Sculpt Friction

Frank Crerie loves modern art. He loves the Sonoran Desert. And at 80, the retired venture capitalist has cash to spend and not a lot of time to spend it.

So Crerie figured he'd combine his passions by commissioning artists to create a sculpture garden in the middle of the desert.

A problem quickly arose: Just where in the middle of the desert would Crerie build his garden? Crerie, who lives in Scottsdale near Pinnacle Peak, wants the sculpture garden close to home. He spent 18 months shopping for land, but couldn't find any, so now he wants some of ours.

Specifically, he'd like a 500-acre chunk of Maricopa County's McDowell Mountain Regional Park. And not just any chunk. From Crerie's proposal:

"The ideal parcel must have an unobstructed view and be situated beyond the path of urban encroachment while being reasonably accessible to the local and international audiences it will attract. Furthermore, the proper rolling terrain is mandatory. Its undulation will support and enhance the artistic interplay between the sculptures and the boulders' vegetation and other features that surround, separate and support them."

In other words, Frank Crerie wants a pristine, lush, hilly piece of desert. A large piece. I had trouble imagining how a 500-acre tract would look, until someone pointed out that there are 640 acres in a square mile. Picture the space between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street and McDowell and Van Buren streets in Phoenix. That's a square mile. Shrink it down a bit. That's what Crerie wants.

Crerie wouldn't actually take ownership of the land, or build little pink houses on it. He would simply create a nonprofit organization that would operate the sculpture garden. There would be a visitors' center; the sculptures would appear randomly across the 500 acres. Private funds would pay for the sculptures and upkeep; admission fees would go to the county. And the Valley would get an international tourist attraction.

It's what politicians like to call a win-win.

The only loser would be the desert.

The inspiration for the Sonoran Desert Sculpture Park comes from the Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley. The 400-acre sculpture garden features the work of acclaimed modern artists like Alexander Calder and Richard Serra. And Frank Crerie points out that the tradition of placing art in natural surroundings dates back much further -- think of Versailles, he says, or Stonehenge.

But the prehistoric inhabitants of England's Salisbury Plain didn't have to worry about growth management. Maricopa County does. So, by association, does Crerie. And his proposal raises some interesting questions about the definition of desert preservation -- and even the definition of art.

For the past few years, Arizonans have repeatedly voted to preserve the desert, particularly the desert in the northeastern reaches of Maricopa County. But just what does desert preservation mean?

Do we fence the protected areas, making them inaccessible and untouched by humankind?

Or do we allow people to hike and bike and enjoy the land, while trying our best not to mar it?

Or do we build roads and ramadas and shooting ranges -- and sculpture gardens?

Before he approached Maricopa County, Crerie had his eye on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale's protected land, which is adjacent to the county park. (And, by the way, very similar in terrain to the area of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park Crerie hopes to appropriate.) He was shut down immediately.

Art DeCabooter, chairman of the McDowell Sonoran Preservation Commission, says there was no reason to even ask his fellow commissioners what they thought.

"I can't read minds, but I can tell you that it would not have been something the preservation commission would have endorsed in the preserve," says DeCabooter, who is also president of Scottsdale Community College. The reaction, he predicts, "would be somewhere between opposed and violently opposed."

The sculpture garden may not include freeways and high-rises, but, DeCabooter says, "It's just another form of development. It really is."

Carla, director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (the sister organization to the preserve commission), agrees. She says the desert needs no artistic complement.

"The attraction is what nature gives us. Not what man adds."

Not every Scottsdalian is opposed to the sculpture garden. Mayor Sam Campana, a longtime arts booster, loves the idea and would like to see it built on the county land. She and others argue that what may not be appropriate for Scottsdale's preserve is perfectly acceptable for Maricopa County's park.

That's semantics. The preserve is lush and serene and undisturbed, and so is the park land Crerie wants. He's not interested in a crappy hunk off the side of the highway.

I asked Crerie if he'd be willing to build his sculpture garden in the area of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park that was ravaged a few years ago by fires.

He says he hasn't ruled it out, but admits it's not quite what he's looking for.

"It's very flat," he says. "I've got to have undulating land that's more interesting."

Crerie insists that his sculpture garden would help the environment, rather than hurt it. He says he would commission environmentally sensitive artists to build some of the sculptures.

"I guess you'd say I'm not a purist, where purists don't want anybody to go to the desert, except to look at it, to walk through it," he says. "I think that the more people that can be encouraged to visit the desert -- this would help them, to have a sculpture park out there -- I think it would result in more conservation. People would be more aware of what we're doing."

Crerie had a small victory last week. The Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Commission voted to create a committee to look into the feasibility of Crerie's idea -- much to the horror of the McDowell Park Association, whose members had voted unanimously to oppose the notion of a sculpture garden in the park.

I am disturbed as well. We have preserved so little of the desert. Can't we just leave it alone?

If Frank Crerie wants to build a sculpture garden in the middle of the desert, he should do what his friends at Storm King Art Center did, and buy the land himself.

And if he can't find anyone to sell him the land he wants, he should consider that to be a sign, and put a sculpture garden in a place that could really use some beauty, like downtown Phoenix.

Abortion Aftermath

The story of Jackie Doe -- the 14-year-old girl who got a late-term abortion while in the state's care -- is yesterday's news. But we can expect the event to shape public policy in the coming months, particularly once the Arizona Legislature reconvenes in January.

House Speaker Jeff Groscost and his band of social conservatives likely will try to punish those who did them wrong by clearing the way for the abortion, including the state supremes, Governor Jane Dee Hull and officials at the Department of Economic Security. Word has it that John Clayton, Hull's appointee to the top slot at DES, will have a heck of a time winning confirmation at the legislature.

Now Clayton's opponents will have an easier time, thanks to Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

In early September, PPCNA President and CEO Brian Howard sent a letter to major donors regarding Planned Parenthood's involvement in Jackie Doe's case -- assuring them that although Howard didn't take much to the airwaves during the controversy, PPCNA was an integral part of Doe's care. And in so doing, he might have slammed the final nail in Clayton's coffin:

Buried in Howard's letter is the statement: ". . . PPCNA became engaged in Jackie's case at the request of officials from the Department of Economic Security. . . ."

That admission is sure to send Groscost et al. into apoplexy.

Another byproduct of the Jackie Doe story: heightened security concerns. The Department of Health Services had scheduled two public hearings -- one in Tucson, one in Phoenix -- to discuss proposed rules for the state's new abortion-clinic regulation law.

But DHS rules administrator Kathleen Phillips says the Tucson meeting was cancelled after DHS received complaints from abortion providers who were concerned because the meeting was not going to be held in a secure building. The Phoenix meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. October 5 at the Arizona Department of Transportation Resource Development Center, 1130 North 22nd Avenue. And yes, Phillips says, that building is secure.

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: [email protected]

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at