Not entirely. Because somehow, even though the Tempe City Council had nixed Tonnesen's crawling and finger-pointing statuary, the sculptures wound up at the flour mill the morning after the site's opening ceremony. How that happened differs depending on whom you talk to.

"The only thing I know for sure," says Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer, "is that a couple pieces of sculpture showed up the day after the Friday night dedication of the flour mill. City Council noticed, and they weren't happy. I contacted the Rio Salado Foundation board and said, 'I believe those are not authorized on the approved site plan. Please take them down.' On Monday, they were gone."

Hallman admits that he and Tonnesen put the statues up themselves, after the opening ceremonies ended. His rationalization for installing art that wasn't approved by the Council comes straight from the Bill Tonnesen playbook.

Tonnesen and Hallman, installing statuary at the Tempe Flour Mill late on the night of its grand opening — after the grand opening celebration.
Courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
Tonnesen and Hallman, installing statuary at the Tempe Flour Mill late on the night of its grand opening — after the grand opening celebration.
Bill Tonnesen in his studio.
Jamie Peachey
Bill Tonnesen in his studio.

"The City approved only putting up student art on the flour mill site," Hallman says. "And so we got Tempe high school kids involved with creating the sculptures. They had already created a series of canvases depicting local and national musicians, and they worked with Bill on the sculptures. And so this sculptural art totally fit the protocol. It was student art. But I got a call on Sunday saying that if I didn't take Bill's sculptures down, the City would."

"We approved student art to go up, that's all," agrees Vice Mayor Onnie Shekerjian, who currently chairs the City Council's Technology, Economic and Community Development Committee. "There were pieces of professional art placed on the site that were removed because they were never approved by City Council. We have a municipal arts council, and all public art is supposed to go through them."

Not long after, Hallman was taken to task in a City Council meeting for having violated policy by installing Tonnesen's statues. "They didn't pick which canvases went up," Hallman points out, "But they did with the Tonnesen stuff. It was personal. Someone didn't like Bill. He has said a lot of things over the years that displease people. The guy's an artistic genius, but he's also his own worst enemy."

Bill Tonnesen's reputation is so lousy, in fact, that most local architects — even those who admire his work — are hesitant to say so, publicly. One notable architect and developer lauds Tonnesen's work, calling it "revolutionary, especially in the East Valley," and says Tonnesen "works with an artist's understanding of form and line and space, and celebrates traditional contemporary design without being derivative."

But this same celebrated architect says he'd receive grief from colleagues for openly praising Tonnesen. "Many of us admire Bill's work," he continues, "but it's clouded by his disrespect for the rules we're all expected to follow. He doesn't always get a permit when a permit is required. He ignores regulations and guidelines and says 'Yes' to a building code when he means 'Fuck off, I'll do what I want.'"

Tonnesen seems oddly proud of his disregard for city-mandated building codes. "I'm going to plant a whole grove of olive trees here," he tells a visitor to one of his apartment complexes. "The city wants me to plant non-olive-bearing trees, because olives make a mess on the sidewalks. But I found some olive-bearing ones that I can get for free, so I'm just going to put those in."

He's horrified by the red tape of permitting. "You wouldn't believe the kind of permissions the city wants you to get, just to rehab a building," he moans. "Sometimes we just go in and do the work, anyway. We've shown up on a weekend and done a project without anyone's permission, especially if it's a property we own."

Staiger cuts off her boss. "You used to do that," she says firmly. "Now we always get the necessary permits before we do any work."

Tonnesen shrugs. "I'm in trouble with the city, all the time," he says, with a grin. ("I wouldn't say that's so," vice mayor Meyer counters. "I think Mr. Tonnesen might be exaggerating.")

Tonnesen's contrariness has become his calling card. He made a media field day out of complaints over the statue of a large naked woman, based on a 23,000-year-old Paleolithic sculpture, perched in front of his Rothko Apartments on Rural Road, just south of Broadway in Tempe. When neighbors and congregates from the preschool and church across the street grumbled about the city-approved statue, Tonnesen shifted into performance mode, hot-gluing dollar bills to the statue's nether regions while television news cameras rolled. Later, the statue was vandalized with spray paint.

"It was a lot of trouble, trying to do what I wanted to do," Tonnesen says of the Rothko statue. "But it shouldn't have been. I'm getting ready to do another naked lady sculpture over at the other complex over on College. The question is, why do I have to get anyone's permission?"

Staiger leaps in. "We've just listed Rothko for sale," she says, perhaps hoping to deflect her employer's latest bad-boy monologue by changing the subject. "We're looking at a 56-unit complex in Phoenix, and we have plans to branch out into office and retail design."

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bill is just a pompous asshole. 


Well now that jsut makes a ll kinds of sense dude.


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 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 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!


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