Illusions of Grandeur

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

But she kept it to herself. "No one wanted to listen," she says simply. "No one asked."

Handler eventually moved from Detroit to Phoenix, where she raised her son and ran a drapery shop. And then, in 1982, she got a call from a woman named Risa Mallin.

Mallin, who grew up in Arizona, had taken a course about teaching the Holocaust in Israel. She'd seen the power of the survivors' stories, and wanted to get together a survivors' group to speak in schools and churches.

The monument at Beth El cost just $8,000 – Tonnesen's plans will cost an estimated 562 times that.
Peter Scanlon
The monument at Beth El cost just $8,000 – Tonnesen's plans will cost an estimated 562 times that.
Ella Adler survived four and a half years in concentration camps.
Peter Scanlon
Ella Adler survived four and a half years in concentration camps.

Handler agreed to join. She became one of the first members of the survivors' association.

Speaking of her experience is still hard, but Handler relishes every opportunity. "I don't know where my family died," she says. "There are no graves. There are no anniversary dates to think of them. But they didn't just disappear. This is a chance to say they lived."

The group today includes 130 Holocaust survivors, says its president, David Kader. (Kader, an ASU law professor who specializes in constitutional law, is the son of survivors.) It's a number that drops every year.

"The people in their 70s are the young ones," Kader says. "We've had a lot of deaths. We fully expect that we will not be an organization in 10 years. We may not be one in five."

With that in mind, Kader asked the group in 2002 to think about its plans for posterity, including, perhaps, building a memorial.

Holocaust memorials are so numerous that when James E. Young, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, decided to write a book about them, he ended up choosing "a few hundred" to focus on. "Just about every town has something," Young says, including Tucson and El Paso. Los Angeles has three.

But Phoenix has only a small monument, tucked behind Beth El, a synagogue in central Phoenix. "This community is way behind the curve," Kader says. He thought it might be time to change that. "We are what we remember," he says. When the survivors agreed that they'd like to do something, Kader started scouting locations.

It was Handler who found them their architect.

Handler's good friend, a real estate agent named Dale Dacquisto, had hired a landscape architect named Bill Tonnesen for a major project at his home in May 2001. Dacquisto had listened excitedly as Tonnesen detailed his plans to become a famous artist.

And so when it came time for Tonnesen's first show, Dacquisto was there. Along with him was Handler.

Handler was enjoying the artwork when she suddenly glimpsed a piece that stopped her dead in her tracks: what looked like an image of hands, ashy white and lifeless.

She had to sit down.

"I know these hands," she told Dacquisto. "These were the hands that came out of the crematorium."

Tonnesen and Handler talked a bit that night, and he called later that month to ask if she'd like to have dinner. He was curious why the image had struck her so. He certainly hadn't thought of the Holocaust when he created it.

"We started to talk," she says, "and then we started to talk about the memorial."

When prospective clients or art collectors want to meet Tonnesen, he often suggests they come to his studio. Hidden behind his middle-class Tempe ranch home on a quiet street just south of the university, it's not easy to find.

Despite a modern façade, his house is cluttered and ordinary; Tonnesen's son is doing his homework at the kitchen table in his rollerblades.

By contrast, the studio is stark, modern, and gorgeous, a Hollywood set designer's idea of an architect's workspace.

Everywhere, there is his artwork: mostly huge squares with minimalist design and wonderful textures. Phoenix writer Deborah Sussman Susser described the pieces for ArtNews as "interior-design concepts on steroids," and it's easy to see why. Like Tonnesen, they seem bigger than life.

At the time of his book's release and his first show at Chiaroscuro, Tonnesen couldn't have seemed a more unlikely choice to design a Holocaust memorial. He was controversial. He didn't, he admits, have any particular interest in the Holocaust. He isn't Jewish.

But in almost every chapter of his book, Tonnesen unselfconsciously describes talking his way into jobs that might seem beyond his qualifications.

He persuaded a Mesa tractor company, Empire Southwest, to let him redesign its headquarters, even though he doesn't have an architect's license. (A registered architect had to partner on the project and sign off on the drawings.) He talked a pair of wealthy art collectors, Maxine and Ron Linde, into commissioning a piece of his work even before he launched his artistic career. He wanted to burn construction trash into something artsy for the roof. He returned their check after realizing that his concept didn't work, but he also managed to sell them his first actual piece when he took up art in earnest.

He has a knack for engagement. For all his social awkwardness, Tonnesen can be charming. He hones in on people and works them over with a laserlike attention. He gives them tours of his studio and takes care to make a stop through his house on the way out: His photogenic wife and three kids (two tall, dark-haired boys, a beautiful blond daughter) are all part of the package.

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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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