Best First Friday Hangout 2021 | Grand Avenue | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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Grand Avenue has an eclectic mix of art experiences on First Fridays, from tried-and-true favorites like printing on one of the presses inside the Hazel and Violet letterpress shop to pop-ups that blend food with visual culture at Bones Bodega. Beyond gallery exhibits that show works by dozens of artists, you'll find offbeat street art, open artist studios, pop-up artisan markets, and live painting — all of which take the First Friday experience on this funky diagonal strip near downtown to a whole new level. Best of all, there's an authentic community vibe that's evident as people pause to take selfies, sip tea at outdoor bistro tables, talk about their favorite art sightings, and just marvel together at the wonder of it all.

It's been nearly three decades since Massachusetts-based artists Mags Harries and Lajos Heder created a series of vessels for Phoenix Public Art that were installed along an SR 51 bicycle trail from Brill Street to Ocotillo Road. Maligned by some, and vandalized with graffiti through the years, the renovated artworks that range from 2 to 15 feet tall still stand as a tribute to the power of public art and the histories the artists sought to reflect in these works. They conceived the vessels, which have surfaces painted by Arizona artists, after talking with community members near the installation sites — and noting the prevalence of vases, pots, and baskets in their homes. Today, the pots continue to reflect the diversity of nearby and surrounding neighborhoods, and the many cultures that have shaped the natural and urban landscape, even as they remind the community of the power art holds to shape ideas.

The war of words was in full swing this year as partisans filled public and online spaces with opinions about immigration, voting, public health, and more. That war was poignantly addressed in "Text as Image," an outdoor exhibition of text-based art created as part of ASU Art Museum's "Pilot Projects" series. The temporary public artworks included Jacob Meders' Warbird Press vending machine with prints addressing colonialism and Indigenous lands, Kristin Bauer's Dia/Chronic banner confronting propaganda and white supremacy, Hugh Hayden's Pillory sculpture referencing police barricades and medieval stocks, and Iván Argote's Tiernos, We, Somos and Strong installation of concrete chairs addressing human interactions during polarized times. It was the perfect collection of temporary public artwork for the times, conveying not only the perils of the present moment but the possibilities for a less fractious future.

Artists Alexandra Bowers and Pete Deise transformed an empty space at Park Central for their pop-up exhibit "The Four Seasons," providing viewers with an intimate way to view their work outside of traditional gallery settings. Large billows of fabric suggested geographic features, reinforcing the ways these artists' works reflect natural elements such as wind and water. Both artists played with elements of scale and movement, bringing life to an otherwise barren space. Their pop-up exhibit reinforced the power of art to transform both interior and exterior spaces, and signaled the potential of other urban environments to serve as places to encounter and experience art.

In 2016, Tempe resident Robert Moore was a member of the city's municipal arts commission and on the lookout for new ways the commission could engage with the local cultural scene. He didn't have to look very far. Moore recommended transforming an aging and largely vacant retail building owned by the city at the Danelle Plaza shopping center near his home into a platform for local artists. Two years (and many negotiating sessions with city officials) later, the Danelle Project was born. Coordinated by Moore and Tempe Art A Gogh-Gogh co-founder Evan Liggins, it's a visual feast of works by more than 20 notable local artists. Three sides of the 16,500-square-foot building and other spaces around the plaza are adorned with art: Vacant storefronts are filled with displays and installation pieces, while large-scale murals adorn exterior walls. Some works are evocative, such as Clyde's pandemic-inspired mural Dreams on Pause depicted in deep blues and grays. Others celebrate the eclectic history of Danelle Plaza (Nick Rascona's skateboard mural is inspired by a late '70s skate park on the property). Then there are the oddities, like Sarah Hurwitz and Daniel Funkhouser's Futureland, Arizona, which reimagines our state as a post-apocalyptic and neon-drenched toxic wasteland. (Certain installations become illuminated after dark.) It's also, conveniently, a drivable art experience — fitting for this car-friendly metropolis.

Walking around the city's best museums and galleries, you'll rarely find works by as many Phoenix-based artists as you will during a stroll along Oak Street Alley. Dozens of artists have been painting murals in this Coronado neighborhood alley for many years now, providing an evolving exhibition that reveals the diverse styles and themes embraced by local muralists. Some address heavy topics like gun violence. Others memorialize historic figures or musicians. And a very special one elevates the light that a little girl who died of cancer continues to shine on her community. Oak Street Alley includes work by some of the city's best-loved artists, including La Morena, Maggie Keane, Thomas "Breeze" Marcus, and JB Snyder. For both the casual art lover and the dedicated mural spotter, it's a place spilling over with inspiration — and more than a few kickass selfie backdrops.

During a year dominated by the pandemic and divisive political rhetoric, Tree of Life stood out. Created by Tucson artist Daniel Martin Diaz, the piece — a trio of cut-steel sculptures anchored by an 11-foot-tall red tile mural with tree imagery blending organic and scientific forms — served as a monument to healing, growth, and community. It's particularly striking within the wider context of national conversations and protests about monuments, because it serves as a monument to the desert, as well as the people past and present who give it life. In addition, the piece inspires viewers to explore the artist's larger body of work, leading them on a journey through his imaginings of physical and metaphysical worlds.

For travelers who'll never enter a traditional art space in Phoenix, Vanished Tempest provides a glimpse into the city's contemporary art scene, opening a window onto the creativity in our midst. The installation, which opened inside Terminal 3 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in June, features a group of paintings created by Phoenix artist Laura Spalding Best on silver trays and candy dishes. Best painted vignettes that amplify the intersection of natural and urban landscapes, such as a palm tree seemingly rooted in concrete, prompting people passing through Phoenix to consider both the beauty and the hidden complexities of desert life. Her artwork leaves travelers wanting to learn more about our city and the curious ways it's navigated by both visitors and locals.

As new construction goes up all around it, Burton Barr Central Library continues to stand out, reminding people that great buildings are more than big boxes. Walls of windows allow patrons to look over the urban landscape, even as shelves filled with books invite them to look inward and keep learning. Through lecture series and other programs, Burton Barr Central Library promotes Phoenix's diversity. With dedicated spaces for youth and makers, a first-floor gallery, and a rare book room, the library amplifies the importance of not only reading, but community as well.

Nowadays, most people can watch movies on the devices they keep in their pockets or sit at home in front of a TV screen scrolling through countless film options, which means a movie theater has to bring something extra to the equation to really make an impact. Majestic Theaters, first launched several years ago as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, offers themed events tied to classic films, luxury seating few can afford to realize in their own homes, and culinary choices that range from comfort food to more sophisticated fare. Special event screenings happen at several theaters across the Valley, meaning people have more places and times to see the specialty films that appeal to their sense of nostalgia or play. Props like glow sticks create an atmosphere that's hard to capture in your own home. Movie-going as a spirited, social enterprise is on full display at Majestic Theaters, where you can feel like a kid but still experience films with some heavy grown-up vibes.

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