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All That Jazz: Behind the Scenes at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

Tato Caraveo paints a mural for the "Jazz It Up!" exhibit at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum.EXPAND
Tato Caraveo paints a mural for the "Jazz It Up!" exhibit at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum.
Lynn Trimble

It’s all about jazz at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, where every gallery is filled this season with jazz-inspired artworks.

You can be the first to see them during Get Jazzed, a free season kickoff festival happening on Friday, September 14, at Mesa Arts Center. The festival features live music on three stages, plus five new exhibits.

A group show called “Jazz It Up!” includes a mural by Phoenix-based Tato Caraveo, an artist whose work dots the downtown Phoenix landscape. He’s also a musician who plays primarily bass, but also guitar and drums.

“I like painting bass players because the bass has an interesting shape and I can play with warping it out,” Caraveo says. Before painting his mural on a portable gallery wall, Caraveo sketched out his design in pencil, sitting on a rolling office-style chair.

The “Jazz It Up!” exhibit includes works by 15 additional artists, including Fred Tieken, a creative who spent years as a professional musician, and now operates galleries in both Phoenix and L.A. There’s also work by Rudy Gutierrez of New York, an artist the museum’s curators praise for “incorporating a variety of cross-cultural references.”

Joe Willie Smith plays on one of several sound sculptures while installing his "Ko Mo — Not Knowing" exhibition.EXPAND
Joe Willie Smith plays on one of several sound sculptures while installing his "Ko Mo — Not Knowing" exhibition.
Lynn Trimble

The exhibition lineup also includes “Ko Mo – Not Knowing,” a solo show by Joe Willie Smith. He’s a Phoenix-based artist and musician best-known for making sculptural works using objects found in places like alleyways, junkyards, and thrift stores. Smith’s Musical Chairs piece, shown and played at Gebert Contemporary in 2013, is also part of the Mesa show.

Smith loaded in several of his sound sculptures into the museum’s North Gallery first, followed another day by paintings. “Each one of my paintings is a musical score,” Smith says. “I look at it, and it brings forth a sound for me.” The show includes several new paintings completed in recent months, each holding distinct meaning for the artist. “Each one tends to provoke a certain musical graphic and meditation on things that have occurred in my life.”

Three additional artists have solo exhibitions at Mesa Contemporary Arts this season.

“Jazz Stories” features works by Faith Ringgold, a New York-based artist whose career spans more than six decades. Through media including sculpture, painting, fiber art, and performance, Ringgold addresses both her own experiences as a black woman living in America and social justice issues at the heart of American life.

This exhibit includes several Ringgold quilts and works on paper infused with elements of jazz culture. “We’re showing works that create a nice conversation about slavery and the origins of jazz,” says Tiffany Fairall, curator of exhibitions for the museum.

For “Crazy Vibes and Thangs,” the museum is showing recent jazz-inspired works by Atlanta-based illustrator Frank Morrison, whose paintings of underrepresented people and places draw heavily on graffiti and hip-hop culture.

Reyes Padilla while he was working on his Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum installation.EXPAND
Reyes Padilla while he was working on his Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum installation.
Lynn Trimble

“Eras of Jazz: The Visual” comprises an installation by Reyes Padilla, a New Mexico-based artist born with something called synesthesia, which causes him to visualize the sounds he hears. “Synesthesia is a crossing of the senses,” Padilla says. “I get a visual in my mind when I hear something.”

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Recently, Padilla transformed a gallery space called the Project Room, by painting while listening to jazz musicians from different eras. Like Smith and Caraveo, he’s also a musician. But there’s a twist. “I’ve played in a band, and I would tell my bandmates, ‘This song is blue’,” he says.

Padilla is also colorblind, which is one reason he prefers to work mostly in black and white. But his Mesa installation also includes other colors, including gold and pink. “Gold construes jazz to me, with the bright, jumpy feeling of the instruments.” Padilla spent several days on the installation wearing headsets, often painting atop a scissor lift as he layered in new lines and color.

Through diverse media and styles, each of these artists channel the power of jazz to forge human connection. Fairall puts it best: “Jazz is such a great bridge, not only between visual arts and music, but also between different people.”

Season Kick-Off Festival: Get Jazzed. 6 to 11 p.m. Friday, September 14, at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street. 480-644-6560; mesaartscenter.com. Admission is free. Visit mesaartscenter.com.

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