Tip of the ICEHOUSE

Installation piece by Katherine Zsolt

HELEN HESTENES, OWNER AND CURATOR of the Icehouse, can find raw material for creative inspiration in just about anything.

Take breast cancer, for instance. Eager to explore the artistic aspects of the disease, Hestenes once invited the public to participate in an installation called "The Invisible Woman." An interactive exhibition, participants were encouraged to freeze items that told stories about how breast cancer had affected their lives. Then, they were supposed to lay the objets de ice at the base of a dripping ice sculpture carved in the likeness of a one-breasted cancer victim.

When a fellow artist's sister was kidnaped, Hestenes urged the woman to create a room-size piece to remember the victim. What resulted was 300 long-stemmed roses hanging from her gallery's ceiling, each flower representing a missing child.

And Hestenes couldn't have been more supportive of a local performance artist wanting to celebrate her low white-blood-cell count: The artist wanted to hang from a bungee cord dangling from the Icehouse rafters for six hours -- while clad in a hoop skirt and roller skates.

But even the eternally optimistic Hestenes might have a hard time finding much inspiration in events of recent weeks. It has become painfully apparent to observers in the Valley art scene that Hestenes' dream for her building -- a fortresslike compound that resembles a cross between a set for an Edgar Allan Poe movie and The Terminator -- might ultimately melt under the torch of harsh reality.

"The Icehouse has been a very personal project, so I'm personally attached to everything that's happened here," sighs the ethereal Hestenes, a 40-year-old Nordic beauty whose face is only now beginning to be lined with minuscule fjords of time. "This project is like climbing Mount Everest. Luckily, I am Norwegian and I'm a Capricorn goat, so I can do that. I can eat tin cans and not starve and not have a salary and still dump all my energy into this."

For Hestenes' sake, one can only hope those tin cans once contained spinach. During recent times, her idyllic alternative arts venue has been threatened by shutdown, hobbled by the defection of her husband/partner David Therrien and bootstrapped by financial difficulties and problems with shifts in the city's historic preservation plan for the area. Now viewed by many as more of a rental facility for parties and raves than as the edgy arts space it once was, the Icehouse is struggling to sharpen its once razor-wire image. Through it all, Hestenes has suffered personal hardship including a devastating divorce, the strain of single motherhood, the suicide of a younger sister and the financial drain the Icehouse is putting on her family.

As if all that isn't enough, Hestenes is taking on the role of a modern-day Joan of Arc -- or, depending on how you look at it, Don Quixote -- battling the City of Phoenix to save buildings around the Icehouse. Outraged over proposals to build a new county morgue and jail in the downtown warehouse district, instead of the artists' studios, cafes and bookstores she envisions, Hestenes was recently inspired to create her own piece of performance art. When the historic Borden dairy was demolished in September, Hestenes staged a mock funeral in the courtyard of the Icehouse, complete with a grave for the bygone creamery.

The modern-day history of the Icehouse began in 1990, five years after Hestenes and Therrien, who met in an Arizona State University film course, took over an abandoned steel yard on South Seventh Street near Pima Street, southeast of downtown Phoenix.

Eager to rouse Phoenix from what they perceived as a cultural coma, the duo transformed the industrial wasteland into CRASHarts, a techno-punk wonderland where just about anything could happen -- and usually did.

Pointing to the venue's desirable zoning code in a 1985 interview during CRASHarts' heyday, Therrien claimed: "Anything goes. Heavy industrial, cattle slaughter, you name it. . . . We can get as loud and as obnoxious as we want and the police can't do anything about it."

Although there's no evidence that any bovine butchery ever took place on the premises, the alfresco space did play host to new bands like Sun City Girls, Six Flags Over Jesus, and Mighty Sphincter, which would later go on to greater notoriety in the indie/alternative milieu. Other dicey up-and-comers included performance artist Karen Finley, who would later rise to national fame for smearing her nether regions with everything from chocolate to canned yams, and drag diva RuPaul, who was almost (but not quite) upstaged when a hit-and-run fatality occurred in the street just beyond the stage midway through his act.

"It was so surreal," Hestenes now rhapsodizes. "No one wanted to miss anything, so they kept running back and forth between the dead body in the street and RuPaul hollering to be heard over the sirens. We've had a lot of surreal moments like that, which are beautiful because real life comes into play."  

Yet despite Therrien's belief that his late-night madhouse was essentially immune from the law, the space was closed several years later. CRASHarts' death warrant? A citation for an unpaved parking lot. Therrien, who characterizes the violation as "selective enforcement" on the part of the City of Phoenix, refused to remedy the problem to the city's satisfaction.

Fed up with what they viewed as petty bureaucracy in Phoenix, Hestenes and Therrien were planning to relocate to San Francisco when the pair stumbled across an old ice house in the bowels of downtown Phoenix's ramshackle warehouse district. Built in the early 1900s, the three-story building was used for the manufacture and storage of ice, much of it to refrigerate perishable cargo for the nearby rail line. Eighty years later, however, the crumbling brick building was in need of serious repair. It had most recently been used as a storage lot for police evidence, including the wreckage of murdered Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles' death car.

But where others saw blight (assuming they'd ever seen that section of town at all), Hestenes and Therrien saw beauty. Not to mention the opportunity to turn the orphaned bunker at 429 West Jackson into a huge multi-use alternative arts space capable of handling everything from massive art installations too large for other existing Valley venues to performance art pieces and concerts. In 1991, using funds from the Hestenes family, the pair bought the property from the city for $150,000. They dubbed the venue "CRASHarts at The Icehouse" -- and set out to show Phoenix what art was really all about.

And they succeeded. For a while.

While ensconced in its old Seventh Street location, the CRASHarts site exuded a sort of punky antiestablishment seat-of-the-pants charm. No one seemed to mind if events started hours after they were scheduled -- or even if they sometimes differed radically from the way they'd been advertised.

But by comparison, the stately Icehouse was strictly uptown -- even though it could hardly have been more downtown. Located just down the block from the train station and across the street from a dingy van-line moving building that looked like it was straight out of film noir, the dimly lighted neighborhood might have been just around the corner from the forlorn diner in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

From the outside, the Icehouse looks pretty much like any other warehouse in the area. Inside, however, it doesn't look like any other place in town.

Visitors enter through the Cathedral Room, a Gothic-looking brick chamber whose most remarkable feature is its lack of a ceiling. (Depending on whom you believe, the startling effect is deliberate -- or the result of a remodeling project that just never got finished.) Beyond that is the Silver Room, a spacious shiny assembly hall that owes a visual debt of gratitude to the Factory, Andy Warhol's 1960s studio, which was entirely covered with aluminum foil, silver Mylar and silver paint. A third area, called the Column Room for the floor-to-ceiling roof supports that break up the space, is used for more intimate installations. And outside, to the west, is a large chain-link-fenced courtyard facing a three-story wall, onto which images (videos, slides, light patterns) are often projected during outdoor events. Until it was stolen several years ago, visitors could even ride the "Fear Coaster," an aging metal kiddie roller coaster Therrien had tricked up with flames, lighting effects and fake skulls.

"It's a phenomenal space," says Heather Lineberry, senior curator of Arizona State University's Art Museum. According to Lineberry, the Icehouse was one of the most exciting cultural discoveries she made upon arriving in the Valley eight years ago. Says Lineberry: "And to a large degree, it's fulfilled a lot of that promise and still continues to play an important role in Phoenix."

During its early-'90s salad days, the Icehouse hosted some of the Valley's most spectacular -- and prestigious -- forays into alternative art. From Hestenes' standpoint, the space's most shining hour was an international art exchange program involving 10 artists from Mexico City. Coveted by spaces around the country with much bigger reputations and much more clout, the Icehouse landed the show under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

On a more outré note, people are still talking about the 1996 piece in which two female performance artists juiced several hundred pounds of carrots while riding stationary bicycles.

And for sheer spectacle, nothing can rival the 1996 Icehouse-hosted art apocalypse staged by the San Francisco-based Survival Research Laboratories. Described as a "cyperpunk monster truck rally," the traffic-stopping outdoor exhibition featured remote-controlled fire-spewing machines fighting it out while blazing department-store dummies catapulted through the night sky.  

But all of those events are history. Many observers agree that in recent years, the Icehouse's role in the local arts demimonde is not nearly as large -- or anywhere as promising -- as it once was. Scenesters point to a variety of reasons for the facility's diminished reputation in the local arts community, the most conventional wisdom being a tie between poor management and the notion that, like any underground phenomena, alternative art spaces either die natural deaths or morph into more commercial enterprises. Others speculate that through overuse, the site has lost its novelty value, or that smaller exhibits tend to be dwarfed by the venue's structural drama.

Or maybe the answer is a collage of all of the above.

Once the vanguard of the Valley's underground art movement, the Icehouse's profile has sunk so low in recent years that even hard-core arts boosters have a hard time tracking Hestenes' space on their radar.

"I wasn't even sure it was still running," says one local scenester who, like many interviewed for this article, prefers to remain unnamed because, as they say, you never know who you'll run into at the next opening. "I think there are a lot of other people who think the same thing -- if they even think of it at all."

Angela Ellsworth, a Valley performance artist who teaches at Metropolitan Arts Institute, reports that after overhearing several of her students talking about the Icehouse, she asked what art event they'd attended. "They told me they'd been there for a rave," says Ellsworth, alluding to one of the all-night dance parties for which the Icehouse is now almost exclusively known. "They didn't even know it was an arts space."

Had it not been for the life support provided by Hestenes' father's pocketbook, this particular arts space might well have evaporated long ago.

"I'm not very good with business," confesses Helen Hestenes. "I'm much more of a conceptual-type thinker, and the way I do things is really quite different."

One concept that seems to have eluded both Hestenes and Therrien from the git-go is the financial end of supporting an arts space. Like most alternative arts arenas, the Icehouse reportedly was never intended as a money-making venture. And a good thing, too. The installations and performance art on which the space has built its reputation have no commercial value, the venue rarely charges admission and its owners seldom applied for public grants like those that keep other art locations afloat.

Even when the owners did apply for grants, the space didn't fare well -- apparently because of foot-dragging on Therrien's part. In 1991, according to City of Phoenix documents, the city approved $149,000 in funding to Therrien and Hestenes as part of a historic preservation program. Therrien agreed to come up with matching funds within four years. When he didn't, the deal fell apart.

"Considerable effort has been made to work with Mr. Therrien to provide financial assistance for his [Icehouse] rehabilitation project," according to a city summary of the project. "Earlier on, backers beyond the control of the city or Mr. Therrien caused delays. However, with the execution of the contract, there has been a clear understanding of the responsibilities of each party and mutually agreed upon deadlines for performance. There is no justification for further extension."

Sitting in her second-story Icehouse office, Helen Hestenes laughs uneasily when asked how she felt a few years ago when she looked out into the courtyard during the first rent-a-rave and found the space swarming with hundreds of teenagers, many of them pharmaceutically blissed-out, waving glo-sticks at 3 in the morning. It couldn't have been pleasant to spend 10 years working on a dream arts space, only to see it turned into an avant garde rental facility.

"At first, I really hated it," says Hestenes, measuring her words so carefully that she sounds like someone speaking on a cell phone that keeps cutting in and out. "I couldn't stand techno music. But it was something we've had to do to pay the bills."

"Now," she says after a thoughtful pause, "I've come to like techno music and I realize that the younger people who are coming to them are the future of the Icehouse. These events are exposing them to art that they might not normally see. So I've sort of reversed my position -- these parties, I believe, can expand the breadth and appreciation of what we're doing."

But even that unlikely source of support was temporarily extinguished several months ago courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department. Fire safety specialist Leonard Woolum says he was alarmed in September when he learned that Hestenes had rented the Icehouse to New Times for an upcoming rave -- nearly a year after a performance artist requested an inspection in order to get a permit allowing use of indoor pyrotechnics. In denying that permit, Woolum pointed out a number of serious fire-code violations, including insufficient fire escapes, unmarked exits, an inadequate number of fire extinguishers, lack of sprinklers and some ancient wiring dating back to the building's earliest days.  

When he revisited the site a few days prior to the New Times dance, Woolum discovered Hestenes had made none of the required improvements, prompting him to issue a cease-and-desist notice. (Because Hestenes couldn't bring the building up to code with such short notice, the New Times event was held elsewhere.)

"We didn't [initially] come out there to bust her chops, but we gave her some advice," says Woolum. "Then three or four weeks ago, I got a liquor application saying 750 people were going to be in there for a party. Evidently, my friendly advice had not been good enough for her; we felt she was probably going to go ahead and do what she wanted anyway."

Woolum says that's when he organized a full building survey involving representatives from the city's fire, electrical and structural departments. The result? An order declaring the building unfit for occupancy.

Hestenes' problems -- or at least a portion of them -- with the fire department have since been temporarily resolved. Hastily recruiting what she calls "scavenged labor" (including a temple builder who helped with some construction problems), she has been able to make enough improvements to allow her to hold a smaller-scale event. (However, Hestenes estimates that additional major repairs, including "panic escape doors" that cost $5,000 apiece, may run up well more than $100,000.)

"As strange as it sounds, I enjoy a challenge," says Hestenes, a magna cum laude graduate of ASU's Fine Arts programs. "Sometimes, just when it looks like you're going to lose is when you win."

Although she once posed topless for a 1978 "Girls of the Pac-10" Playboy, the doyenne of alternative arts is now a single mother of two -- Carbon, her 10-year-old son, and Tesla, her 7-year-old-daughter. She's had no shortage of challenges to keep her occupied for the past several years. Fortunately, she says, she has the spiritual and financial support of her father, who came into a substantial inheritance, that's helped keep her self-described "money pit" alive.

A physics professor at ASU, Helen's father David Hestenes confesses that he's almost totally removed from the day-to-day activities at the Icehouse. That said, "You can't afford to lose money forever," he concedes. "I can tell you this. The only reason we've been able to sustain [the Icehouse] is because we think the value of the property has gone up to compensate for the losses. The losses have been spectacular -- sure, I'm the one that's been encouraging them. There's always the temptation to fold it, but I'd much rather prefer to see it work."

A 1998 appraisal of the property for Bank One Arizona put the market value at $550,000 -- about $400,000 more than Helen Hestenes and David Therrien had paid for it in 1991.

Like his daughter, David Hestenes is able to see opportunity in adversity. Referring to the city's on-again, off-again plans to create a historic downtown arts district, Hestenes says the controversy helps raise public consciousness about the preservation issue. "This has provided a platform for Helen to call attention to what needs to be done down there."

One of the few platforms on which Helen Hestenes won't take a public stand is her divorce from David Therrien four years ago; he took off to Asia for a year, leaving her to raise two small children. "We have very different ways of looking at things," she says tactfully. "David, with his artwork, did a lot for the Icehouse. He got a lot done."

Therrien is back in Phoenix, living in a makeshift bachelor pad in the Hyster Building, an industrial compound on South Ninth Avenue that formerly housed an International Harvester industrial and farm machinery showroom. He is considerably more forthcoming about the split that fractured their joint artistic dream and helped send the Icehouse down the road to raves.

"That building wrecked our marriage," says Therrien. "You can't work nine, 16- to 18-hour days in a row without it having some impact on your marriage."

As for Hestenes' current work overload, Therrien says: "She's frazzled. There's just so much going on that it's pushed her over the edge a few times."  

A respected artist whose work has been written about in Escape Velocity, an overview of techno arts, the bespectacled Therrien has been aptly described by the book's author as looking like Central Casting's idea of a "defrocked minister."

"I would like to think that I'm a sane individual, but other people don't describe me that way," says Therrien, echoing the sentiments of more than a few people interviewed for this article. "Having to be married to me is one of the worst things a woman can possibly imagine."

"I am good at pissing people off," he admits. "Maybe I should have done that as a job instead of a hobby."

Therrien's current plans include transforming the Hyster Building into an art space to rival the Icehouse. How a city that can't support one venue that large can possibly support two is a question that goes unanswered. "I just want to live my life as poetry," says Therrien. "I want to be in a city where there's a type of poetic vein that runs through."

So why doesn't he leave this city where fast-food jingles like Yo quiero Taco Bell qualify as free verse?

"I have left," the Phoenix native answers defiantly. "But I come back because it's one of the only cities where you can get a 20,000-square-foot-building in the middle of downtown for so cheap. In San Francisco, there's no way I could own a building this size."

But don't look for any public exhibitions at the Hyster Building anytime soon. Therrien and his son Carbon are scheduled to take off for a yearlong globetrotting art project within the next few months. The project, a multimedia endeavor titled "A Blue World," will ostensibly document the lives of strangers who offer overnight lodging to the pair as they videotape their way around the Earth.

If it accomplishes nothing else, the ambitious schlep will at least give Therrien a 12-month reprieve from what he calls "one of the most apathetic populaces in the United States."

"Everyone who lives in Phoenix is from somewhere else," he says, echoing a popular theory as to why the Valley sometimes seems a cultural wasteland. "We're living with the results of urban sprawl. Everyone lives in the suburbs. They don't care about their cities; they only care about the grass in front of their house."

Wielding a weed-whacker or reseeding Bermuda are a few things that David Therrien need never worry about; he's too busy hosing garbage, drug paraphernalia and puddles of urine from the front of his factory. On at least two recent occasions, he's been assaulted by homeless derelicts and crack addicts who constantly roam the desolate area.

"Maybe putting a morgue in the middle of downtown does make sense for Phoenix," he notes. "It makes sense because this is a dead city. And if you're trying to make a conceptual statement, that makes a lot of sense."

Helen Hestenes, meanwhile, is less interested in making sense of the senseless than bringing beauty and rejuvenation to an endangered area of grimy downtown history.

That's why she's not only interested in her own building, but saving surrounding buildings that the city and county might raze for a morgue and a jailhouse.

"Sometimes when I come down here in the morning, I'm so frustrated I just want to go back home," she says. "Then I remember how beautiful it was when I was living in Paris. And that's why I'm here, I think. To bring Paris to Phoenix."

And if the indefatigable Helen Hestenes can't transform what's left of grimy West Jackson Street into a chunk of the Champs Élysées, it won't be for lack of trying.

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address:

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