Illusions of Grandeur

He's done with art. Now Bill Tonnesen wants to build a Holocaust memorial in Phoenix

Three years ago, Bill Tonnesen self-published a book announcing his plans to become one of the top modern artists in the world. The undisputed giants of the field were Richard Serra and James Turrell, he wrote. "Then I thought, there would be me."

At the time, Tonnesen wasn't just little-known. He was unknown. A landscape architect based in Tempe, he wouldn't have made the cut even if you were listing the three most famous landscape architects in the Valley. More to the point, he wasn't an artist.

He was, he admitted, just a guy who'd fallen into a cliché. He looked at abstract squiggles selling for millions of bucks and thought, "I can do that." But rather than stop there, Tonnesen resolved to do it -- and write about his efforts. "From a dead start," he wrote in Tonnesen: Twelve Months to Fame and Fortune in the Art World, "I gave myself one year to become a somewhat famous artist," and eventually, he added, "the third most famous artist."

Bill Tonnesen
Peter Scanlon
Bill Tonnesen
Artist Mary Shindell calls Tonnesen's work "shamelessly derivative."
Peter Scanlon
Artist Mary Shindell calls Tonnesen's work "shamelessly derivative."

Three years later, there's no doubt that Tonnesen failed to accomplish that. When they list modern artists of renown, they still list Serra and Turrell. They do not list Tonnesen.

But Bill Tonnesen did manage to create some pieces that, if not entirely original, were eminently hangable. He made some money -- which, according to his book, was a major motivation for wanting to make it big. He got more ink in the local press than most Valley artists who've been laboring for decades, suggesting that his hubris may have been more a clever marketing gimmick than a disconnect from reality.

And, in the midst of making art and selling it, he discovered what he now considers his true life's purpose.

It isn't art. It isn't landscape architecture.

It's a Phoenix memorial for the Jewish Holocaust. And not just any memorial. Tonnesen's plan, he says, is "something that has never been done before in the world, because it's so difficult." Suggest that this city may not be ready for something that's never been attempted elsewhere in the country, and Tonnesen only reacts with annoyance that his ambition has been understated: "Not the country! The world!"

He's not Jewish, he's not an architect, and he's never designed a memorial. Bill Tonnesen has about as much business attempting such a wildly ambitious project as he did aspiring to become the next James Turrell.

The difference is this: The only things vested in Tonnesen's previous quest were his ego and his bank account. Now that Holocaust survivors are counting on him, the stakes are much higher.

Now in their final years, many survivors very much want to see the memorial built before they die. But they've chosen a designer who wants the biggest and the best -- and hasn't always been able to pull it off.

Critics say that Tonnesen's greatest ability is self-promotion. They don't think his achievement can possibly match his chutzpah, and as evidence they point to a history of contentious projects.

"If this is his mission, his destiny, and he puts his ego aside to do a public service, then that's one thing," explains Brad Konick, a Phoenix sculptor. "But if this is all about his ego -- it's just asking for trouble."

Says artist Mary Shindell, "Bill Tonnesen is all about Bill Tonnesen. And whatever he's going to do, he's doing for himself."

There's no mistaking Bill Tonnesen. He is 6'6", after all, and he always wears the same thing: 38-inch-inseam blue jeans and a white button-down shirt with TONNESEN stitched in red block letters above the pocket. It's less a uniform than a signature, as if he were the late Carrie Donovan, preening for Old Navy in her pearls and oversize black glasses. He carries a tape measure at his hip so frequently that workers at one Scottsdale art gallery have taken to calling the tool by his name, as in, "Hey, pal, could you pass me the Tonnesen?"

Tonnesen doesn't say things so much as pronounce them:

This is wonderful.

She's brilliant.

You must see this.

He maintains a list of contacts who receive periodic e-mails with suggestions on what to watch, what to do. He used to plug the First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix or his own shows in Scottsdale. Lately, the recommendations are all Holocaust-related.

"Channel 8, PBS, Auschwitz documentary tonight at 9:00 p.m. Saw the first part last Wednesday. Riveting, disturbing, well done," Tonnesen wrote in a typical message, in January. No further explanation needed; he assumes that the people on his list care. (Not all of them do. At least a few have no idea how they got on the list in the first place.)

He's always been a bit of an eccentric. "Even at six years old my social skills were screwed up," he writes in Tonnesen.

Now 51, Tonnesen was born in Hawaii. His father was a native, but Bill took his last name from the stepfather who raised him and who moved the family to Arizona when he was in grade school.

Tonnesen later landed at Arizona State University, where he studied philosophy but dropped out without a degree. After starting as a tree trimmer, he eventually obtained a landscape architect's license. His firm, Tonnesen Inc., does both design and construction.

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Lawrence Lawless Yanez
Lawrence Lawless Yanez

This is the email I recieved from the owner Mr. Bill Tonnesen.

"u are a dishonest person. You are not a part of what we are trying to create and you are not welcome as a tenant or a visitor. When you see me on the property please do not speak to me. Do not speak to my employees. Also do not come to our house or office or other rental properties. Most importantly do not approach or speak to my wife, Sam S., Sam R., Arianne or our partner Thomas."

Now, if I were dishonest I wouldn't be so adamant about sticking to my lease now would I? Honesty? 2 bedroom advertized at $550-not true, 45 inch flat panel tv with every refurbished apt?-not true, haven't locked my door when I leave anywhere because the key to the door doesn't work, recieved mail key a month and a half later, major construction AT the doors and windows at all hours of the day, sand blasting sand inside the apt, kitchen and restroom flooded, front door doesn't stay closed, wall mounted heater doesn't work, electric outlet in bathroom not to code. A far as his "crime free" environment, this is questionable. In fact I was here for a tennent who was involved with drunk and disorderly domestic dispute and let her use my phone to call 911. He has lied to all of us, he has treated us with disrespect and trys to force us to HIS view of how "life" should be, cheated us out of the necessary needs. he is diversionary and non-attentive to his tennents as proven when I went TO him to talk face to face as a responsible adult. The lease is written as is and is LEGALLY BINDING. Now that this issue has risen he wants to fight back. Dispite everyone in the arts community has said negatively about him I have admired his work. I can't say that I am charmed any longer by this individual. And he says I'M dishonest?


Just out of curiosity, which property are you a tenant at? I'm currently living in a Bill Tonnesen rental property and I'm having a wonderful experience. It kind of bums me out that somebody isn't!

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