Last January, when Joel Coplin read the letter stating that the ramshackle art colony he manages near Apache Junction had been valued at $10,492,058 by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, he felt sure someone had confused his address with the Wal-Mart farther down Apache Trail. Apache Art Studios is, after all, composed of eight tiny apartments and a couple of run-down buildings on an undeveloped, 4.6-acre lot within spitting distance of the middle of nowhere. It's hardly worth the $67,000 in property taxes the $10.5 million valuation would call for.

Last year the property was assessed at $337,591. The $10 million had to be a mistake; even the remaining $492,058 seemed high, and would raise the property tax by about $2,400, a 47 percent increase over the 1992 figure.

The letter thrust Coplin, who refers to his painting style as "contemporary realism," into the realm of bureaucratic surrealism, and left him trudging from office to office and appeal to appeal, trying to set the record straight.

Coplin looks like an artist. He wears his hair long. His sense of humor leaks out of his face in a perpetually bemused grin. At 38, he is at a turning point in his art career. His first one-man showing of paintings is hanging at Scottsdale Center for the Arts through late July, he's represented by a gallery, he's been commissioned to paint a mural at the new Phoenix City Hall.

In true artistic fashion, he and his wife, Jo-Ann Lowney, also a painter, live a shoestring existence, solely off their artwork, "in the manner to which we have become accustomed," Coplin says. "In a shack." Four shacks, actually--together, they rent four of the Apache Art Studios. "The only way we can afford to paint is to have the rents the way they are," he says. The new tax bill would certainly push the rent out of their reach.

The art colony is an eccentric dream started by Katherine "Kit" Hawkins Leegate, who still operates an artists' supply store on the property. Leegate is 77, and since 1986, she has had the colony in a living trust administered by Coplin.

It took Coplin seven years to oust the last of the "Freewheelin' Franks and Biker Bobs" who used to rent apartments from Leegate. "I wanted artists, but I didn't always get them," Leegate says. Now there are nine resident artists, including Coplin and Lowney. Among the others, James Gucwa is a photo-realist painter of good repute who has bounced from New Jersey to Malibu to Apache Junction looking for solitude and the affordable artist's life. Linda and Marco Leon restore Victorian homes, especially those requiring hand-painted murals and gingerbread ornamentation. Mathilda Essig does trompe l'oeil paintings and murals and also restores historic buildings.

Many of Coplin's paintings are updated parodies of ancient mythology; "Narcissus and Echo," for example, is a painting in which he depicts the original narcissist as a pretty-boy yuppie in a white shirt and tie, and Echo holding a cellular phone. In another work, Apollo brings 8-by-10-inch color glossies to Vulcan's forge to show that Vulcan's wife, Venus, is having an affair with Mars.

All of the artists have come to Apache Art Studios for the community and the economy, and for the relaxed sunshine of Arizona.

"The light here is different," Marco Leon says in a thick, Colombian accent. "The blue is different, the yellow is zzzzzzz! It's a different existence, a magical situation."
Indeed, it is a magical place that resembles a forgotten, stylized, Latin American village. The grounds are overgrown with seven-foot lantana bushes in shades of orange and purple and yellow. Cats and chickens prowl beneath their branches. Out front, there's an abandoned adobe building, the original homestead on the property in the 1930s. The studios are simple, white-block, 1950s cottages in a style that Coplin describes as "saguaro-cuckoo clock."

As to their appointments, "disrepair barely says it," Coplin jokes. But he and his wife had moved out from New York, where they were squatters in a tenement in Hell's Kitchen. "We were so used to ramshackle--and this had a bathroom!" he enthuses.

Last January, Coplin was looking through a disparate pile of letters and newspaper articles that Leegate had left him. "So there was this letter from some property-tax consultants," he recalls, "and it says, 'Do you realize they've evaluated your property at $10,492,000 and that your taxes are going to be $67,000 for 1993?' Kit's entire income is not half what the taxes were supposed to be."

He called the Assessor's Office and, sure enough, the property was valued at more than $10 million. Though the clerks in the Mesa office assured him it was a mistake, he was told he still had to go through a formal appeals process.

Coplin filed the papers, and on March 22, he received a decision from the Assessor's Office that said, "The Assessor elects to sustain the current full cash value," or $10,492,058. If they chose, they were told, they could appeal further.

Leegate thought someone was trying to wrangle her property away from her. "They can't stand that a woman is single and owns property," she fumes. "They think because I'm a woman, I won't fight." And her paranoia was rubbing off on Coplin.

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