The Best Things We've Seen in Phoenix This Year (So Far)

Artist Jeff Slim painted the entrance to Nurture House in Phoenix.
Artist Jeff Slim painted the entrance to Nurture House in Phoenix. Lynn Trimble
The best things we've seen so far in 2021 include new creative spaces, pandemic pivots, a mural collaboration, exhibits, and more. Here's a look back at 10 highlights from the first six months of this year's arts and culture scene in metro Phoenix.

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Exploring part of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore at Nurture House.
Lynn Trimble

Nurture House

The new year brought a big move for one of the city's best-loved literary hubs, Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, first launched by Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña as a community gathering space in 2015. Palabras officially relocated from the Miracle Mile section of McDowell Road to 906 West Roosevelt Street in mid-January, becoming the anchor for a creative space called Nurture House. It’s also home to Wasted Ink Zine Distro, which left its previous location at The Hive last year, as well as Abalone Mountain Press, Pachanga Press, and Por Vida Bakery. Filled with art by Jeff Slim, the space is a thriving community hub where diverse voices are elevated and celebrated.

FilmBar Outdoor Screenings

In a year filled with pandemic pivots, FilmBar founder Kelly Aubey pulled off one of the better moves, partnering with Pemberton House to present outdoor movie screenings in the Roosevelt Row creative space where offerings also include fitness activities, food trucks, and other fare. They stacked two shipping containers, creating a backdrop for a film screen, then added rows of plastic Adirondack chairs to create an outdoor cinema experience that launched in January. FilmBar partnered with Phoenix Art Museum as well, showing artsy films in its outdoor courtyard before the heat necessitated moving those screenings indoors.

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Installation view of "Division of Labor: Women Shifting a Transnational Gaze."
Claire A. Warden

'Division of Labor'

After curators at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art invited artists M. Jenea Sanchez and Gabriela Muñoz to “participate in a critical engagement” with the museum’s collection, the artists responded by co-curating an exhibition that explores ways the museum can deepen and broaden is representation of Latinx voices. “Division of Labor: Women Shifting a Transnational Gaze” includes new pieces by 10 artists working in the borderlands, as well as works from the museum’s collection, and shows a way forward for collaborative processes that illuminate issues of labor, identity, and gaze.

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Works from The Violet Protest are exhibited at Phoenix Art Museum.
Ann Morton

The Violet Protest

The multiyear participatory art project that Phoenix-based artist Ann Morton launched in 2019 reached an important milestone in the first half of this year, as Phoenix Art Museum opened an exhibition featuring the project in March. The exhibit includes 116 stacks of handmade textile squares created by makers in all 50 states using red and blue, which form the letters “U” and “S.” Additional 8-by-8-inch squares are suspended side-by-side like vertical banners across two gallery walls, with others walls used to showcase individual squares. Collectively, the squares speak to the need for collaboration and civic engagement, countering narratives designed to create or amplify divisions.

Xico Virtual Offerings

Xico officially opened its new digs in Roosevelt Row in May, making a big splash with this year’s iteration of its annual art auction. We love the new location, complete with exhibition and workshop space, but the real standout from Xico during the first half of 2021 was its series of videos featuring local artists including Monica Gisel and Joe Ray, as well as other virtual offerings such as exhibitions. Often taped in the creatives’ own studios, with artists talking about their diverse backgrounds and inspirations, their videos provide a fascinating glimpse into the depth and breadth of talent in the Valley of the Sun.

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El Mac and Thomas "Breeze" Marcus painted this mural in downtown Phoenix.
Downtown Phoenix, Inc.

El Mac and Breeze Mural

In a year filled with creative collaborations, a mural painted in downtown Phoenix by Miles “El Mac” McGregor and Thomas “Breeze” Marcus ranks high among our favorites. Not yet titled, the towering piece located at First and Monroe streets channels the Indigenous peoples of the region, centering the face of a young woman living on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and surrounding her with designs inspired by Akimel and Tohono O’odham basketry. For the artists, who finished the mural in April, it was a way to infuse the visual culture of downtown with the culture of its original peoples and recognize the long trajectory of their ongoing impact on the region.

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Nicole Olson choreographed work for Breaking Ground 2021.
Rick Meinecke

Breaking Ground

The Tempe-based dance company CONDER/dance presented the latest iteration of its Breaking Ground dance and film festival online this year, rather than performing live at Tempe Center for the Arts, where the festival has been a cultural highlight of the region for many years. Choreographers presented compelling works reflecting the realities of contemporary life, including the pandemic and systemic social injustice, creating a meaningful virtual experience for audiences whose access to traditional art spaces was drastically limited during the first half of the year.

The reopening of Burton Barr Central Library was a cause for celebration.
Lynn Trimble

Burton Barr Reopening

Locals who love Burton Barr Central Library recall the 2017 storm that left the flagship building of the Phoenix Public Library system closed for nearly a year, an experience that made it even harder to go without in-person library time for more than a year due to COVID-19 closures mandated in March 2020. Seeing Burton Barr Central Library and additional library branches gradually resume in-person services starting in April signaled hope for the literary and cultural life of the city, and left us celebrating the physical return of this cherished community space.

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The Rocking S Art Ranch is taking shape in Phoenix.
Patricia Sannit

Rocking S Art Ranch

A new creative space began taking shape this year, as artist Patricia Sannit announced plans to transform three buildings and common areas on a 6,000-square-foot site into an artist compound complete with individual studios and shared work spaces. Located near 32nd Street and Thomas Road, the space is called Rocking S Art Ranch. Open houses began in April, although Sannit says it will take several months to renovate the space. Lauren Lee, whose vibrant murals dot the metro Phoenix landscape, is one of several artists who’ve already reserved studio space at the site, where a few studios are still available.

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Angela Ellsworth, Chiaroveggente: As Above, So Below (33.487549, -112.073994), 2019, 15,696 pearl corsage pins, colored dress pins, fabric, steel, 46" x 12" X 15"
Lisa Sette Gallery

'Things We Carry'

Lisa Sette Gallery paired intriguing works by emerging artists and collaborators Merryn Omotayo Alaka and Sam Fresquez with compelling pieces by Angela Ellsworth, creating a visual conversation around personal narratives, identity, societal expectations, and claiming space. Through materials ranging from corsage pins to synthetic hair, the artists explore what Sette calls "the radical power of selfhood." The exhibit is distinguished by its conceptual and aesthetic rigor, which beautifully reflects the feminisms these artists embrace in the contexts of their own personal histories and dreams for the future. 
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble