By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Tonnesen likes excess. Why have one eucalyptus tree in front of a slump block house, his designs seem to say, when you can plant a whole orchard? Why have a single statue when four are just as nice?
"When I flip a house, or redesign a multi-family property, everything is on a grand scale!" Tonnesen shouts, causing Staiger to roll her eyes in agreement. "It's hard, because I'm always struggling with a budget, and Sam hates that. She's very opinionated about everything."
"It's a constant battle," Staiger says wearily. "His wife and I are always on him to stop spending money, to stop working so much. I want him to make some money, and he's willing to work for free."
To prove this point, Tonnesen brandishes a sketch he's done of a garden sculpture that resembles a giant paper bag. "I took this to one of my collectors today and said, 'Let's make this and put it at your place!' He said no, but I'm going to make it anyway. I'm gonna give him one for free."
Staiger shakes her head, almost imperceptibly, and stares at Tonnesen until he looks her way.
"I know," he says. "You're thinking about me and the flour mill."
It's not hard to fathom why Bill Tonnesen and former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman are such good friends. Ask Tonnesen what time it is, and he begins his answer by discussing, at great length, the invention of the sundial. Ask Hallman how he ended up hiring Tonnesen to work on the notorious Tempe Flour Mill, and he launches into a 15-minute-long dissertation on the history of how local Native Americans learned to grind wheat.
The shorter version of the story is that Hallman, president of the Tempe-based preservation group the Rio Salado Foundation and recently the mayor of Tempe, was looking for someone to overhaul the lifeless, Tempe Butte-adjacent intersection of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway.
"The flour mill and its silos looked like heck," Hallman explains. "I wanted someone who could weave together ancient and modern history with a contemporary connection." He remembered Tonnesen from various architectural projects, and very soon, Hallman says, "the Foundation board had met and fallen in love with Bill Tonnesen."
Hallman got the go-ahead from Tempe City Council for a $600,000 overhaul of the intersection, to be bankrolled by the Foundation, which would connect landmarks like Monti's La Casa Vieja restaurant and the Carl Hayden House with the flour mill parcel on the south side. And that's when things started getting all Tonnesen.
"I had some grandiose ideas," Tonnesen admits of his Flour Mill plans. "I want to do the unexpected. I want people to be curious and confused by the art things we put in. So I drew up an elevated walkway with a hole in it, and we would have someone sitting by the hole, and maybe spraying water on people or videotaping them as they walked by."
Hallman was pretty sure the Tempe City Council wouldn't go for a walkway with a built-in hooligan, so Tonnesen came up with a second plan: a giant Advent calendar-like cabinet filled with his own custom statuary.
"I had it dripping with my sculptures!" he bellows gleefully. "And of course no one had any money to do this. I would have done it for free! When it's an iconic structure in my own town, I'm on board!"
But the city council was not on board, which troubled Tonnesen, who already had begun building the statuary for the cabinet. Today, they fill his impressive state-of-the-art studio.
"That one is called Thermometer Man," he says, pointing to a life-size seated figure the artist has cast in his own likeness. The statue is pointing an index finger straight out to the left in a he-went-that-a-way pose. "He was going to be sitting on a chair that would rise and fall with the heat, and he'd be pointing to the temperature printed on the wall next to him. You'd come over the bridge in Tempe, and he'd be pointing to what the temperature is."
Tonnesen was so confident he had the job, he went ahead and built Thermometer Man and several other gypsum, resin, and steel sculptures besides. Among them is a dramatic bronze figure that would, with the help of paid employees, scale a 20-foot cyclorama over the course of several days.
"I want statues that do more than just sit there!" Tonnesen says. "So, you drive by and the statue is coming up out of the earth. Then the next day, it's scaling the wall. The day after that, it's higher up the wall. Finally, the statue is on top of the wall and it looks like it's either going to take a swan dive and kill itself, or it's greeting the sunset."
Tonnesen created a detailed proposal that included budgeting for staff to move the statue every couple of days, and he and Hallman held a press conference at Tempe Center for the Arts to reveal the piece. "But their new PR person hated it," Tonnesen recalls. "And then the politics started happening, and the whole thing went to hell."
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!