Visual Arts

Wizards of West Wood

You see it in American art museums all the time: women towing men from object to object, cooing over things that make the fellers squirm or want to pull out a hammer or a chain saw. But as one official at the West Valley Art Museum/Sun Cities Museum of Art (WVAM), told me, Rings of Time: Wooden Visions for the Millennium, on view there through March 21, "is definitely a boy show."

The proof is in the eavesdropping.
One morning at the show last week, a man from Prescott was marveling to his wife about the technical virtuosity of Ray Allen's large, turned wooden vessel shaped like a basket--a tour de force of segmented turning. A few pedestals away, a man from Carefree was rhapsodizing to his mate about the fine technique of an artist who had given laminations of plywood the velvety feel of a baby's cheeks.

This stereotype of what men prefer to see in art might belong to the generation--now retiring and retired--that came of age before the postwar American boom in education and culture. And certainly long before the 1980s popularization of the New American Male, who swapped hunting and frog-gigging for cooking fine meals and consuming high culture.

Yet not all of the tool and tech appreciation belongs to men. About a quarter of the 27 artists in the show are women. Moreover, at a time when an increasing number of people haven't a clue about how the most basic household objects are made, there's a growing audience--men and women alike--for works of art that wear their craft on their sleeves.

Whether the works rise to the level of anything artistically good or even interesting isn't the point. Many people are attracted to shows like this one because they offer a hook on which to hang their appreciation for things that appear to be well-crafted.

Rings of Time features about 60 items by woodsmiths working in Arizona. They range in size from small bowls to sculptures a head taller than Shaquille O'Neal.

Like many of the exhibitions put on by the WVAM, this show was juried from slides. Such juried regional or state exhibitions inevitably suffer from a limited talent pool. Yet Rings manages to cover the basic scope of ideas that interest contemporary woodsmiths. And it does it with a diverse range of talent.

Participants include relative youngsters like Scott McNeill, who is represented by six carved and painted panels and is working at the museum as an artist in residence during the run of the show, and more established artists, such as Virginia Dotson, Todd Hoyer, Tom Eckert and Ray Allen.

Many of the artists here rely on large doses of wood-shop magic.
Allen's segmented works and Eckert's masterful trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) still lifes of pears and cloth epitomize that. Dotson and Hoyer's works are far quieter.

The quality drops precipitously from their level to all sorts of clunky sculpt-a-knickknacks (some huge) that recall Martin Mull's old song about the glories of high-school wood shop.

Artistically, Rings of Time is fairly uneven. But museum officials say it is drawing the newcomers--such as the wood aficionados I met from Prescott and Carefree--the museum needs to broaden its audience beyond Sun City.

According to museum officials, that effort has been under way for several years. Last March, it amended its name from Sun Cities Art Museum to embrace the whole west side.

"Our mission has always been to serve the whole West Valley," says Anne Wallace, who has been the museum's executive director for two years. "We decided we just needed to tell people that's what we did."

To those familiar with the museum, the name change merely confirmed a known fact. Ever since the museum opened its doors, it has been one of few cultural lights shining in the West Valley.

The museum was launched in 1976 as a satellite of the Phoenix Art Museum. Its program amounted to rental exhibitions and shows made up of works from PAM's own collections.

"We had hoped that offering a sample out there would lead people to want to come down and get involved with the museum," says PAM's director, James Ballinger. "But it never grew that way."

Whether due to lousy roads, retiree fears or the plain annoyance of venturing downtown, the success of the Sun City satellite never translated into increased PAM membership. As time wore on, the Sun City culturatti began to see the museum as their own, and wanted to make it more of a multipurpose art center.

PAM ran shows out of a rented building at 99th Avenue and Bell Road for about four years, then turned the enterprise over to locals who, according to Anne Wallace, ran it for another four or five years as a museum without walls.

"They basically put up exhibits wherever space could be found," says Wallace. "Some of the art was actually stored at members' houses."

That ended when the museum opened the first wing of its current building in 1985. More galleries were added in 1990 and 1995.

The museum has a permanent collection of ethnic dress and related artifacts; American art, from about 1800 to the present; and international prints. Like many young museums, its storage is filled with a hodgepodge of miscellaneous works. Yet it has a concentration of paintings and a few examples of ceramics by the American realist Henry Varnum Poor, and a holding of prints by George Resler.

"We do anywhere from 40 to 50 exhibits a year," says Wallace. "In some ways, that's too many. What's been happening is we've just been putting art up and haven't had time to focus on education."

Despite that, education has been one of the museum's strengths. For years field trips to the museum and classroom talks by museum docents provided the only formal art education that children in the Dysart Unified School District received.

This year the museum expects to tour about 5,000 youngsters, up from about 3,500 last year. That isn't a huge number compared with the approximately 2,000 students that ASU toured through its galleries during the three-month stint of its Cuba exhibition last year, or the 70,000 that PAM expects to run through its Splendors of Egypt exhibition. But according to Andre Licardi, director of arts education for the Peoria Unified School District, the museum provides a critical lift for school children on the west side.

"Because we're on the west side and the bulk of the cultural institutions are downtown or to the east, it's a major expense for us to bring students to the other side of the Valley," he says.

Licardi says that since the museum hired a full-time education coordinator two years ago, it has been working closely with schools to diversify its programming for school children.

It isn't difficult to understand why.
"Jerry Colangelo knows that your future customers are the 10-year-olds you win over now," says Licardi. "In 10 years, they're your cash-paying patrons. And in another 10 or 20 years, they could easily be your cash-paying sponsors."

In the meantime, the West Valley Art Museum is moving steadily in that direction. In addition to expanding its educational programming, the museum has been working to raise its visibility and professional standing among other area art museums.

Over the past four years, its staff has gone from two to 12, adding professional staffers to the platoons of volunteers it has always drawn from Sun City. Wallace says that in coming years the museum wants to add another curator, so one can concentrate on developing exhibitions, the other on developing the museum's collections.

"That's still a ways down the road, but we're working on it," Wallace says.
What's clear is that with around 2,500 members and an annual budget of about $330,000--well above the amount that the American Association of Museums categorizes as a small museum--WVAM has become an art destination worth the drive.

Rings of Time: Wooden Visions for the Millennium continues through Sunday, March 21, at the West Valley Art Museum/Sun Cities Museum of Art, 17420 North Avenue of the Arts (114th Avenue and West Bell Road) in Surprise. For more information, call 972-0635.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow