Last January, when Joel Coplin read the letter stating that the ramshackle art colony he manages near Apache Junction had been valued at $10,492,058 by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, he felt sure someone had confused his address with the Wal-Mart farther down Apache Trail. Apache Art Studios is, after all, composed of eight tiny apartments and a couple of run-down buildings on an undeveloped, 4.6-acre lot within spitting distance of the middle of nowhere. It's hardly worth the $67,000 in property taxes the $10.5 million valuation would call for.

Last year the property was assessed at $337,591. The $10 million had to be a mistake; even the remaining $492,058 seemed high, and would raise the property tax by about $2,400, a 47 percent increase over the 1992 figure.

The letter thrust Coplin, who refers to his painting style as "contemporary realism," into the realm of bureaucratic surrealism, and left him trudging from office to office and appeal to appeal, trying to set the record straight.

Coplin looks like an artist. He wears his hair long. His sense of humor leaks out of his face in a perpetually bemused grin. At 38, he is at a turning point in his art career. His first one-man showing of paintings is hanging at Scottsdale Center for the Arts through late July, he's represented by a gallery, he's been commissioned to paint a mural at the new Phoenix City Hall.

In true artistic fashion, he and his wife, Jo-Ann Lowney, also a painter, live a shoestring existence, solely off their artwork, "in the manner to which we have become accustomed," Coplin says. "In a shack." Four shacks, actually--together, they rent four of the Apache Art Studios. "The only way we can afford to paint is to have the rents the way they are," he says. The new tax bill would certainly push the rent out of their reach.

The art colony is an eccentric dream started by Katherine "Kit" Hawkins Leegate, who still operates an artists' supply store on the property. Leegate is 77, and since 1986, she has had the colony in a living trust administered by Coplin.

It took Coplin seven years to oust the last of the "Freewheelin' Franks and Biker Bobs" who used to rent apartments from Leegate. "I wanted artists, but I didn't always get them," Leegate says. Now there are nine resident artists, including Coplin and Lowney. Among the others, James Gucwa is a photo-realist painter of good repute who has bounced from New Jersey to Malibu to Apache Junction looking for solitude and the affordable artist's life. Linda and Marco Leon restore Victorian homes, especially those requiring hand-painted murals and gingerbread ornamentation. Mathilda Essig does trompe l'oeil paintings and murals and also restores historic buildings.

Many of Coplin's paintings are updated parodies of ancient mythology; "Narcissus and Echo," for example, is a painting in which he depicts the original narcissist as a pretty-boy yuppie in a white shirt and tie, and Echo holding a cellular phone. In another work, Apollo brings 8-by-10-inch color glossies to Vulcan's forge to show that Vulcan's wife, Venus, is having an affair with Mars.

All of the artists have come to Apache Art Studios for the community and the economy, and for the relaxed sunshine of Arizona.

"The light here is different," Marco Leon says in a thick, Colombian accent. "The blue is different, the yellow is zzzzzzz! It's a different existence, a magical situation."
Indeed, it is a magical place that resembles a forgotten, stylized, Latin American village. The grounds are overgrown with seven-foot lantana bushes in shades of orange and purple and yellow. Cats and chickens prowl beneath their branches. Out front, there's an abandoned adobe building, the original homestead on the property in the 1930s. The studios are simple, white-block, 1950s cottages in a style that Coplin describes as "saguaro-cuckoo clock."

As to their appointments, "disrepair barely says it," Coplin jokes. But he and his wife had moved out from New York, where they were squatters in a tenement in Hell's Kitchen. "We were so used to ramshackle--and this had a bathroom!" he enthuses.

Last January, Coplin was looking through a disparate pile of letters and newspaper articles that Leegate had left him. "So there was this letter from some property-tax consultants," he recalls, "and it says, 'Do you realize they've evaluated your property at $10,492,000 and that your taxes are going to be $67,000 for 1993?' Kit's entire income is not half what the taxes were supposed to be."

He called the Assessor's Office and, sure enough, the property was valued at more than $10 million. Though the clerks in the Mesa office assured him it was a mistake, he was told he still had to go through a formal appeals process.

Coplin filed the papers, and on March 22, he received a decision from the Assessor's Office that said, "The Assessor elects to sustain the current full cash value," or $10,492,058. If they chose, they were told, they could appeal further.

Leegate thought someone was trying to wrangle her property away from her. "They can't stand that a woman is single and owns property," she fumes. "They think because I'm a woman, I won't fight." And her paranoia was rubbing off on Coplin.

"The first thing that came to my mind is, 'Somebody's got his eye on this property,'" he says. "There's a little old lady who owns it and a bunch of hippies in the back.'"
More likely it was merely bureaucratic obfuscation and buck-passing, but he found it far beyond his experience as an artist.

In April, an appraiser from the Assessor's Office came to make a field check. "She measured the square footage and made a big drawing and assessed us on what it would cost to build that building today," says Coplin. The $10 million was indeed a mistake (though it still shows up on some government microfiche records), but the $492,058, which would raise the taxes from last year's $5,100 to about $7,500, stood.

"They assess these old buildings on what it would cost to build them today," Coplin rants. "You can't build a building that old today. That old adobe up front would cost $10," and then you'd have to hire wino builders to get the dilapidated effect.

As Coplin pored over the public records, he found that the improvements to Leegate's land were valued at $245,492, while the land was valued at $246,566. He noticed that an identical-size lot two doors west on Apache Trail had a land value of $120,748, half as much as the art colony, and, armed with that information, he sat through a Board of Equalization hearing on May 4, an event he describes as "bureaucratic beauty."

"Do I see a mistake here?" the appointed equalizer asked him. "Yes," Coplin answered enthusiastically, "a big mistake." And although the equalizer admitted the $10 million gaffe, the rest of the price stood, because there was no way to compare it to any other property. The equalizer's hands were tied. The good news, Coplin was told, was that he could appeal that decision to the Board of Tax Appeals.

And so it went. The assessor and the equalizer passed the buck to the state Department of Revenue, which set the value of improvements, and the county assessor's Land Division, which set the land value.

DOR claims that Leegate's art-supply store had never been on the tax rolls--even though it was built in 1967 and was the only building in the complex that was visible from the road. The "escaped improvement" was discovered in a recent recanvassing of the area, which, by itself, bumped the value up by $89,000. The county Land Division had not overlooked the store, however; that agency set the land value at $246,566, claiming it is a commercial property. The neighboring lot of identical measurements, however, was worth half as much, because it is a "multiuse residential" property and not commercial--even though a landscaping business and a hair salon are on the premises.

Coplin appealed the recalcitrant tax figure. On June 6, a second county field assessor stalked the grounds, measuring this and inquiring about that; he was "a frightening little man," Coplin says, "only because of his efficiency." Coplin mentioned the neighboring property and its value. "Apples and oranges," snapped the assessor. Kit Leegate followed behind, worriedly repeating, "It's because I'm a woman."

But, miraculously, when all columns were tabulated, the assessor came up with a new property value of $346,413, a decrease of $145,000.

Four days later, Coplin met with the state Board of Tax Appeals in Phoenix. "I looked up at two very distinguished judges," he says. "They were up high and I was down low; they looked so big and venerable up there." The judges asked for the state's recommendation, and heard the new, lowered assessment. "Mr. Coplin," they asked, "how do you feel about this figure?"

He felt great. "We will respond for the record and go with the assessor's value," he answered snappily, knowing he had added to his palette the art of bureaucratic navigation.