Tip of the ICEHOUSE

HELEN HESTENES, OWNER AND CURATOR of the Icehouse, can find raw material for creative inspiration in just about anything.

Take breast cancer, for instance. Eager to explore the artistic aspects of the disease, Hestenes once invited the public to participate in an installation called "The Invisible Woman." An interactive exhibition, participants were encouraged to freeze items that told stories about how breast cancer had affected their lives. Then, they were supposed to lay the objets de ice at the base of a dripping ice sculpture carved in the likeness of a one-breasted cancer victim.

When a fellow artist's sister was kidnaped, Hestenes urged the woman to create a room-size piece to remember the victim. What resulted was 300 long-stemmed roses hanging from her gallery's ceiling, each flower representing a missing child.

And Hestenes couldn't have been more supportive of a local performance artist wanting to celebrate her low white-blood-cell count: The artist wanted to hang from a bungee cord dangling from the Icehouse rafters for six hours -- while clad in a hoop skirt and roller skates.

But even the eternally optimistic Hestenes might have a hard time finding much inspiration in events of recent weeks. It has become painfully apparent to observers in the Valley art scene that Hestenes' dream for her building -- a fortresslike compound that resembles a cross between a set for an Edgar Allan Poe movie and The Terminator -- might ultimately melt under the torch of harsh reality.

"The Icehouse has been a very personal project, so I'm personally attached to everything that's happened here," sighs the ethereal Hestenes, a 40-year-old Nordic beauty whose face is only now beginning to be lined with minuscule fjords of time. "This project is like climbing Mount Everest. Luckily, I am Norwegian and I'm a Capricorn goat, so I can do that. I can eat tin cans and not starve and not have a salary and still dump all my energy into this."

For Hestenes' sake, one can only hope those tin cans once contained spinach. During recent times, her idyllic alternative arts venue has been threatened by shutdown, hobbled by the defection of her husband/partner David Therrien and bootstrapped by financial difficulties and problems with shifts in the city's historic preservation plan for the area. Now viewed by many as more of a rental facility for parties and raves than as the edgy arts space it once was, the Icehouse is struggling to sharpen its once razor-wire image. Through it all, Hestenes has suffered personal hardship including a devastating divorce, the strain of single motherhood, the suicide of a younger sister and the financial drain the Icehouse is putting on her family.

As if all that isn't enough, Hestenes is taking on the role of a modern-day Joan of Arc -- or, depending on how you look at it, Don Quixote -- battling the City of Phoenix to save buildings around the Icehouse. Outraged over proposals to build a new county morgue and jail in the downtown warehouse district, instead of the artists' studios, cafes and bookstores she envisions, Hestenes was recently inspired to create her own piece of performance art. When the historic Borden dairy was demolished in September, Hestenes staged a mock funeral in the courtyard of the Icehouse, complete with a grave for the bygone creamery.

The modern-day history of the Icehouse began in 1990, five years after Hestenes and Therrien, who met in an Arizona State University film course, took over an abandoned steel yard on South Seventh Street near Pima Street, southeast of downtown Phoenix.

Eager to rouse Phoenix from what they perceived as a cultural coma, the duo transformed the industrial wasteland into CRASHarts, a techno-punk wonderland where just about anything could happen -- and usually did.

Pointing to the venue's desirable zoning code in a 1985 interview during CRASHarts' heyday, Therrien claimed: "Anything goes. Heavy industrial, cattle slaughter, you name it. . . . We can get as loud and as obnoxious as we want and the police can't do anything about it."

Although there's no evidence that any bovine butchery ever took place on the premises, the alfresco space did play host to new bands like Sun City Girls, Six Flags Over Jesus, and Mighty Sphincter, which would later go on to greater notoriety in the indie/alternative milieu. Other dicey up-and-comers included performance artist Karen Finley, who would later rise to national fame for smearing her nether regions with everything from chocolate to canned yams, and drag diva RuPaul, who was almost (but not quite) upstaged when a hit-and-run fatality occurred in the street just beyond the stage midway through his act.

"It was so surreal," Hestenes now rhapsodizes. "No one wanted to miss anything, so they kept running back and forth between the dead body in the street and RuPaul hollering to be heard over the sirens. We've had a lot of surreal moments like that, which are beautiful because real life comes into play."