At the time, Tonnesen wasn't just little-known. He was unknown. A landscape architect based in Tempe, he wouldn't have made the cut even if you were listing the three most famous landscape architects in the Valley. More to the point, he wasn't an artist.
He was, he admitted, just a guy who'd fallen into a cliché. He looked at abstract squiggles selling for millions of bucks and thought, "I can do that." But rather than stop there, Tonnesen resolved to do it -- and write about his efforts. "From a dead start," he wrote in Tonnesen: Twelve Months to Fame and Fortune in the Art World, "I gave myself one year to become a somewhat famous artist," and eventually, he added, "the third most famous artist."
Three years later, there's no doubt that Tonnesen failed to accomplish that. When they list modern artists of renown, they still list Serra and Turrell. They do not list Tonnesen.
But Bill Tonnesen did manage to create some pieces that, if not entirely original, were eminently hangable. He made some money -- which, according to his book, was a major motivation for wanting to make it big. He got more ink in the local press than most Valley artists who've been laboring for decades, suggesting that his hubris may have been more a clever marketing gimmick than a disconnect from reality.
And, in the midst of making art and selling it, he discovered what he now considers his true life's purpose.
It isn't art. It isn't landscape architecture.
It's a Phoenix memorial for the Jewish Holocaust. And not just any memorial. Tonnesen's plan, he says, is "something that has never been done before in the world, because it's so difficult." Suggest that this city may not be ready for something that's never been attempted elsewhere in the country, and Tonnesen only reacts with annoyance that his ambition has been understated: "Not the country! The world!"
He's not Jewish, he's not an architect, and he's never designed a memorial. Bill Tonnesen has about as much business attempting such a wildly ambitious project as he did aspiring to become the next James Turrell.
The difference is this: The only things vested in Tonnesen's previous quest were his ego and his bank account. Now that Holocaust survivors are counting on him, the stakes are much higher.
Now in their final years, many survivors very much want to see the memorial built before they die. But they've chosen a designer who wants the biggest and the best -- and hasn't always been able to pull it off.
Critics say that Tonnesen's greatest ability is self-promotion. They don't think his achievement can possibly match his chutzpah, and as evidence they point to a history of contentious projects.
"If this is his mission, his destiny, and he puts his ego aside to do a public service, then that's one thing," explains Brad Konick, a Phoenix sculptor. "But if this is all about his ego -- it's just asking for trouble."
Says artist Mary Shindell, "Bill Tonnesen is all about Bill Tonnesen. And whatever he's going to do, he's doing for himself."
There's no mistaking Bill Tonnesen. He is 6'6", after all, and he always wears the same thing: 38-inch-inseam blue jeans and a white button-down shirt with TONNESEN stitched in red block letters above the pocket. It's less a uniform than a signature, as if he were the late Carrie Donovan, preening for Old Navy in her pearls and oversize black glasses. He carries a tape measure at his hip so frequently that workers at one Scottsdale art gallery have taken to calling the tool by his name, as in, "Hey, pal, could you pass me the Tonnesen?"
Tonnesen doesn't say things so much as pronounce them:
This is wonderful.
You must see this.
He maintains a list of contacts who receive periodic e-mails with suggestions on what to watch, what to do. He used to plug the First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix or his own shows in Scottsdale. Lately, the recommendations are all Holocaust-related.
"Channel 8, PBS, Auschwitz documentary tonight at 9:00 p.m. Saw the first part last Wednesday. Riveting, disturbing, well done," Tonnesen wrote in a typical message, in January. No further explanation needed; he assumes that the people on his list care. (Not all of them do. At least a few have no idea how they got on the list in the first place.)