Russell Mania

If you should ever find yourself on the third floor of the Senate building at the state Capitol, take a close look at the bronze bust in the lobby.

Chances are, you've never met A.V. "Bill" Hardt, the longtime Democratic senator from Globe who stepped down last year. But if you have, you'll realize that whoever sculpted the piece did a good job of capturing his likeness.

You may be surprised to find out that the artist--Russell "Rusty" Bowers--is a senator himself.

Bowers, a Republican from East Mesa, has earned his living as an artist for almost 20 years now. His paintings and bronzes have dealt with a wide range of subjects, and have made their way into numerous private collections.

The Nineties have been especially productive for Bowers, both artistically and politically.

While chairman of the House Environment Committee, Bowers rammed through a number of bills that significantly weakened the state's environmental laws.

After moving over to the Senate this year, Bowers was tapped by Republican leaders to chair the Appropriations Committee, which decides how much money each state agency gets.

Bowers' artistic fortunes have enjoyed a boost, as well. According to his 1996 financial-disclosure statement, his recent clients include:

* The Arizona Mining Association, an industry lobbying group representing the state's largest mining operations, which commissioned him to make the bust of Hardt.

At the time it was commissioned, Bowers was chairman of the House Environment Committee.

* Sun Lakes developer Cecil Robson, for whom Bowers is creating a life-size bronze of his two young daughters.

* United Development Incorporated, which hired Bowers to create life-size bronzes of both Mormon luminary Spencer Kimball and liberal theologian Thomas Merton for its Las Sendas development in East Mesa.

* Gubernatorial hopeful and grocer Eddie Basha, who purchased a number of bronze plaques from Bowers for presentation to his employees.

* The ASU Alumni Association, which commissioned Bowers to create a larger-than-life bronze of former ASU football coach Frank Kush.

* Salt River Project, which has commissioned Bowers to create an oil painting of the raised Roosevelt Dam.

The SRP commission does not appear on Bowers' last disclosure report. Bowers says he plans to file an amended report noting the commission, and blames a glitch on his home computer for the omission.

Everyone on the list would stand to benefit by staying on the good side of one of the state's most powerful lawmakers. When asked if the commissions represent a conflict of interest, Bowers shrugs.

"I'm sure you could look at it that way," he says. "But it seems like any work I do now is going to appear as a conflict."

He acknowledges, however, that the connections he has made as a lawmaker have "helped" his artistic career, pointing out that he has sold a number of pieces to fellow lawmakers.

Bowers says none of his recent commissions is inconsistent with the kinds of work he was doing before joining the Legislature. Much of his recent work, he adds, came about as the result of contacts he made before he was elected.

Both the Robson and United Development commissions, Bowers says, came to him by way of his agent, and both were unsolicited.

"Typically, people with money buy bronze," Bowers says of his commissions from the developers. "You just don't see plumbers--or writers--buying bronze to put in front of their buildings."

Bowers had worked for development interests before joining the Legislature. In 1983, he was commissioned by now-defunct Western Savings to do a series of 12 bronzes representing pioneering figures in the state.

Bowers also executed bronzes of the parents of Conley Wolfswinkle, the founder of Western Savings. The piece once stood in front of the S&L's headquarters.

As for the commission from the Arizona Mining Association, Bowers says he had done work for AMA in 1991, well before he had even announced his intention to run for office, when he created bronze plaques of Hardt and Polly Rosenbaum, another longtime mining-country Democrat, for the Arizona Mine and Mineral Museum.

Bowers says the SRP commission--the painting of Roosevelt Dam--came about as the result of a project he had pitched back in 1991, a series of oil paintings depicting sights along the Salt River.

SRP spokesman Frederick Bermudez confirms Bowers' version of the story, but is sketchy on the time frame.

"All I know is it was several years ago," Bermudez says. "He wanted to do this whole series, and we weren't interested."

So why did SRP change its mind?
"We chose him because he's a native Arizonan, he does a lot of Boy Scout hikes in the area . . . and he really understands the dam's impact on the Valley and on our whole way of life," Bermudez says.

Neither Robson nor Basha returned phone calls seeking comment.
Mary Durand, an ASU booster and private investigator who tapped Bowers for the Kush bronze, says his selection had nothing to do with his being a legislator.

She adds that she didn't learn of Bowers' political career until after he had been given the job.

"It shocked me," she says.
She says Bowers was selected on the basis of his previous work, and because of the enthusiasm he had shown for the project, talking about how he had played prep basketball against former ASU and Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Arizona Rattlers coach Danny White, and about how his brother had gone up against Kush's Sun Devils while playing football for Brigham Young University.

Durand says she had seen Bowers' sculpture of Wolfswinkle's parents, and was convinced of his abilities. She says she and the Alumni Association are delighted with the work Bowers did for them.

The recently completed statue depicts Kush on one knee and was paid for by donations from Kush's former players. Soon, it will be installed in front of Sun Devil Stadium as part of its rechristening as the home of Frank Kush Field.

"You look at his sculpture of Frank [Kush], and it's just striking," Durand says. "He really captured who Frank is."

Bowers' price, she adds, was also a factor.
"We looked at several artists, and the price ranges were really appalling," she says. "One artist wanted $120,000, and I believe Rusty's bid came in at around half that."

On September 20--the eve of ASU's upset football win over top-ranked Nebraska--Bowers' sculpture, still rendered in clay, was unveiled before the hundreds of players who pitched in to pay for it.

Durand says that when Bowers was introduced to the audience as the man who had created the sculpture, "he was overcome."

"The man literally had tears streaming down his face," Durand says.

--Howard Stansfield

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Stansfield