Apparently, art cows are a thing here in Phoenix. They've been popping up in recent years, thanks to artists including Tiffany C. Bailey, who featured a winsome piece called Contemporary Cows in her "Idyllic Landscape" exhibition at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Bailey created several palm-size ceramic cows in a creamy off-white color, then gave each distinct markings before setting them under glass as if roaming a pasture together. Bailey's cows are a playful reminder of the role of agriculture in American life, a nod to the Midwestern roots of so many Phoenix residents, and a riff on the ways even like creatures bear their own unique markings.

Some fancy, multiday art festivals happen around metro Phoenix every year, but the year's best was a smaller affair off the beaten path organized by local creatives who just wanted to make a day for art, family, and community. They convened artists to paint murals one Sunday in March, in an alley that's a popular canvas for some of the area's best street artists, then added music, a barbecue, and the good vibes that are hard to replicate on a larger scale. The event drew neighbors, artists, and other community members, for a casual day of authentic conversation, relaxation, and creativity — forging and reinforcing the bonds of community during an age when nothing is more important than listening to and learning from each other.

Modified Arts

Making a meaningful gallery experience requires more than hanging pictures on the wall. Modified Arts, a creative space founded by Kimber Lanning in 1999, gets it. Art is about ideas, and galleries help diverse community members explore them together. Modified Arts is a welcoming space that's open six days a week, conveying the sense that art should be an everyday encounter accessible to all, rather than a mere cultural exercise for elites. Its monthly exhibitions feature thought-provoking works by diverse artists, which prompt curiosity and conversations among gallerygoers. This year, Modified Arts has shown images exploring North Korea, works created with flat-rate postal boxes, photographs by Burton Barr Central Library architect Will Bruder, and much more. It's a go-to gallery for seeing works by emerging and established artists. But more important, it's a place where you can linger over art that challenges your assumptions about yourself and the world around you.

Being independent, together. That's the premise behind Megaphone PHX, an art gallery that's also the studio space for artist Andy Brown, whose work often features concentric lines and cycling imagery. He has shown work by metro Phoenix favorites such as JJ Horner, Lauren Lee, and Beth Tom, and welcomed group shows curated by other creatives. But the gallery is also a popular gathering space for poets and collage creatives, and it has featured music and dance performance, too. Megaphone PHX is distinguished as a gathering place for creatives, whose cross-pollination across different genres enriches the cultural ethos in Phoenix. In a city where too many artists still exist within their own silos, Megaphone PHX is mixing it up and pointing the way toward increased collaboration.

Time with compelling works and the artists who make them — that's what you get at the best student galleries, including the Step Gallery where Arizona State University presents Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibitions. It's located in a former warehouse, and its concrete floors and exposed ceiling beams provide a stunning backdrop for works in all media. This year, it's contained a neon landscape of icons created by Lily Reeves, wooden objects crafted by Alex Foster to spur adult play, a miniature production plant by Andrew Noble exploring relationships between humans and machines, and myriad other works that push past people's misconceptions of art as an isolated entity existing on the periphery of enterprises deemed more useful or exciting. For people who make the art rounds on First and Third Fridays in Phoenix, Step Gallery is always on the must-see list, because it's a place where you can see new works and talk with the creatives who gave them life.

Scottsdale Civic Center Mall

Weathered over time until its Cor-Ten steel took on a patina that looks like wood pulled from an Old West homestead, Louise Nevelson's monumental sculpture for Scottsdale Public Art is still the best piece of public art in metro Phoenix. Dedicated in 1973, it's officially titled Atmosphere and Environments XVIII. The sculpture reflects Nevelson's fondness for creating monochromatic assemblages using found wooden objects, arranged to form boxes within boxes. For a metropolis wrestling with its own growth, identity, and preservation of natural resources, the piece stands as a monument to free-flowing ideas, collaboration, and imaginative reuse of existing objects. It's a reminder that the past is important, but no more so than the open windows that beckon community members to find creative new ways of thriving together.

When the canals aren't rushing with water, it's easy to overlook the power of water, its essential presence in our lives, and the indigenous peoples who forged its pathways. Enter Reflection Rising, a work of temporary public art by Los Angeles-based creative Patrick Shearn of Poetic Kinetics, which was part of Canal Convergence in February and March. Comprising brightly colored strips formed into a panel suspended over Scottsdale Waterfront Canal, Shearn's piece affirmed the life-giving properties of the water that lay beneath it, even as it beckoned people who saw it rising in the sky to come explore the banks of the canal. As gentle winds made the sculpture rise, fall, or twist in the air, it reminded viewers of the vibrancy of the urban landscape surrounding it, and the many ways that both the natural and built environments are continuing to evolve over time.

Metro Phoenix got some impressive new murals this year, including large-scale works by brothers Gabriel and Isaac Fortoul, a pair of creatives who call themselves the Fortoul Brothers. They're still finessing the year's best mural on two long, adjoining walls at Garfield Elementary School, which is located in the Garfield neighborhood where they live and have an arts studio. The mural, which spans more than 200 feet, was commissioned by the Mollen Foundation, which works to promote healthy eating habits in children. It's a bold backdrop for garden beds where students and other community members grow and harvest food. The mural features the artists' characteristic imagery,formed with simple shapes and lines. Its themes include nature, sustainability, and growth — reflected in images such as the sun, trees, and assorted plant life. The mural is a testament to connections forged between artists and community members, and the importance of childhood time spent with nature and art.

Metro Phoenix has no shortage of eye-catching murals by talented artists. Meet Me at Daley Park by Tempe artist Jake Early is a mural masterwork. Its size alone is worth the drive over to Daley Park, near 15th Street and College Avenue, for a visit. Coming north on College, just north of Broadway Road, you won't miss it. After a design competition, Tempe Public Art awarded Early the job of painting a wall 400 feet long and 8 feet high. The wall borders a city facilities yard next to a railroad easement. Early managed to turn the stark, industrial area of the railroad tracks and easement into something visually appealing. The colors are vibrant, dominated by light green that symbolizes the area's agricultural past, and an 8-foot rooster near the wall's corner. The mural can't be taken in at once — it has to be toured to be fully appreciated. It's like an outdoor history museum, displaying scenes that encompass Tempe's past and present as well as college students on bicycles. The real Arizona State University students who bicycle to school on College Avenue can see themselves in the mural and know that they, too, are larger than life, connected to Tempe's past, but representing the hope of a better future.

Harkins Scottsdale 101

Every year, you can expect nothing but the best from Phoenix Film Festival at Harkins Scottsdale 101. In its 2018 edition, the festival screened over 250 films — everything from local movies to indies from Jason Reitman and Bo Burnham to documentaries about Mr. Rogers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is something for everyone in its 10 days of screenings. There's also no better place to showcase how great the local film scene is, both on the big screen, or in the audiences filled with enthusiastic film fans across metro Phoenix and the state.

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