Ghosts of Mars

The movement that Phoenix's Chicano artists began 25 years ago is far from dead. But the gallery that was their headquarters soon will be.

But the mission itself seems far from over.

MARS was started in 1978 by Phoenix artist Jim Covarrubias and a handful of other Chicano and Native American artists who wanted to create an alternative gallery where they could show work without being censored by the constraints of what is marketable to a commercial gallery.

Desert Landscape Maintenance by Frank Ybarra.
Desert Landscape Maintenance by Frank Ybarra.
For MARS curator and 23-year member Ralph Cordova, the idea behind the cooperative has just run its course. "I'm tired," he says.
For MARS curator and 23-year member Ralph Cordova, the idea behind the cooperative has just run its course. "I'm tired," he says.

Its stated mission: "To promote and develop interest and support for the visual arts, and to establish an alternative space art gallery in the Chicano community."

MARS began by holding art shows in parks. By the time Annie Lopez joined, MARS had moved from its first location, at Fifth Avenue and Monroe, to a windowless building at First Avenue and Buckeye. Lopez remembers neighborhood children throwing chunks of concrete at the artists and batteries being stolen out of cars. It was not in a neighborhood most art lovers would frequent, but the shows and the strength of the work were enough that patrons braved the barrio to see what MARS was up to.

And they weren't often disappointed. MARS had a reputation for consistent quality and innovation. Shows back then depicted works like José Giron's watercolor portraits of mariachis, Aztec musicians, and wide-eyed children; Zarco Guerrero's expressive masks of politicians, gods and devils in all states of emotions; Cactus Jack's Piss Helms, which featured a portrait of the senator who so famously battled the National Endowment for the Arts floating in a jar of urine; indie versions of Phoenix Art Museum shows, like "La Bandera Vieja", annual events like the Blue Light Sales and the "Phoeniquera" shows, themed around what it meant to be Chicano in Phoenix.

Ray remembers the parties most. "The food was always good; we'd sell beer or wine for donations," he recalls. "There was usually live music, or somebody brought a boom box. People would show up to see different things. We'd bring in nationally esteemed artists — there was nothing like it. There hasn't been anything like it in a long time."

Lopez remembers one particular party quite well. The Phoenix Art Museum had just offered a rock 'n' roll show, and typically MARS held its own version as well. It was a costume party. Lopez wore '60s clothes. Her husband Jeff Falk dressed as dead Elvis in a white jumpsuit and pompadour.

"We had a bunch of bands playing there, and somebody from one of the bands was driving a truck in the alley and backed into a gas line and broke it." Lopez went inside and called 911. "I went back out in the alley and there was my husband dressed as dead Elvis with his hand on the pipe trying to keep the gas from escaping. Meanwhile, there are people walking down the alley smoking; it was crazy. That's the last time I remember having fun there."

By all accounts, MARS was for many years a dynamic, energetic, edgy experience. The strong personalities of the artists involved, and their very different perspectives on just about everything, were harnessed because they all believed so strongly in the mission of MARS, former members recall. People would come in and out, locations would change, but for many years the common thread of belonging to a movimiento helped the artists remain a cohesive unit well through the '80s.

In its heyday during those years, the lonely gallery — by then on First Street, tucked in the parking annex of the Luhrs Building — was the heart of the art scene in Phoenix. MARS shows traveled to galleries and museums around the country, and MARS attracted the top Chicano artists, such as New Mexico sculptor Luis Jimenez, Los Angeles-based painter and photographer Patssi Valdez, and San Francisco performance artist Guillermo Gomez Peña.

But while MARS attracted many artists over the years, tapping into its energy at various times during the gallery's turbulent history, its more important role was as a home for local talent. One of the Valley's most respected artists is MARS alum Joe Ray.

Ray talks about his days with MARS from his second-floor design studio on 44th Street. It is an open, airy space, and Ray's artwork is everywhere. In the conference room, a large whimsical rooster from his "Gallo" series dominates one wall; a rough and colorful "Luchador" grimaces fiercely from the other. Ray smiles as he confesses an obsession with Mexican wrestlers when he was a child, how he would put on his Santo mask, tie a towel around his neck, and ride his bike as fast as he could just to watch the way his cape fluttered in the wind. The exuberance Ray possessed as a boy comes through in his artwork and in his conversation. Ray cracks an easy smile when talking about the old days, but there's a bit of mischief lurking, the smile of a dentist saying "this won't hurt a bit."

"There were about 10 of us at the beginning; people would come and go, a constant flow." There were core members, he recalls, digging back through his memory and fishing out names that have him pausing after each, as he calls up their faces. "José Giron, Francisco Zúñiga, Joe Sanchez, Jim Covarrubias, Robert Buitron, Ralph Cordova. . . . It was exciting and it was new."

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