Under the Sun

A Founder of Phoenix’s Downtown Art Scene Gets the Boot

David Therrien
David Therrien had to get a move on.

The artist David Therrien was recently given three days to clear out a career’s worth of large-scale installation art from the Buchanan Street space he’d been renting for nearly eight years.

“I’ve got to hire guys with giant forklifts to move nine separate containers,” he explained last week. “There are workshops and labs inside each container, and I have to secure everything in there, fasten the contents to the walls and the floors and move them so the contents won’t fly all over the place as they’re being transported.”

Therrien was evicted from his live-work space in December. His landlord didn’t care that he’s a founder of the downtown Phoenix art scene, or that he’s made an international name for himself as a large-scale artist whose installation work explores interactions between man and machine.

Among the large objects Therrien needed to move were 100,000 glass bowls he’d planned to use in an installation at San Francisco International Airport. And then there were the four full-sized elevators he’d purchased for a project along the Arizona-Mexico border.

“I was going to make border wall elevators,” he said. “They would operate like an amusement park ride where they’d go up and then extend in, over the border. So you could go to America for a minute or two, then come back.”

In just a few days, Therrien said, his landlord might take the elevators and keep them, along with whatever else Therrien left on the site.

“Which may be everything, because I don’t have a way to move things yet. Or anyplace to move them to.”

When he’d been evicted, Therrien was current on his rent. He’d even offered to pay the next three months’ rent in advance. He thinks his landlord declined because he’s afraid Arizona’s eviction moratorium, set in place last year to protect workers during pandemic layoffs, will be expanded after President Joe Biden takes office this month.

“The landlord’s allowed to evict me because this is a commercial space, not a residential space,” Therrien said. “It’s the way the Arizona law is written for this sort of rental agreement.”

The artist took his case to a Maricopa County court, but nothing came of it.

“The hearing was a joke,” he scoffed. “I asked for an attorney and was told no. My landlord claimed he didn’t know I was living on-site, although he’s visited me here many times and saw the container I was living in.”

While he scrambled to find a new home for himself and his giant supplies, Therrien wasn't making art.

“I had a piece due to prototype this summer,” he sighed. “Big earth-to-space beacons for a project about satellites. I also had a huge project coming up for an expo in Dubai.”

Many of his other projects were already on hold thanks to the pandemic, which curtailed the lectures and workshops Therrien routinely did in Europe and Palestine, as well as his large-scale installations which drew large crowds.

Therrien felt his eviction sent a lousy message to other live-work artists, and that Arizona needed to create laws to protect creatives who reside in their studio space. “A lot of people don’t know the eviction moratorium doesn’t cover month-to-month leases in commercial spaces,” he said, a loophole that allowed unscrupulous landlords to become what Therrien called “COVID profiteers.”

Once he stashed what he could, Therrien figured he’d go live in his other art studio in California for a while. In the meantime, he was looking for a new live-work space in Phoenix.

“I have to find someone who’s willing to use my containers as collateral for future rent,” he said, “while I get caught up selling art projects.”

He’s been through hard times before. “I’ve lost art spaces in the past. But I’m 61 years old this time, and 20-hour days of packing and moving this much stuff has gotten me way down.”

He looked around at his vast collection of elevators and storage containers and glass bowls. “I’m an artist,” he said. “I don’t want to deal with lawsuits. I want to make art.”