Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

You won't find big blockbuster exhibitions at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Instead, you'll find smaller-scale exhibits by artists, many of them local to Arizona, that nevertheless pack a powerful punch. Recent exhibits featured fine art pinatas with a medieval twist made by Roberto Benavidez, and Kazuma Sambe's ceramic pieces exploring the intersection of advertising with the international food industry. The museum holds season openings that draw a diverse crowd for music, art, small bites, and lively conversation. And it's part of the vibrant Mesa Arts Center campus, where people can expand their art horizons via its busy schedule of performances, festivals, classes, and art demonstrations.

Lisa Sette Gallery
Andrew Pielage

In her subterranean gallery space, Lisa Sette represents more than three dozen artists. Many — including Angela Ellsworth and Carrie Marill — are based in Phoenix. Often, Sette's curatorial choices reflect challenges facing contemporary society, such as white supremacy, clergy abuse of children, and climate change. The gallery also presents artist talks, sponsors film series at Phoenix Art Museum, and takes work to national and international art fairs. Both casual art lovers and experienced collectors are welcome in the space, which consistently presents work that challenges viewers to see self and society in new ways.

A strip of McDowell Road called Miracle Mile became significantly brighter following the addition of a new mural that blended the talents of established artist Jeff Slim and emerging artist Edgar Fernandez. The two men drew inspiration from the diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding the mural in creating their 14-foot high and 60-foot long piece, anchored by a figure holding soil that symbolizes the region's Indigenous roots. Elaborate line work flanking the central images draws on symbolism used in O'odham pottery, and includes the word "Unity" written in several languages used by people living in the community. The mural, which is on the side of the Lionetti Hair Clipper Service building, is distinguished by its mix of narrative and abstract elements and the ways it mirrors the cultural richness of its setting. Although the artists have very different styles, they're beautifully blended to create this work celebrating life, culture, and creativity.

Heard Museum

The rich complexity of Indigenous cultures filled 13,000 square feet of gallery space when the Heard Museum opened "Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art From Indigenous North America" on September 4. Featuring more than 40 works by 24 artists and collaborators — participating artists include Mike Patten (Zagime Anishinabek), Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Marie Watt (Seneca), and Steven J. Yazzie (Diné/Laguna Pueblo/Anglo); thoughtful curation by Diana Pardue and Erin Joyce — this visually stunning ensemble of artworks challenges viewer perspectives on Indigenous symbols and ordinary objects. Here, red stickers, a baseball bat, a batch of fry bread, and an asthma inhaler take on new connotations. Every artwork has layers of meaning. The more time you spend with this exhibit, the more powerful it becomes.

The landscape in downtown Phoenix is dotted with murals by Laura Spalding Best, an artist whose work often brings surreal, mirage-like imagery to utility poles and other ubiquitous objects in the urban desert. This year, Best added a new twist to her oeuvre with a field mural in Tempe, which was created using more than 200 decommissioned traffic signs. The artist painted each sign using colors inspired by the way the sky shifts throughout the day, then installed them on the north bank of Tempe Town Lake, where plants grew up around them to reinforce the interplay of natural and manufactured environments. The piece gave passersby a chance to have an accidental encounter with art, creating a sense of wonder that's sometimes lost when seeking out art in more traditional settings.

More than 200 laser-cut steel shapes form a sculptural shade structure called Infinite Wave installed near the entrance of the Chandler Museum. Created by Scottsdale artist Jeff Zischke, the public artwork throws a shadow of repeating patterns onto the ground below during the day, the uniform shapes suggesting various natural forms such as leaves, waves, and cactus. At night, the piece transforms into a canvas of color with LED lights in pink, purple, blue, green, and other vibrant colors. Ultimately, the piece is about the intersection of technological and natural environments at the heart of contemporary desert life — a topic we find ourselves thinking about more and more with each passing year, and that we're grateful to Zischke for illuminating so beautifully.

There's a particular spark of spontaneity on Grand Avenue, where First Friday offerings have a way of inspiring creative detours. The street is dotted with art spaces ranging from galleries to courtyards, and browsing them you'll find an intriguing mix of works by emerging and established artists, as well as impromptu art experiences. One First Friday, you may discover a massive temporary art installation using recycled and found objects. Return next month, and you could stumble onto artists doing aerosol paintings on wooden panels lined up along a sidewalk. There's a palpable sense of community here, too — people linger to talk, making connections that last far beyond First Friday.

People catch the puppet bug at Puppet Pie, where Stacey Gordon's passion for the craft is contagious. Walking into this working studio, you'll see shelves lined with clear bins of colorful supplies, long tables covered with projects in progress, and displays filled with handmade puppets ranging from sandwiches to fuzzy worms. Gordon's creations are meticulously made, and they exude the whimsical personality of their maker, who's well-known on the national puppetry circuit. Puppet Pie has workshops for people who want to make their own designs, plenty of examples to inspire ideas for at-home crafts, and items you can purchase. Puppets aren't just toys at Puppet Pie — they're little bits of joy and wonder.

Rosemarie Dombrowski gathered together a diverse group of local artists last year and launched a literary publication aimed at reflecting back the intersection of art and activism in Phoenix. She found inspiration in a publication called The Revolution, once published by suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Dombrowski and her cadre of volunteers produce print and online issues that feature a wide range of voices and literary styles, including poetry, opinion, creative nonfiction, and more. It's a democratizing collaboration that's doing a great job of elevating issues of social justice while prompting critical conversations about both history and contemporary life. The Revolution (Relaunch) affirms the literary values of questioning, listening, thinking, and — perhaps most essentially — acting.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

People flocked to Laura E. Korch's interactive sculpture during her MFA thesis exhibition at ASU's Step Gallery, intrigued by the way the piece, shaped like an oversized oblong vessel, cradled the human form. After Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art added the work to its collection, it reappeared as part of an exhibit focused on women artists and gender disparities in the art world. People who laid face down within this Baltic birch plywood piece could put their arms into a pair of tunnels, an act that triggered vibrational frequencies and sound reminiscent of the human heartbeat. Art spaces are filled with "interactive" artworks that merely entertain those who encounter them, but Korch's sculpture is a truly transformative piece that's powerful enough to change the way people think about themselves, their community, technology, and, of course, art.

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