Airline passengers leaving Terminal Four at Sky Harbor are greeted by a series of large-format photographs of saguaro cactuses. This is only appropriate, since the saguaro is more a symbol of Phoenix than that flaming bird on the city seal.

But these cactuses are unsettling. They are vastly different from the standard-issue Noble Sentinels of the Desert that Arizona Highways specializes in, those saguaros at sunset outlined against a lurid sky.

Photographed by Mark Klett, the Terminal Four saguaros look pretty sad. One is bent double, as if in complete exhaustion. Another is full of bullet holes, like Swiss cheese. Another's arms are twisted all around in uncomfortable contortions. Another has its arms outstretched, as if it's being crucified. Or begging for mercy.

The title of the series is "Desert Citizens." These poor citizens look like the inhabitants of a particularly neglectful nursing home.

They're sad, but there's also something perversely funny about these cactuses. They aren't, after all, people. But Mark Klett, like just about every artist who came West and depicted the saguaro, knows they will be regarded that way. Of all the plants, saguaro cactuses most closely approximate human beings.

@body:There is not a long tradition of depicting saguaros in art. Naked women, the Madonna and Child, mountains, even apples have appealed more to artists than cactuses the size of telephone poles. Part of the problem is that saguaros were not discovered until quite recently, artistically speaking.

In his office in a basement at Arizona State University, Mark Klett has what he thinks is the first photograph of a saguaro cactus in history. It was taken by Timothy O'Sullivan during O'Sullivan's journey through the West as part of the Wheeler Survey in 1871.

Such expeditions sprang into existence after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., having gotten half a continent at a very good price, sent Lewis and Clark out to see just what they'd bought. By the 1850s, the surveys had taken on a more scientific air, and began including photographers, some of whom made their names with such trips.

O'Sullivan's group started in Nevada, wound around the Colorado River, then stopped in the Sonoran Desert near Wickenburg and had a look at the saguaros there. O'Sullivan's photograph is fairly straightforward, although the darkness of the print and the size of the cactus give the succulent a nicely looming quality.

This is not the first depiction of saguaros in art. That honor goes to John Mix Stanley, a painter who accompanied another expedition, one made by General Stephen Watts Kearny to California to fight the Mexicans in 1846. The Phoenix Art Museum has the painting that Stanley worked up from the tour, and although it's not on display at the moment, a perfectly good postcard on sale at the museum gift shop gives you its flavor.

Klett laughs as he looks at the postcard. A series of wholly improbable rock formations stretches along a body of water purporting to be the Gila River. In a bizarre touch, a little deer perches on a ledge beside the river, chest outthrust, as if taking credit for the magnificence of the vista. A big saguaro fills the left side of the landscape the deer is so proud of. No part of the painting appears quite believable. No part of the painting appears to belong with another, which is part of its charm.

Stanley painted the picture nine years after he was actually on the Gila, relying on some sketches, his imagination and centuries of landscape-painting tradition to come up with the composition. His attitude toward the cactus appears somewhat akin to that of the Kansas farmer confronted with the giraffe. "I don't believe it," the farmer said flatly, looking up at the expanse of polka-dotted neck.

Once they got over their amazement, artists fairly quickly transformed saguaro cactuses into clichs. Grab a handful of books on Western art from the shelf, and the big cactuses turn up in fairly predictable guises. They anchor the foreground in front of the towering majesty of mountains. Cowboys' horses stride forcefully beneath them. Photographers like to position the sun and a few clouds behind them, although the church at San Xavier del Bac will do nicely, too.

What's more interesting, however, is how seldom saguaros turn up in regional art. Weather-beaten cowboys and picturesque Indians appear with greater frequency than oversize cactuses and the barren deserts they inhabit. "The 19th century had rigid ideas of what constituted a landscape," says Gray Sweeney, an art historian at Arizona State University. "It had to have water. Empty spaces were not interesting.

"People had trouble incorporating objects that didn't match their conventions of beauty and importance. Deserts didn't make it."
Saguaros, he says, suffered an additional aesthetic defect: "They don't look like trees." There's another, more practical reason for the scarcity of saguaros in art until fairly recently, points out Jim Ballinger, director of Phoenix Art Museum.

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Anna Dooling