Best Letterpress 2018 | Hazel & Violet | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Head to Hazel & Violet during First or Third Friday, and you'll find a bustling scene complete with creatives sharing lively conversations while eager visitors try their hand at making custom coasters. Other times, you'll find folks checking out an impressive assortment of options for invitations, announcements, and stationery. Proprietor Nancy Hill manages to blend it all into a seamless seduction of the written word. The shop's walls are filled with posters that jab, inspire, and perplex. And Hill, who heads the print crew, has a glorious combination of expertise and warmth. She's even got an impressive collection of working presses, made between 1922 and 1968. Best of all, her passion for the printing press, and the Grand Avenue community she's a part of, is delightfully contagious.

Plenty of people wish they'd met up with Picasso or Kahlo during their early years. That's one reason ASU Grant Street Studios is such a local treasure. The converted warehouse is home to studios for more than 50 graduate art students working in diverse media such as painting, ceramics, fiber art, and photography. For two days in March, ASU held an Open Studios event at Grant Street Studios, which featured demonstrations, exhibitions, and studios open to the public — where art nerds could go behind the scenes, talk with artists about their work, and see artworks in progress that later made their way into several gallery shows around town. Bottom line: It's entirely possible that artists who've trained here will go on to be household names. And Open Studios was a great way to get to know their work before everyone else does.

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.

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.

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.

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