bottom pit. The mining crater is circled in levels, each forty feet. Formerly one of the largest copper mines in the world, the New Cornelia pit also offers a glimpse of a startlingly turquoise hued lake at the bottom of the pit.

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Beyond Ajo, a less-than-thirty minute drive takes visitors to the stunning Organ Pipe National Monument.

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The relatively quiet preserve allows plenty of space to take some stellar hikes and quite wonderful driving loops. We were surprised and enchanted to see a red rock arch delicately etching the bright blue sky;  the main roads, easily driveable dirt, lead drivers and hikers past a variety of scenic stops from unique cacti to rock formations.

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The park was surprisingly lush for the desert. Plenty of green plants, birds, and other wildlife are visible. Interestingly, the Organ Pipe Cactus itself, while common in Mexico is rare in the states, and can’t tolerate cold weather. They also need plenty of sun, and are found throughout the monument in the thickest clusters on south-facing slopes.

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Visitors with passports can drive on past the park, cross the Mexican border,and be on the gulf coast at Rocky Point within another 90 minutes.

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But staying close to Ajo itself also offers pleasurable exploring. With thirty-five plus murals and a number of sculptures scattered throughout the town, some commemorating movies shot in the area, the art scene that the Curley School artist lofts support is definitely a real presence.

The Spanish colonial revival architecture that makes up the plaza and a number of other historic buildings is also an attraction. Located in the plaza is the Under the Arches Gallery, curated by artist Jacqueline Andes.

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“We’re a non-profit community gallery featuring work by emerging contemporary artists, art from recycled materials, and photography,” Andes relates. “We’re self-sustaining, we draw visitors from Phoenix and snowbirds heading into Mexico.”

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The gallery opened in November 2015, and offers evening opening receptions monthly, for artists like Danny Carriere who works as did Andrew Wyeth in egg tempera paint, and photographer John Linton whose subject in a recent show were the homeless residents of Phoenix.  

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The gallery, like the Curley School project and the plaza itself are all a part of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance.

Every February, fiddlers from all over the country come to perform in the plaza; the Ajo Peacemakers Annual Quilt show is also held in February, as it has been for twenty years.

The unpolluted skies are relatively dark at night, which means excellent stargazing. Another short drive takes visitors to the Kitt Peak National Observatory which features programs open to the public and viewing through massive, research-grade telescopes.

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But all of these places to visit and explore are just a sum of the whole: Ajo, whose name may truly mean a place not just where Native Americans came to get the colors with which to paint, but a place which paints itself on the heart, and imprints itself on the mind.

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Whether you’re an artist looking to establish residency, an adventure minded tourist longing for an uncrowded desert hike, or just folks who want to get away to a place both quiet and renewing, Ajo is well worth the drive down a relatively untraveled road. Stopping here isn’t only good for the soul of the visitor, its good for the soul of the town – tourist dollars are helping to renew the community. Perhaps its that spirit of mutual giving that adds to the feeling of being rewarded for discovering this place.

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Check out what one non-profit, a group of supportive, driven people, and a focus on the arts can accomplish. Go visit! From Los Angeles, the drive is less than six hours; from Phoenix it’s under two.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke