Phoenix artist Laura Spalding Best drove past countless stop signs last summer, making the trek to and from Tempe Center for the Arts, where she was an artist-in-residence inside a gallery space overlooking Tempe Town Lake.
Best used to watch the sun shift over the landscape during days spent painting and interacting with visitors. At the time, the arts center was showing artworks with a water theme, including a trio of her painted ironing boards called The Bountiful Mirage.
“It was filled with beautiful blues and pinks and purples set against a hillside covered in plants turned brown and dry by the scorching heat,” Best recalls.
Best has been making oil paintings on found metal objects — silver tea trays, ironing boards — for many years. She’s done several murals around town, which often feature utility poles and mirage-type imagery.
Last year, she learned that the city of Tempe was stockpiling old traffic signs in a nearby building. She decided to pitch a temporary art project that would recycle the signs while bringing more color and life to the desert landscape. After Best got the go-ahead, city workers began filling up a huge pallet with signs that were eventually were moved to her home studio, where she turned them into individual works of art.
In the fall, Best painted the back of each sign with colors pulled from desert skies, then added palm trees, airplanes, and other elements of the Tempe Town Lake landscape. She’d stack them up along the block wall of her backyard as she finished them, waiting until it was time to install them in November.
Those pieces of art now have been in place near Tempe Center for the Arts for several months, arranged in a semicircle that rises from the land, where small yellow blossoms have grown up around them in the aftermath of recent rains.
“The front part of the piece is a mirage,” Best says. “It’s this tangible light phenomenon, but also a metaphor for something promising that you chase after but can never really reach.” From behind, viewers see the signs as they once appeared, with an eclectic mix of color and text.
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Best calls this collage of nature and busy urban life Rise, in part because it reflects the idea of watching the sunrise over the desert. But she also considered the way the piece rises out of the ground, and the concept of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.
Best says, “Sometimes you can catch the light just as it moves across one of the signs, and see a piece of the sky that matches the color of the sign.”
Who knew something involving traffic in the Valley could be so beautiful?