Getting Artsy in Arizona

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For the Calgary Herald: Have you always wanted to wield a paintbrush?  Had a passion for pottery? Been gaga for glassblowing or crazyadmin-ajax-001 for the clarinet but couldn’t find the time to do what you love?  Arizona is a place where you can follow your bliss even if all you have is a few hours, a few days or, best of all, a few weeks to spend there.

Where to get inspired

The Heard Museum – Phoenix

To immerse yourself in the art and culture of the Southwest, visit the Heard Museum in Phoenix.  From ancient pottery to contemporary photographs, it’s a celebration of Native American art and artists.  As you follow the spiral curves of the shell shaped Ullman Learning Centre you’ll find exhibits from 21 of Arizona’s tribal communities.  Each one highlights their unique approach to art with hands on samples of weaving, drawing and basket making.  In four easy steps you can take home a cloth doll called a shoshobaD (sho-sho-badt in the O’odham language) from the Ak-Chin Indian community’s exhibit.  The Heard Museum keeps modern Native American art alive and flourishing with contemporary shows featuring artists from the USA and Canada.

The Cosanti Foundation – Scottsdale

Take courage from the work of 92 year old Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri.  Using only the earth, recycled materials and concrete he created a masterpiece of architecture in the desert called the Cosanti Foundation.  A former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, his combination of gallery, studio and residence, is all curves and circles, waves and valleys in contrast to the linear design of his mentor’s Taliesin West home.  Best known for Arcosanti, the planned community he began in 1970, Cosanti is also famous for the hand cast bells that can be found throughout the gardens of the foundation.

Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours – Phoenix, Scottsdale

Ace Bailey has over 20 years of experience creating custom tours for art lovers and aspiring artists.  “I want people to learn something and connect to the arts.  We are all creative in some way whether it’s decorating, cooking, painting or making pottery.  Whenever I hear someone say they could never be an artist, I say ‘Back that pony up.’ Private tours are capped at a dozen people for an immersive experience.  Ace arranges tours and workshops at Cattle Track Arts compound.  Without Ace you’d never guess that this rustic collection of barns and bungalows tucked into a residential street in Scottsdale could be the gathering place of so many famous artists past and present. Sculptor Louise Nevelson, painter Fritz Scholder, blacksmith Bill Smith and Philip Curtis, founder of the Phoenix Art Centre made Cattle Track a cultural touchstone.  She knows every gallery from the most established to the “pop-ups”, ultra-contemporary galleries that rent by the month.  Her intimate knowledge of what’s on offer combined with her love of art and great sense of humour make her an outstanding guide to the Scottsdale art scene.

Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix

Musicians and music lovers will be captivated by the newly opened Musical Instrument Museum.  The MIM lets you see and hear over 10,000 carefully selected instruments from every country in the world.  Your audio guide will scan the bagpipe, marimba, sitar, gamelan or tuba that you’re looking at and play a high resolution video of an artist performing on that instrument in their natural surroundings.  Along with exotic instruments from India, Mongolia, China and Africa you’ll see John Lennon’s piano, Eric Clapton’s guitars, the first Steinway ever built and the entire Martin guitar workshop with the original tools and benches.  In the Experience Gallery, you can bang a gong, strum a guitar, play a harp and thump away on an assortment of drums and wooden instruments.  Allow at least four hours.  It’s a big musical world.

Where to Create

Mesa Arts Centre

Let loose and try your hand at one of the dozens of visual and performing arts classes available at the busy Mesa Arts Centre.  The Centre hosts classes, exhibitions, dance and musical performances, festivals and special events. Classes include music, drawing, glass, metals, printmaking and blacksmithing and many more.

Let Laurie Nessel teach you how to turn a glass bead on a rod called a mandrel.  Glass melts to a honey-like consistency in the silver flame of a natural gas torch at about 1600° C (2900° F).   The hardest part is keeping both hands turning at the same time while working against gravity.  David Vogt started working with glass after a 20 year career as an electrical engineer in Chicago.  He can teach you how to make a glass flower from a molten blob by using steel pinchers to draw out the leaves and stem.  Even the simplest piece has its own shiny beauty.   It’s easy to see why you could get hooked on glass.

Kathi Young has been studying flameworking since moving down to Mesa from Calgary.  “I retired from the Calgary Board of Education last June after working as a Physical Education teacher for almost 25 years.  We live in an area where many Calgarians spend part of the year.  I was thrilled to find the Mesa Arts Center. In my intro course we learned how to pull a stringer, make dots, barrel beads, striped beads, triangle beads, gravity swirl, raking, feathering and florals to name a few.  The Mesa Arts Center is a wonderful place – great equipment, outstanding instruction and an awesome community space.”

In the ceramics studio down the hall, students are taking a “Claycation”.  It’s a two day ceramics workshop with Jessie Armstrong that’s geared to travelers.  To get students in a playful mood, he’ll have them use whatever is around to make impressions in the clay – including their shoes.  Classes at the Mesa Arts Center range from one day workshops to month long courses.  Their website has all the details.

The Tubac Center of the Arts

Travel an hour south of Tucson and you’ll reach the tiny town of Tubac, an artist’s colony like no other.  Here you’ll find over 100 art galleries, working artist studios and gift shops tucked into a colourful jumble of adobe and wooden storefronts. You can easily spend an entire day marvelling at the jewellery, leatherwork, pottery and paintings.  Unique pieces can be had at bargain prices. At the Tubac Center of the Arts, Roberta Rogers takes it outside to teach her class on “Watercolour Painting for the Traveler”.  Nancy Pobanz, from the University of Oregon teaches a two day course on collage using natural found objects as paint, ink, drawing tools and transfer materials called “Collect and Collage”.  For the full list, go to

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute – Tucson

Get to know the birds, mammals, insects and plants of the desert through the nature illustration courses at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  Using a variety of techniques including field sketching, botanical illustration, photography and landscape painting, you’ll gain an appreciation for nature as well as expand your artistic range.  You could choose a one day drawing course on Saguaros: Giants of the Desert.  The Desert Museum is surrounded by thousands of these tall cacti with their arms in the air.  A guided tour by a museum expert will teach you how cactus shelter birds and animals followed by lessons from a professional artist outdoors and in the classroom.

Where to stay:

Hotel Valley Ho – Phoenix

Voted Best Place to Spot Girls in Big Sunglasses, the mid-century modern vibe of the Hotel Valley Ho will have you searching the bar for Robert Wagner but spotting Hugh Jackman at the uber-cool Café Zuzu. Trader Vic’s award winning vintage cocktail menu lets you stay in a mod mood until the wee hours.  To revive, pop into the VH Spa, voted one of the top 10 spas in the country by Good Morning America and Travel & Leisure.

Hermosa Inn – Phoenix

Built as a labour of love by cowboy artist Lon Megargee in 1930 and restored in a $2 million dollar renovation in 1992, this hideaway with only 34 adobe casitas retains its southwest pedigree but brings on the luxe factor.  Each one of a kind room now boasts a lavish bathroom with a walk in shower and antique pedestal tubs.  The oversized sofas and chairs, fireplaces, king size beds, secluded patios and western artwork invite you to relax and unwind.  Lon’s Restaurant, with its rustic ironwork and Megargee originals, serves award winning American cuisine that draws folks from all over the area.

The Arizona Inn – Tucson

Step back to a kindler, gentler age at the Arizona Inn.  The cozy casitas, 14 acres of flower and fruit tree filled gardens and the caring staff will make you feel like you’ve found your Shangri-La.  All the modern amenities have been added to the 1930’s style bungalows, right down to wi-fi and fluffy bathrobes.  Privacy, quiet and sunshine are promised and delivered.  Complimentary afternoon tea in the library includes little crustless sandwiches and samples of the tasty pastries available in the main dining room. Their menu features international cuisine served in an elegant atmosphere.  Music from the piano bar serenades you while you dine.  Don’t miss the black and white cake.


Follow Debra Smith:

Travel writer and luxury hotel reviewer

An experienced and trustworthy travel writer, Debra writes about luxury hotels and resorts, soft adventure, fine dining and cultural experiences in Europe and North America. Posting to Instagram since 2013 as @Where.To.Lady. Curious, attentive to detail and fun company, Debra is based in Calgary, Alberta. Member of SATW, IFWTWA, TravMedia USA, BA English, Art History U of C, former Chair TMAC AB/NWT.