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Christopher Torrez's Miniature Terrains on View in "Habitations" at Mesa Contemporary Arts

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Visiting Christopher Torrez's Habitations can be a surreal experience. After participating in Mesa Contemporary Arts' 33rd annual Contemporary Crafts exhibition last year, Torrez was awarded the Juror's Choice Award, resulting in his current show.

The gallery room in the back of Mesa Contemporary Arts is scattered with black boxes containing small cut-outs that offer a glimpse of the alien landscapes within.

"Most of these microcosms are abstracted or not true to life just by their form," says Torrez. "You know you are looking at a rock or a tree, but you don't know what type of tree it is. It is something you can relate to, but you don't have all the facts."

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Torrez, an MFA student at ASU, has worked in clay for years, originally creating full-scale ceramic plant forms. He says that a class with ceramic artist Richard Notkin gave him the skills to venture into tiny territory:

"I initially started to make miniature all clay dioramas at the end of that workshop as more of a 3D sketch exercise, but after making a more detailed landscape, I realized how much potential these microcosms had of their own. Just as I was starting to explore making these, I entered graduate school at Arizona State University, and it was my goal and thesis to find a place for them to exist and their habitats took form."

The tiny landscapes remind us of the dioramas of our youth, albeit about 10,000 times more sophisticated. Bringing to life one habitat can take anywhere from three to six weeks depending on the complexity of the scenario, according to the artist. For perspective, a single tree can require up to 600 individually made leaves, which are usually only a few millimeters across.

The encasing of the landscape presents an even more complex endeavor at times. "Some use multi-colored LED arrays controlled by programmed microcomputers to create light sequences, others use duct work to control dust or water flow powered by pumps and fans connected to digital timers," says Torrez.

All of the pieces make us feel a bit like Alice tumbling into Wonderland, but as Torrez points out, "it relates it to our own world, a sense of cycle and time." Maybe not so alien after all.

Habitations will be on display at Mesa Contemporary Arts through the end of March. For more information, visit the exhibition website.

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