Off the Reservation
Joe Baker has been a painter for decades, but the canvas he works on today is bigger than most artists could ever dream of.
As a curator at the Heard Museum, a job he's held for nearly four years, Baker is charged with choosing the subject matter, and the pieces, for the museum's contemporary art shows.
Compared to the Heard's vast collection of Indian artifacts, the source of the museum's international reputation, Baker's shows take up a relatively tiny space. Still, their home, the Heard's infelicitously named Russ Lyons Realty Crossroads Gallery, is geographically front and center: To get to most places in the museum, you have to walk through it.
So the Heard's visitors have been forced to deal with Baker's vision, and forced to look at art that's modern and striking. More than anything, they're forced to confront the fact that Native Americans today are living and breathing, people affected by today's issues.
It's no wonder that Baker's recent exhibitions have been among the most talked about in the Valley. The Heard has been pushing the envelope, and those in the know uniformly credit Baker as the source of its daring. They praise him for taking on risky ventures, for debuting unknown artists, for introducing new ideas into the sometimes stodgy world of ethnographic museums.
But the show that Baker opened April 7 at the Crossroads Gallery, "Holy Land: Diaspora and the Desert," may be his most ambitious yet.
The concepts are intellectually tough.
And the art is . . . different.
The showiest pieces include a "tree house" composed of pieces of IKEA furniture, and an installation of Coleman coolers, stacked six coolers high and four coolers across.
There's also a trailer, packed with American kitsch. From the roof comes a cyclone of plastic butterflies. Their torsos are crucifixes, each complete with its own dying Jesus.
None of this would seem particularly edgy at, say, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), or one of the gritty galleries that open up for First Friday art walks.
But this is the Heard.
As one of the top places in the nation to see Native American artifacts and art, the Heard isn't just an institution -- it's a venerable one. School kids are bused here by the load. When First Lady Laura Bush gave an address in Phoenix last year, this was her chosen backdrop.
The Heard holds a respected place in the museum world and maintains strong ties with Native Americans. But among Phoenix's sneering intelligentsia, the museum sometimes gets dismissed as culture for tourists, Indian life for people who like Dances With Wolves. Like the First Lady, it's thoroughly respectable, studiously uncontroversial -- and, naturally, wildly popular with visiting Midwesterners.
People come here to see katsina dolls and woven baskets. They do not come for trailers and avant-garde tree houses. They do not, for the most part, come to be challenged.
Joe Baker wants to challenge them.
And that's not the only thing that makes this show shocking. The biggest surprise, to people who know the Heard, may well be the roster of artists featured in "Holy Land."
Most are not Native Americans.
There's an artist who was raised in Pakistan and moved to Boston; an artist from Nigeria; artists from Israel and Iran. While there's a Cherokee photographer, he has permanent resident status in Scotland. Another artist with Native American heritage is Canadian.
Indeed, the show features only one Native American who lives in the United States, Phoenix native Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie. Now living in Berkeley, California, her piece is a video shot in Palestine.
For the most part, the work isn't about Native Americans. It's about people being separated from their traditional home. It's about identity in a world filled with migration.
Joe Baker and the local co-curator he's brought on board for "Holy Land," Lara Taubman, know that this is both a big step for the Heard, and a risky one.
One week before the show is scheduled to open, they provide a tour of the space and talk about what they hope "Holy Land" will accomplish.
"This gallery is named Crossroads, and that fits," Baker says. "This is a bold step into the future, of how we present and discuss American Indian art --"
"And the American Indian in general," adds Taubman.
It's definitely bold, but it's no slam-dunk. Even before the show opened, "Holy Land" was raising real questions, albeit questions that have less to do with art than business.
Can a show this different fly at the Heard?
Most important, can a place that's best known for Barry Goldwater's katsina dolls possibly be ready for Coleman coolers, a trailer, and some Israeli guy building an IKEA tree house?
Even the curators don't profess to know the answers to that one.
"That remains to be seen," Baker says, tartly.
Maybe, Taubman jokes, the show is just too hot. Maybe someone will shut it down.
"If nothing's here next week," she says, shrugging, "well, there's your answer."
The Heard Museum opened in 1929, and at the time, its collections consisted mostly of the souvenirs of a pair of ex-Chicagoans, Dwight and Maie Heard.
According to History and Collections, the museum's self-published guidebook, the Heards were Phoenix establishment at a time when the city was hardly big enough to have one. After moving west in 1895, Dwight Heard became president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, a major force behind the Salt River Water Users' Association, and, by 1912, owner of the Arizona Republican.
(That paper, the precursor to today's Republic, became the state's largest-circulation newspaper within three years of Dwight Heard's purchase.)
By all accounts, Maie Heard had wonderful taste and a genuine interest in other cultures. In the couple's travels around the world, she bought what she liked, and bought a lot of it.
A big part of what she liked was American Indian artifacts, but she also purchased pieces from Egypt, Hawaii, and the Oceanic islands.
Indeed, it wasn't until much later that the Heard narrowed its focus, says Martin Sullivan, director of the Heard from 1990 to 1999. (Sullivan is now director of Historic St. Mary's City, which he describes as "the Jamestown of Maryland.")
When that happened, in the 1960s, it was part of a conscious effort to re-brand the museum. The Heard's finances were shaky, and the board of trustees went so far as to consider turning over the collection to Arizona State University to operate as an anthropology museum.
But that idea was scrapped, replaced with one that, in hindsight, seems infinitely wiser.
"The trustees decided that there was a great opportunity not only in the region, but with tourists coming to the region, to build on this area's appeal," Sullivan says.
Mindful of Middle America's love affair with Native American culture -- if not with actual Native Americans -- that meant focusing on the original inhabitants of the Southwest.
From that point on, the Heard was first and foremost an "Indian" museum.
It was around the same time, in 1960, that the Heard made another crucial decision. An outside consultant recommended that the museum not limit itself to artifacts.
Thanks to the consultant's vision, Sullivan says, the Heard became one of the first museums to collect fine art by contemporary Native American artists: sculpture, textiles, paintings, even multimedia pieces.
For the most part, those pieces fit neatly with Maie Heard's aesthetic.
The museum's permanent collection displays plenty of pots, circa 1880, right next to similar-looking pots made in, say, 1970. To the untrained eye, textiles from the 1990s don't look much different from those of 100 years earlier.
And so even as it presents living Native American culture, the Heard retains a comfortable, old-fashioned Arizona feel.
The Phoenix Art Museum, SMoCA, and the ASU Art Museum look sleek and urban; they wouldn't seem out of place next to the Tate Modern in London, or on a block in New York City's Meatpacking District. But the Heard looks exactly like what it once was: part of Maie Heard's home, a tree-lined Southwestern showcase with a gracious courtyard and the treasured memorabilia of a world traveler.
It's no wonder that, as Phoenix grew, and as its tourism industry took off, so did the Heard's popularity.
Today, the idea of just handing the place over to ASU is laughable. By 1999, the Heard's annual receipts, which include both ticket sales and gift shop purchases, reached $7.35 million.
The Heard averages about 200,000 visitors a year. And despite being almost entirely funded by private donations, the museum was able to spring for an $18 million expansion, opening up another 50,000 square feet in 1999; last June, trustees unveiled a new exhibit space valued at $14 million.
The museum opened a branch in north Scottsdale in 1996. Within the next year, another is expected to open in Surprise. There are also plans to open a new, 1,000-square-foot contemporary gallery at the mother-ship museum, with fine art by current Native American artists.
It's a real success story, which is one reason the museum's foray into cutting-edge fare is so interesting.
But that happened to almost every museum in the country in 2002 and 2003. This year's attendance and sales should be back to previous levels, says Frank Goodyear, the museum's director.
That has nothing to do with its shows of postmodern art, Goodyear adds. The museum doesn't sell tickets for the Crossroads Gallery apart from regular admission; it does not track who stops by to see what.
Indeed, it's clear from talking to Joe Baker that the curator's concerns are not commercial.
"I'm very organic in my approach," he explains. "I listen. And I try to travel as much as possible, even if I have to do it electronically. I try to keep informed, and my goal is for a quick response to current issues."
Take diaspora -- originally a term used to refer to the Jews being exiled to Babylon and eventually scattered throughout the world. Today it's come to mean the dispersal of any people group, and their culture.
Baker was intrigued by the idea, and liked how it related to Native Americans. But no one could call it a great marketing gimmick; how many people even know what the word diaspora means?
Because the Heard is a business, though, it's only natural that others try to mesh Baker's vision with every museum's ultimate goal: building a bigger audience, and attracting new donors.
Goodyear says that contemporary art shows are part of a conscious strategy to attract a younger audience.
"It's definitely mission driven," he says.
He admits, too, that shows like "Holy Land" are a great way to attract donors outside the Phelps Dodge/Salt River Project circuit -- the smaller businesses or collectors who might be persuaded to get involved.
"Holy Land," for example, is being subsidized by entities removed from Phoenix's normal philanthropic circuit.
One is a Scottsdale gallery that specializes in contemporary Indian works, King Galleries. Another is a wealthy couple, Mikki and Stanley Weithorn, known for their social consciousness and contemporary art collection.
The third is Treg Bradley, a hometown boy who owns a successful hydroponics company in Tempe -- and who's recently been on a spending spree at downtown Phoenix art galleries.
Bradley, for one, has never done anything like sponsor a museum show before. But when Baker and Taubman pitched him the idea, he decided to ante up.
"It looks like the Heard has stepped it up with artwork," he says. "Bringing in local, regional artists -- not a lot of museums are doing that. When Joe and Lara approached me to support the show, I knew it would be a worthy project to contribute to."
That's music to any museum director's ears. But the key for Heard, going forward, will have to be not just reeling in modern art fans, but doing it without alienating the tourist constituency that's made the place so successful.
Hipsters might stop by, once, to see a show of contemporary art. They're not likely to stop back every Tuesday thereafter -- or drop a few hundred bucks at the gift shop.
Sullivan, the former director, says the Heard's board is mindful of who's buttering the museum's bread. "Pragmatically, a lot of decisions are influenced by the question of, 'What does the audience want to see?,' and, 'What do they want to buy at the gift shop?'"
In his time, Sullivan is quick to add, the trustees certainly never rejected a show as being bad for the bottom line.
"But, there was an implied understanding," he says, "that we had a core mission, and, while there are ways to connect to other times and places, you didn't want to overwhelm your core."
Outsiders praise the museum's interest in the contemporary and controversial as a big step for the Heard. They use words like "brave," and "important."
It's high praise, but the museum's director seems intent on minimizing it. Instead, Goodyear insists that "Holy Land" is not anything new or unusual.
"Our core experience is the permanent collection," he stresses. "Your perception is, 'We're branching out.' But that's not a correct perception."
Sullivan, the former director, has a different view.
"This is not the sort of show we regularly went after during the time frame I'm familiar with, or the time preceding it," he says.
"I have to applaud it."
It was last spring that Joe Baker walked into the Chocolate Factory.
He was just one visitor in the hundreds that spill onto Grand Avenue for the First Friday art walk, checking out the galleries that have turned the place into a genuine scene, if not yet a place where people actually buy art.
But while many First Friday visitors discover no more than good people-watchings and paintings that, at $300, still manage to be overpriced, Joe Baker made a genuine find: Hector Ruiz.
At the time, Ruiz was teaching at Tempe's New School for the Arts -- like Fame, he says, only in Arizona -- and making art, when he had time, for the gallery he'd opened in an old radiator factory on Grand Avenue.
Other curators might have looked at Ruiz's work, dubbed it promising, and kept walking.
Not Joe Baker.
Almost immediately, Ruiz recalls, the curator pressed him about doing a solo show at the Heard.
On July 1, 2005, Ruiz's immigration-themed "La Realidad" opened to a big crowd, many of them First Friday regulars. Half the pieces had been at the Chocolate Factory when Baker came by; the other half, Ruiz says, he made at Baker's urging.
Slender, with a ponytail and boyish nonchalance, Ruiz has agreed to meet for coffee and talk about the Heard. Naturally, he chooses Lux, the Central Avenue coffee shop/mingle market.
He doesn't play the Big Artist, schmoozing the patrons or waiting for their attention. He sits in the corner, focused on the conversation. He's mostly interested in praising Joe Baker, whose vision he credits with changing his life.
Ruiz sold every piece in the show, and then kept fielding calls from collectors who wanted more. He also signed with downtown Phoenix's premier art gallery, Bentley Projects, west-side cousin to the prestigious Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale.
"Getting a museum show any time is great," Ruiz says. "Getting it when you're 33, 34 -- it's incredible."
Ruiz has since quit his day job. A few of his pieces are now booked for appearances at the National Museum for the American Indian, a New York branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Others are headed to Bucharest, where a Romanian museum will exhibit them.
Initially, he says, he was as surprised to find his work at the Heard as anyone.
For one thing, he hadn't really thought of the museum as a place for contemporary art: "I knew they dabbled a bit, but if you went to the Heard, you'd miss it unless you knew what you were looking for."
For another, he freely acknowledges that he's not Native American, not in the traditional sense. While his grandmother was, he says, a full-blown Kickapoo, she lived in Mexico.
Once the family moved north of the border, when Ruiz's father was a young man, the family wasn't considered Indian.
After all, in the United States, it doesn't matter if you are 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent Indian -- you come north from Mexico, you have dark hair and eyes, you're a Mexican.
Sullivan, the former museum director, says that, during his tenure at the Heard, some board members seemed to think that the museum's focus -- and its duty -- was solely to Native Americans north of the border.
Those board members, he's quick to add, were not Native Americans themselves, but Anglos with specific ideas about what an "Indian" was.
"I think they really struggled with the idea that, south of the border, people are still 'Indians,'" he says. "They thought, 'Mexicans are south of the border, they speak a different language, this is a different culture. What are they doing in this museum?'"
Baker didn't skirt that question. At his direction, the Ruiz show focused implicitly on border issues, immigration, and changing identity.
Indeed, the pieces Baker selected for "La Realidad" didn't ignore the potential for controversy so much as force a confrontation with it, something the curator is clearly proud of.
Somewhat boastfully, he credits the show with taking on immigration even before it was the talk of the town.
"Think about it," Baker says. "Hector's show opened last summer. And that whole discussion of 'border' and 'minority in America' realized itself a year later on the streets of Phoenix and in major metropolitan areas all over the U.S. That's really working!"
A youthful 60, with old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses and a taste for stylish sneakers, Joe Baker is himself a Native American.
A member of the Delaware tribe, Baker was born in Dewey, Oklahoma, population 5,000. After earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts at the University of Tulsa, he moved to Phoenix 25 years ago, he says, "because of opportunities in the arts."
Before Baker worked as a curator, he was a professor, and before that, he supported himself as a painter for 13 years. (He also does beadwork.)
Jennifer Complo McNutt is curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, which has shown several of Baker's pieces. She describes his style as "beautifully drawn, realistic, but not in the photorealistic sense, and very dramatic."
Baker took his first museum gig at the Heard in 1999, and spent three years managing its artist-in-residence program. After leaving to spend a year as dean at the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he returned to the Heard, this time as a curator.
"Holy Land" is his sixth show since returning. Other than Hector Ruiz, the others have all been displays of solo work by contemporary Native American artists.
Several of the exhibitions have been considered groundbreaking. The Ruiz show tackled immigration and introduced a virtually unknown artist. Local curators also praise Baker's exhibition of the work of Virgil Ortiz, a New Mexico artist who makes clay pottery, silver jewelry -- and leather clothes.
Baker's next solo show will feature RC Gorman, a recently deceased Indian artist who's been called "The Native American Picasso."
While Gorman is well-known to fans of Indian art, Baker plans to focus the show on something rarely discussed in those circles: Gorman's life as a "celebrity artist," part of Andy Warhol's Factory and Liz Taylor's social circle.
"He was very flamboyant, very successful, and just lived a big life," Baker says.
It's a typically quirky choice for a curator who's made a point of them.
Baker's friend Susan Krane, who is director at SMoCA, describes him as "a consensus builder." But in the same breath, she calls him "fearless" -- the perfect combination of traits, she says, for someone in his position.
"It's hard to have any conversation with Joe, as with any curator, without sensing his passion and excitement for what he does," Krane says. "Now, that doesn't mean we don't complain to each other about things that are hard, conditions we wish we could change.
"He assumes, over time, that things will work," she adds. "And he's strong enough, and a grounded enough professional, to sustain his efforts in the course of the flak that may come his way because he's trying to do something new. He's strong enough to weather that."
Indeed, after selecting Ruiz, Baker didn't flinch from recruiting an unknown commodity to work with him on "Holy Land."
When Baker selected Lara Taubman as his co-curator, she was a freelance art critic, with most of her work appearing in local publications like Java and Shade. Educated at Bennington (painting and architecture) and New York University (master's in American studies), Taubman worked as an instructor at Mohave Community College in Lake Havasu City before moving to Phoenix. She is not of Native American descent.
At the time Baker brought her on for "Holy Land," Taubman, 38, had just one show to her credit as a curator, "A Warlike People," which critiqued the country's response to the War on Terror.
While the show drew raves from local critics, it took place far from the museum scene, at downtown's monOrchid Gallery.
Baker and Taubman's "Holy Land" collaboration, like so many downtown art projects, began at Lux. One minute the pair was discussing the idea of diaspora over coffee; in the next, Baker had signed Taubman up as co-curator.
It's that sort of decisiveness that Baker's colleagues admire.
He is, they say, someone who trusts his judgment enough to push the envelope. He's also someone good enough politically, and sufficiently well-liked at the Heard, to get his ideas approved.
"If anybody else was curating there besides Joe, I don't think this would be happening," says Hector Ruiz. "They'd be getting answers like, 'Don't do that.' And that person would probably listen."
On April 4, three days before "Holy Land" is supposed to open, artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre arrive to install their piece, a trailer with a twist.
The front has a face like a fierce Aztec god. Creepily, the face is swirled with human hair. Its eyes are twin television screens.
It's called Maybe.
The brothers are entranced by the gigantic sculptures of heads in the Veracruz region of Mexico.
They have African features: broad noses, wide lips. It's the de la Torres' theory that, just maybe, the Indians of Mexico descended from Africans.
His wiry dark hair in a messy ponytail, Einar is busy hanging the newly completed plastic butterflies -- complete with their crucifix torsos -- from the gallery's ceiling.
Eventually, he explains, they'll form a funnel cloud, coming up from the trailer.
"Tornados and trailers go together," Jamex says, grinning.
The inside of the trailer is fully stocked with the products of an immigrant's American dream: pork chops, a paperback romance, a patch from the Wiesbaden Rod & Gun Club.
In the center of the trailer, a doll with blond hair and a "Miss America" sash reigns from the top of a stack of trophies -- a trophy wife, not unlike the trophy wife piece featured in Ruiz's show last year. Curiously, rubber tongues have been safety-pinned to her frothy gown.
The brothers like to play with the meaning of all this; as Einar explains, it's all "maybes" to them. But such ambiguity proves a little trickier to the docents who lead guided tours of the Heard.
They are mostly older. And they are used to symbolism: The Wiesbaden patch must symbolize America's obsession with guns. The pork chops, maybe, point to anti-Semitism in the heartland.
The docents meet with the artists after they finish hanging the butterflies. As the brothers tell the story later, it's a clash of two worlds: Docents used to literal meaning, artists used to "maybe."
To Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner, whose piece includes both a tree house and a video of himself building it, one docent has a question: Why does he need both the tree house and the video?
And, to the de la Torre brothers, why does the trophy wife have tongues pinned onto her dress?
"Because it looked cool," Einar answered, puckishly.
"Oh no," one of the docents insisted. "Those are the tongues of the settlers."
"That tells you a little bit about the problems of putting this here," Jamex says a few days later. "For us, this work hasn't been deciphered. If we had the answers, maybe we wouldn't make it."
By the time the show is ready to open, Joe Baker is already pretty much assured that he has a critical hit. He's gotten a call from the Jewish Museum in London, asking if they might discuss importing it. The feedback from other curators is good.
The only question, perhaps, is whether the people who come to the Heard are going to get it, if even the docents will be willing to puzzle over it long enough to decide that it's all a "maybe."
The worst-case scenario, for a show like this, wouldn't be controversy. The worst would be to get ignored.
Like Hector Ruiz's "La Realidad," the Heard has chosen to open "Holy Land" on a First Friday.
The idea: to draw from the crowds of art enthusiasts who flock downtown. Even if the museum, at Central Avenue and Monte Vista Road, is a little north of the main action, it's not a stretch to imagine the hipsters who visit Roosevelt taking the time to drive over and check out the works of some renowned artists.
But the crowd that actually shows up on April 7 is older, and smaller, than might be expected. It's an odd mix of the Heard's core crowd of older patrons, mixed with a sprinkling of downtown types.
Later, Heard marketing manager Nicole Haas will estimate the crowd at almost 200 over the course of the two-hour opening, but for most of the night, fewer than a dozen people are in the gallery. The conversation never even hits a buzz; the patrons' observations remain a polite, but somewhat uncomfortable, murmur.
Ruiz says he delights in the museum's traditional audience being suddenly confronted with modern art: "You go to SMoCA, and you're already looking for it. That's not true at the Heard. It's a surprise art show, in a sense."
But on this night, at least, the museumgoers know what they're getting into. They're here specifically for the opening; they're ready for something challenging.
So they check out the stack of Coleman coolers. They linger in front of the de la Torre brothers' trailer.
A pair of older women survey the mattress that's been put next to Guy Ben-Ner's tree house. Next to the structure is the video that the docent found confusing. It shows Ben-Ner in a fake beard and swim trunks as he assembles his creation; the mattress is there for viewers to sit comfortably as they watch.
No one sits down on it.
"I could do yoga on that," one woman says softly.
A group of four 40-somethings comes in and looks around. Within a minute or two, they confer. One of them heads down the hallway.
She returns a few seconds later.
"There ain't nothing down there," she explains, breathless. "There's a bathroom, and a water fountain. This is it." The foursome heads out.
A little before 9 p.m., the crowd has reached its zenith, but the people are not lingering in the gallery; at five minutes 'til the hour, they begin to head out to the courtyard, where the Colores Actors-Writers Workshop is set to première a play called Ghost Dance Messiah.
Originally, the play was to be set in the gallery, but the art took too much space. So they decided to do it outside -- a smart move as far as the theatrics go, but not exactly conducive to building a critical mass in the gallery.
The play, written by ASU instructor James E. Garcia, is a black comedy about a young Indian woman looking to lead a revolt against the government -- attempting, perhaps, a diaspora reversal.
Grant Almquist, who chairs the Monte Vista Club, a group of young professionals affiliated with the Heard, offers an introduction.
Almquist's remarks, more than anything on the night of the opening, reveal the tension implicit in the Heard's grab for a younger audience -- and the core audience that cherishes its regular exhibits.
"We want to get this age group involved in the Heard," Almquist tells the crowd. "To let them know about shows like 'Diaspora and the Desert.' A lot of people think of the Heard as old dusty pots and katsina dolls, but it's a lot more than that."
When he says "dusty pots," an older Native American woman in the crowd snorts. She scowls, unnoticed, for the rest of his remarks.
The play itself gets a warm reception and earns its share of laughter. No one flinches at one character's liberal use of the word "fucking"; instead, the audience seems happy to laugh and happy to show they get it.
After the show, however, most of them don't stay to linger over "Holy Land." Instead, they file out, quietly.
Still, Joe Baker is happy.
He's not focused on the tension between old and new. He's just thrilled to see people looking at the art, even if they're not actually discussing it.
For him, that's a matter of time.
"I don't think it's a show you can understand easily in one pass," he says, three days after the opening. "You have to think about it."
Before heading to the airport, on the Saturday after opening night, Einar and Jamex de la Torre return to the Crossroads Gallery. Einar is filming their trailers with a video camera, creating a tape of their installation; Jamex admits that they're also interested in checking out the crowd response.
He wants to know what people really think of the work -- real museumgoers, not the people there last night.
"It's hard to tell at an opening," he says.
On this Saturday morning, the parking lots at the Heard are packed. The same lots that were largely empty for the opening are now clogged with cars, buses, even an RV or two.
They are not here, though, for "Holy Land." This is the Heard's annual katsina doll marketplace, and the museum's auditorium is packed tightly with tables of Native artists exhibiting their wares -- and snowbirds eager to purchase them. The Steele Auditorium bursts with energy.
It's much quieter at the Crossroads Gallery, and the brothers go unnoticed as couples silently make their way past the trailer, barely pausing before heading into the more traditional collections.
But the atmosphere and the noise level shift abruptly around noon. At that point, two docents make their way through the gallery, each leading a group of observers. Each woman recognizes the brothers and greets them enthusiastically.
For both groups, one after another, the de la Torres are asked to speak about their work.
They are a little sheepish, at first, but they warm to the task. There's nothing snobbish about them, and they seem to genuinely enjoy the chats.
Then comes a third group, again led by a docent. A group of junior high and high school kids, they're from the Ganado Unified School District, which is located on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona.
Once again, the brothers speak easily, and as they talk, some of the kids' wheels are clearly turning. Several videotape the conversation. One boy, shyly, asks the brothers to pose for a photo.
Another explains that Navajos don't discard their hair after its been cut; it's considered a part of the person, and that makes it worth saving.
After the students leave, the brothers marvel over the information.
"That's something we didn't know," Jamex says. "We can use that now when we're talking about this." He jokes slyly, "We can tell people that was our idea all along."
"It's just great to see them interested," Einar exults.
But the brothers have to catch a plane, and after they leave, no groups pass through for a while. The gallery goes quiet. The few people who come in don't stay long.
And that's when the older couple walks in. Her hair is frizzy and gray, and she's dressed in the uniform of snowbirds everywhere: Capri pants, a pastel tee shirt.
She practically bounds into the gallery, striding right up to the trailer as her husband follows.
"Oh, look, what is this?" she calls out, peering in the window. "This is what they lived in, right?"
They pause for a moment, confused, taking in the trophy wife visible through the window. And they see the face that fronts the trailer, with its television screens in place of eyes.
"It has nothing to do with that," her husband says, irritated.
Without another word, they exit the Crossroads Gallery, heading back to the Navajo blankets, back to the painted pots, to the Heard they came to see.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.