Illusions of Grandeur

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

He favors clean, modern lines and striking textures. It's easy to see why architects and developers use him: He has a good eye and a distinctive style.

He's also earned a reputation over the years as a contrarian. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects once invited Tonnesen and two other landscape architects to show slides of their work at a monthly meeting. Tonnesen put up one slide. "You said you wanted my slide show," he said. "Here's my slide."

"I don't know if he was trying to show a sense of humor or if it was just a big F-you to everyone," says one architect, who asked not to be identified. "It was performance art for stupid people."

A piece from Tonnesen's initial show at Chiaroscuro.
courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
A piece from Tonnesen's initial show at Chiaroscuro.
A work from Tonnesen's Chiaroscuro show.
courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
A work from Tonnesen's Chiaroscuro show.

"He's so direct, and he cuts to the chase so much, that people may be offended," concedes Phoenix photographer John Romero, who's worked with Tonnesen. But his admirers are firmly committed. "Once you understand him and know what to expect, he'll always be Bill," Romero says.

"He really jazzed up the ranks of landscape architecture," says Steve Martino, a well-known Valley landscape architect. "Most guys in this field are pretty dull. He's not."

Tonnesen made that clear in 2002, with the publication of his self-titled book, Tonnesen. He was clearly imagining huge success, both in the literary and artistic worlds. Instead, he got no small amount of invective.

"Is the name Tonnesen Teutonic for Narcissism?" one artist wrote at

In October 2002, when Tonnesen's work first premièred at Scottsdale's Chiaroscuro Gallery, the local arts magazine Shade put him on the cover, with an image that dripped with derision: a postage-stamp-size photo of Tonnesen's face next to a bar code. Though the accompanying story was largely positive, publisher Wayne Rainey let loose in his opening letter, calling Tonnesen's arrogance "painful to endure."

"It was one of the most popular issues we've ever done," Rainey admits. "He truly offended a lot of people."

In suggesting that success in modern art was mostly clever marketing, Tonnesen wasn't saying anything particularly new. But local artists were galled that he'd say it even while elbowing for a piece of their turf.

"The whole thing was a slap in the face to artists who are on an authentic journey," says Konick, the sculptor. "It's a mockery of other people's lives."

Mostly panels four feet long by four feet wide, Tonnesen's pieces included rows of pencils, a jumbly collage of ballpoint pens, and a circle of paintbrushes. Critics sniped that the assemblages were more a triumph of technical skill than an original artistic sensibility.

"It's derivative," says Shindell, a member of the 515 artist collective in Phoenix, known for her intricate drawings. "People will tell you all artwork is derivative -- but his art is shamelessly derivative." Several local artists point out his work's resemblance to that of Arman, a New Yorker whom Tonnesen talks about meeting in his book.

The show was successful, says Chiaroscuro director William Lykins. But after the initial publicity blitz, Tonnesen began casting about for a new direction. He told Martino that sculpture was too hard to ship. He thought he might try painting.

Instead, he found photography -- sort of. Tonnesen's third show, a series of photographs taken at Nevada's Burning Man festival, got a great reaction. But critics couldn't help but note that John Romero actually took the photos. Tonnesen describes his role as "art director," a title more commonly seen in advertising.

For all of Tonnesen's initial fervor, art just didn't matter anymore. By the time the Burning Man photos premièred in May 2004, Tonnesen was knee-deep in a new obsession: the Jewish Holocaust. And in local Holocaust survivors, he'd found a receptive audience.

As former president of the Greater Phoenix Holocaust Survivors' Association, Helen Handler is used to talking about Auschwitz. But she still flinches when she recalls the details.

Now 77, Handler was 15 years old when she arrived at the death camp. The Nazi guards immediately selected her mother for the gas chambers, along with her brother. By the time the war ended a year later, Auschwitz had also claimed another brother and three aunts.

Handler has no idea why the guards selected her to live. She still feels deep guilt.

But she survived. Survived a year in the camps, two death marches, and a refugee journey that took her from Poland back to her native Hungary, then to three more European countries before arriving in Canada. In 1954, she finally arrived in the United States.

Her journey was too typical. Many Jews survived the concentration camps only to find that they'd lost their entire family and their homes, and no one in war-ravaged Europe particularly cared.

And just as the United States turned a blind eye to their persecution before the war, it hardly extended an open invitation after it. But an estimated 150,000 Jewish survivors still managed to get here. Like Handler, they got married, had children, and held jobs. "We closed our pain deep inside of us, and we rebuilt our lives," Handler says.

Every day, Auschwitz is with her. Someone once asked Handler if she ever returned to the camp. "Yes," she replied, "hundreds of times, in my dreams and my nightmares."

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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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