Culture News

Tucson Artist Jackson Boelts on Watercolor, Jared Loughner, and Tucson's Future

Jackson Boelts describes his artistic process as "quick": First, he lays a 3-by-5-foot piece of damp watercolor paper on a large glass surface.

He's careful to choose the colors before applying the paint -- the entire canvas is usually finished in less than an hour. And as the paper dries and bubbles, it forces the paint to gather and darken in certain areas and leave lighter impressions, or "holes" in the remaining parts of the paper.

He says he finds the "holes" interesting -- specifically one left in the Tucson landscape he painted (pictured left) in response to the recent shooting, which killed six and injured 13 outside of the Safeway down the street from his house.

Boelts also teaches design and illustration at the University of Arizona -- a gig he landed long after he and his brother collaborated on a piece in reaction to the Los Angeles race riots, and even longer after his mother taught them both how to paint.

The piece he and his brother created, "Vision Not Violence", hung for a time in the Los Angeles mayor's office. It was a piece meant to heal -- the same sentiment he hopes for the cover of this week's New Times, which addresses the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson and the mark left on the city forced into the national spotlight on January 8.

In this week's cover story, Branded, New Times' Managing Editor Amy Silverman travels to Tucson with Art Director Peter Storch and photographer Jamie Peachey. The three meet with Boelts (a former professor and current mentor of Storch's), to talk about Tucson's future. Silverman writes:

It's true that we don't think of JFK every time someone mentions Dallas, and you can talk about New York City -- finally -- without conjuring 9/11. No one ever called it the Manhattan Tragedy. But Tucson's much smaller. And for many, Jared Lee Loughner's killing spree is and will be the first association with the southern Arizona city, the first time they've heard the name pronounced out loud.

This tragedy's going to stick to Tucson, even though technically, the Safeway where it happened isn't even in its city limits. Already, the media's short-handed it to Tucson. Soon, it'll be a verb: "Tucsoned." Full story ...

Boelts says he remembers that Saturday, when his family called him down to the television: "We sat and watched the coverage all day. We were trying to figure out why it happened and hoping nothing, well, that nothing happened to anyone we knew."

At the time, Boelts was working on a series called "Shields."

The name's twofold: Boelts used to be an avid spelunker, and was always interested in cave walls (also called shields) that are formed by the joining of stalactites and stalagmites. In caving, shields are "room dividers and protection breakers," he says.

But the series also draws heavily from psychological shields and personas Boelts says people use and put on to protect themselves from good and bad experiences.

His resulting works combine layers of the original watercolor with fragments and accents of other watercolors and digital images, which, to Boelts, create a sort of control within the watercolor process.

"Watercolor has a mind of its own," he says. "You can't force the colors in a certain direction or the image becomes muddy ... It's kind of like life. You can plan for things to go in a certain way, and then something else takes over and you end up in a spot you didn't expect, but you can always turn it in a positive direction."

For the cover, Boelts took his watercolor -- the angel and Tucson mountains -- and placed a picture he took of a cactus in his neighborhood, which he digitally edited to include "holes." While he says he recognizes the situation Tucson and its people are in, he still believes in turnaround.

"For now, we're in a healing process," says Boelts. "There's a community here that knows and believes that this kind of thing doesn't need to happen ... The community is the angel, and all it can do for now is watch over its own beat up cactus."