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At another nearby duplex, Tonnesen ripped off cheesy red-brick veneer to reveal a more period-correct gray slump façade, then repurposed the veneer to create a new walkway. The former sidewalk slabs got turned onto their sides, and asphalt shingles were overlaid with one of the artist's signature corrugated metal roofs.
"Bill definitely has a creative nature, and backs it up with hard work," says former Phoenix-based architect John Chonka, who now lives in Norway. "His ability to merge design and art into his work is really impressive."
There is no complete agreement on this point. "His houses are ridiculous, and they don't fit in on our street," says one of Tonnesen's Tempe neighbors, who won't go on-record because she's heard other neighbors complaining about Tonnesen screaming at them. "I got yelled at by people on the block, because I had seven wind chimes on my front porch. But this guy can have a giant metal box and a hundred trees in the front yard, and everyone's thrilled!"
Not everyone. Some people don't like his work, and others just plain don't like Bill Tonnesen. It doesn't help that he's shifted professional gears so often, putting on hold a successful career in landscape architecture a decade ago to become what he called — no kidding — "the third most famous contemporary artist in America." When Tonnesen failed to quickly join the ranks of Richard Prince and Urs Fischer, he reinvented himself again, first as the force behind the world's largest Holocaust memorial before settling in as a preservation-minded developer of residential properties in downtown Tempe.
Each of Tonnesen's vocations has been marked with measurable success. Numerous architects laud his landscaping skills, and he continues to receive commissions for his artwork, which can be found in some of the more important collections in the Valley as well as in public places like Scottsdale's AZ88, which recently added a new Tonnesen sculpture. But these successes have sometimes been trumped by Tonnesen's lousy reputation. One hears more — from colleagues, vice mayors, city council members — about his colossal ego, disdain for rules, and perceived schadenfreude aimed at everyone he works with than about his various accomplishments.
"I'm hard to work with," Tonnesen admits. "When I hire someone, the chances of it working out are tiny. I only care about two people's opinions — my wife's and my assistant's. Everyone else is just workers, and I'm hoping they won't screw everything up."
"Bill does things first and asks permission later," that ever-vigilant assistant, Samantha Staiger, says. "That bothers people."
"You gotta make your own opportunity!" Tonnesen yells excitedly. He's an imposing presence: 6 1/2 feet tall, wearing his signature uniform of pressed blue jeans and a white Oxford shirt with his last name stitched above the pocket. His smooth hairstyle recalls the blunt bob worn by Gloria Vanderbilt in the '60s and '70s. "I'm not sitting around waiting for permission. I try to be proactive and to make things happen."
Before he could start making things happen with local real estate, Tonnesen had to overhaul his public image, which was at an all-time low after the Holocaust Memorial debacle, detailed in a 2005 New Times cover story ("Illusions of Grandeur," Sarah Fenske, March 22).
"People thought I was taking advantage of old people," Tonnesen recalls of his work with the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors' Association, "which is quite far from the truth. I worked for free, for years, on that project. I cared deeply about the Jewish situation."
Tonnesen approached Alison King, a web designer and co-founder of Modern Phoenix, which started as a fansite for mavens of Midcentury Modern architecture and has grown into a movement of politically savvy preservationists. "Bill kept hearing that he really needed to get in touch with the Modern Phoenix girl," King recalls, "that maybe I could help him out. He wanted some of the Modern Phoenix mojo."
King helped Tonnesen harness new technology, and taught him how — with a new website and in-house newsletter — to help people forget what they thought they knew about Bill Tonnesen.
"Some of the things I had said about becoming a famous artist were so embarrassing," Tonnesen groans, from behind his desk in the super-sleek studio on the vast back lot of his Tempe residence. He's surrounded by statuary and assemblage pieces and sculpture — the unsold detritus of the still-healthy visual art career he's put on hold.
"I'm a registered landscape architect and a licensed general contractor," he reminds visitors to this arty space. "I have been for years, and that's the story I want my work to tell."
Shining up Tonnesen's public image was no easy task, King admits. "It was among the hardest jobs I've taken on," she says. "Bill wants to be a bad boy. He can't help it. It's who he is. He would rather ask for forgiveness later than ask permission first."
Once King had helped Tonnesen pump up his profile as a designer, he hooked up with a pair of investors and began buying up residential fix-and-flip properties near Arizona State University. The team quickly sold them all — but not before they had been thoroughly Tonnesonized.
Ha! I like Venus of Burning Man . . . but really what is most fascinating is the money part - lots of very creative people are destroyed by the money issue . . .
I hired Bill Tonnesen in the 1990's based on a piece in an Arizona magazine on his landscape design talent. I was astonished at the beauty, creativity, and his unique designs...
We lived in Yuma..had a large backyard that needed lots of help....at the time there was no one in Yuma I knew to do the job.....I went to his office in Phoenix--met him--explained what I was looking for--somewhere in the conversation it came up I played tennis in college.....He said he would do the plan for me if I agreed to play tennis with him every time he came to Yuma..Plus he wanted an exorbitant fee.....I was a harried mom with 5 children.--a new baby--..the tennis game was ridiculous/weird --considering how little time I had...I wanted his professional talent but had no use for everything else that came with his talent....so I said good-bye and hired someone else.....who didn't have his talent but got the job done professionally and efficiently....I came away shaking my head, wondering what would happen to Bill T. His story is pretty much how I thought it would be...
Haven't met Tonnesen, so I'm neither a fan nor foe. But kudos to you, New Times, for the long, informative and entertaining article!