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.

It's the unexpected moments that bring joy to encounters with art, whether you're into classic paintings by Renaissance masters or street art by contemporary creatives who use the urban landscape as their canvas. Often, you'll find tall wooden panels propped against the building that's home to Snood City Neon on Grand Avenue, along with several artists working side by side to paint the panels with their own distinct designs. The works in progress attract vendors to the area; you can often find food carts and people selling jewelry nearby. The live painting brings an unexpected twist to First and Third Fridays, giving people making the gallery rounds a chance to see and talk with local artists as they're working and share in the communal vibe their painting creates.

Just as Donald Trump looms large over American life, so has a billboard with Trump's face towered over Grand Avenue, embellished with swastika-like dollar signs and nuclear mushroom clouds. That image is still up on Grand, but today it's covered by a red, white, and blue design with a voting theme. Karen Fiorito updated the other side of the billboard as well, covering a unity-themed design with a piece that addresses the issue of police brutality toward Black people. Beatrice Moore, who commissioned the artwork, plans to uncover Trump's face once again — hopefully in celebration of Trump losing his reelection bid. Until then, the makeover is a reminder that there are real issues and lives at stake in this upcoming election — and that voting is the best way to give the government its own makeover.

Look up while approaching the northeast corner at Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue, and you'll see works by three artists gracing the windows of the Ten-O-One building owned by True North Studio. Between Antoinette Cauley's portrait of James Baldwin and Debra Hurd's portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, you'll see geometric designs by Carrie Marill. Featuring meticulous strips of color that channel her larger body of work, Marill's compositions bring a fresh aesthetic to the building, while creating a visual bridge between the other works similarly installed using mural wraps that freed the artists from having to paint directly in the glass surface. Their sharp angles suggest the idea of pointing, as if to raise the question of how Roosevelt Row has developed in recent years and what that means for the artists in its midst.

This year, as communities in Phoenix and beyond have thought more deeply about the roots and contemporary manifestations of systemic racism, artist Chris Revelle filled the center of a small gallery space at Grant Street Studios with large-scale sculptural pickaxes made with coal and wax, then surrounded them with drawings of Alabama courthouses. When COVID prevented in-person audiences from seeing his "Swing Low" exhibition in person, Revelle created a virtual exhibit so people could still experience the work. It explored slavery before the passage of the 13th Amendment, as well as the neo-slavery that continued long after. Revelle worked with a pianist to create a score for the exhibit, and included comprehensive notes that drew viewers into both his own artistic process and the social justice issues elevated by his work. It was the right show at the right time, prompting reflection on both historical and contemporary white supremacy.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of