Retha Walden Gambaro's Sculpture Work Is Worth Facing the Elements on the Heard Museum's Patio

On a recent 100-degree afternoon — sun blazing overhead — a Heard Museum guide hurried a tour group onto a newly renovated patio. The space that once housed a garden of native plants as part of the museum's permanent "HOME: Native People in the Southwest" exhibit is now the Nichols Sculpture Garden. These pink-skinned, Bermuda-shorted tourists (far from being native people of the Southwest) took in two or three of the patio's offerings at their guide's suggestion before retreating into the museum's dark, cool innards.

The garden portion of their tour lasted all of two minutes, and I was, frankly, glad when they and their chatter left me alone with the sculptures. The museum opens at 9:30 six mornings a week (11 a.m. on Sundays), so maybe the garden's best visited then, saving the cool galleries for later in the day. But one could totally tough it out with sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Sculpture and the elements are meant to coexist, right?

That brisk guide had made a point to walk the group over to a particular piece, Retha Walden Gambaro's Acceptance. All the works in this new exhibit, "Attitudes of Prayer: A Universal Expression of Human Emotion," are bronzes by Gambaro, a Creek Indian with childhood ties to the Southwest who began her career as a sculptor at age 52.

Harvest by Retha Walden Gambaro is on display in the Heard Museum's Nichols Sculpture Garden.
Courtesy of the Heard Museum
Harvest by Retha Walden Gambaro is on display in the Heard Museum's Nichols Sculpture Garden.
Harvest by Retha Walden Gambaro is on display in the Heard Museum's Nichols Sculpture Garden.
Courtesy of Heard Museum
Harvest by Retha Walden Gambaro is on display in the Heard Museum's Nichols Sculpture Garden.

Location Info


Heard Museum

2301 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Museums

Region: Central Phoenix


"Attitudes of Prayer: A Universal Expression of Human Emotion"Sculptures by Retha Walden Gambaro are on display in the Nichols Sculpture Garden
at the Heard Museum,
2301 N. Central Ave.,
through May 13, 2012.

Gambaro considers the "daily observation of spirituality in art forms" during her childhood here and in Oklahoma to be her greatest education, one that took place when Arizona's statehood was, itself, in its infancy. Gambaro was born in 1917 (doctor arriving by horseback) in a one-room cabin in Oklahoma, where Creek Indians had been "resettled" from the southeastern United States in the late 19th century.

What the guide was pointing out to her followers that afternoon, from her own perspective as a member of the 60-plus tribe, is that Gambaro sculpted this bronze at age 80. The implication is that we should be as impressed as we are when an old person like Jack LaLanne (RIP) crunches his abs or Phyllis Diller belts it on Broadway into his or her 90s. Gambaro sculpted all the lost-wax bronzes in this exhibit in her 70s and 80s. We might be careful, however, neither to trivialize nor revere work based solely on the artist's age.

What's perhaps more impressive — beyond mere intention turned execution — is that in a world of leaked radiation, economic ruin, and fatal E. coli, an artist of any age succeeds in creating a sincere celebration of life.

Don't be so quick to cue the Carlos Nakai. Gambaro's work isn't a cutesy look what Grandma can do, but it isn't dream-catcher new age-ism, either.

Sure, the Heard Museum cultivates a careful aesthetic. And Gambaro's work certainly fits the Spanish Colonial architecture and the carefully placed succulents and palo verde trees that we associate with the museum's genteel mojo. Her work is tasteful, introspective, contemplative. It almost seems private and whispered, like prayer itself.

If you ever ground corn kernels on a metate while on a fourth-grade field trip to the museum, Gambaro's Harvest (1997) will feel especially familiar to you in this setting. The round figure of a woman sits, uh, cross-legged holding a basket of offerings — foods that, as the plaque notes, "existed solely on this continent until approximately 1492," among them tomatillo, potato, corn, prickly pear, and jalapeño. Gambaro's applied a different patina to the basket and the foodstuffs, which enhances their many textures and contrasts with the smooth, strong bronze of the figure.

If any of the sculptures are sensual in an expected, even staid, way, Harvest is. But the others are more bold and sensual in both physical and spiritual ways. Gambaro's paid close attention the female form, always draped in long, flowing garments that suggest movement, even momentum.

At the south end of the garden is a semicircular brick structure meant to showcase a single sculpture; in this exhibit, it's Gambaro's Gratitude (1996). Countenance upturned, head shrouded, she faces a magnificent palo verde at the end of its blooming cycle. The figure holds her hands in perfect Bikram pranyama posture, her elbows sharp angles against the structure that encircles her with strong, broad shoulders, breasts, definition of a feminine waist, and square-ish buttocks as subtext for the human-ness of the emotion Gambaro feels and reminds us to.

Under that tree, toward which Gratitude gazes, sits Acceptance, Gambaro's self-portrait. A female figure is seated, knees together and hunched over in study of what it cups in both hands, a fallen leaf. Her skirts are gathered at her feet and a long ponytail falls loosely over her right shoulder. Where the shoulders of the figure in Gratitude are Olympic-swimmer strong, this figure's shoulders are more vulnerable, frail.

The mound-like Family (1997) is one of only two works that feature more than one figure, and the only work with a clearly narrow-hipped male figure. Four huddle in a symmetrical embrace, mother and father enclosing two small children, all heads bowed toward each other. The prayer here may not be offered to some higher power or mother Earth, but to each other's existence, to bonds that Gambaro terms "wondrous."

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ok, looking back maybe I was projecting.Still, I want to visit and linger to take in what is there.


"Late" on a Friday night I finally have been able to take a gander at the new times. I came across your review and as I usually read everything from cover to cover I read your article.

Since I've had a few beers my emotions are closer to the surface than normal. As I read your review I experienced fairly strong emotions. Most of them were centered on how it sounded like you were horny when you visited and wrote about it since there were so many what I see as subtle acknowledgements of the beauty of the female form. I thought the horniness was strange and unusual and thought you were wacko not that there is anything wrong with being horny. It's just a bit unusual to run across it in a review of art. I continued reading even as I thought of skipping to the end of your piece, I guess the eroticism was dying down. Continuing, I proceeded to plow through my emotions and your writing and at the end decided that your piece was a work of art in itself. As I read I was captured, taken on an emotional journey, learned a bit and most importantly I was left with a must do of checking out the subject.

I still think you're looking at the art through horny eyes but I haven't been there or done that.

Your writing is incredible. Thanks for sharing.



One of your photos is misidentified as "Harvest". It is actually "Acceptance." But, I do like your article about this exhibit and feel the same way as you - that it deserves more than a quick look. After viewing the pieces, I felt the garden was a great place to meditate, both on the pieces and on my life.