Every morning, Richard Zelens rises before dawn and walks with his dog to the dry riverbed of the Rillito to watch the sun come up. Besides the spiritual benefits he says he receives from witnessing the break of each day, he gets an artistic payoff. A series of oil paintings called "Morning Dog Walk" have long since become a Zelens staple. In his studio right now, he's displaying one of the earliest paintings he did in Tucson, which he moved to 14 years ago this month.
In simplified shapes and bright colors, the oil pictures a saguaro, a dog and the UA campus observatory, all bathed in the rosy light of dawn. Those pinks and blues of the morning sky find their way into many of his paintings, which tend toward antic flowers and gyrating figures set into landscapes.
A former dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Zelens says, "I dance on canvas."
On his morning walks, he also picks up cast-off objects—stray wood and broken furniture—that he turns into art back in the studio. Right now he has several small tables dazzlingly painted with large flowers. Propped up against a wall is a found-object work in the early stages. Its base is the headboard from a twin bed; Zelens has painted it white and sketched out a loose charcoal drawing across its surface.
This weekend, during the ninth annual Tucson Artists' Open Studios tour, the public is welcome to step inside Zelens' charming place. Located at 3250 E. Kleindale Road, around the corner from the Humane Society, it is an unassuming 1950s brick ranch house on the outside. But on the inside it's painted in pungent Old Pueblo salmons and ambers, and art is everywhere.
One whole room is dedicated to his large-scale oils on canvas, and his sgraffitos—flat ceramic pieces in blue and white, with designs scratched into the clay. His studio is in the old, attached garage, and like many of the artists on the free, self-guided tour, he'll be doing a demo, showing visitors how he uses batik to create bold flowers on delicate silks.
"These are beautiful for spring," Zelens says. "People can wear them"—as a shawl or sarong or as a "wrap around your head."
The artist's lot is narrow but long, taking up a surprising three-quarters of an acre. It's occupied not only by the main house, but also by an art-filled patio, a garden, a trailer and a casita, where ceramic artist Maxine Kresnow of the Tucson Clay Co-Op (3326 N. Dodge Blvd.) has a studio for creating her elegant functional pots.
These studio mates are just two of 140 local artists opening their eclectic workplaces to the public this Saturday and Sunday during the Open Studios tour. The 86 studios on the self-guided tour are all over town, "from Dove Mountain on the northwest to Civano on the southeast," says organizer Dirk J. Arnold, an artist known for his Endangered Architecture series, wooden shadowboxes of iconic Tucson buildings. "You can explore art in your neighborhood."
The far northwest artist is Liz Vaughn, who will show paintings in her self-styled House of Art, Love and Laughter, at 5486 W. Durham Hills St., near Dove Mountain in Marana. A handful of artist friends will join her to show their own work, Arnold says. The Civano artist is potter Joe Zeller, who will open up his Zenith Way Studios, 5173 S. Zenith Way, in the planned community.
In contrast to the Open Studio Tour staged each November by the Tucson Pima Arts Council, the springtime event is an artist-run enterprise. Arnold helped found the artists' event years ago when the arts council scaled back to one annual tour.
"It's important to have two tours every year," Arnold says. "It gives more exposure to the artists." And artist participation continues to grow.
"We've never had 85 locations before," he says. Many of those sites have lone artists showing out of their houses or garages in the neighborhoods. About a third of the artists on the tour are downtown or nearby, most of them working out of old industrial spaces divided into artists' warrens.
The longtime Splinter Brothers and Sisters Warehouse, at 901 N. 13th Ave., near Main Avenue and Second Street, is a pioneering collective where, among other artists, Eric Twachtman will show his semi-abstracted landscapes. At the Seventh Avenue Arts District Studios, at 549 N. Seventh Ave., in the West University neighborhood, photographer Kathryn Wilde is one of many artists opening their doors.
Encaustic artist Miles Conrad is re-colonizing the Steinfeld Warehouse at 101 W. Sixth St., a historic building that recently reopened after being rehabbed. His Conrad Wilde Gallery, currently open by appointment only, will welcome visitors during the tour.
Arnold himself works out of the Citizens Art Studios warehouse at 44 W. Sixth St. "There are 28 artists in the building," Arnold says, including "Gavin Troy, who makes very sweet collages, painter Titus Castanza and Rand Carlson," the tin collage artist who doubles as a cartoonist for the Tucson Weekly. Last year, the Citizens artists were honored in Citizens Warehouse with Select Work from the Artists, a book put together by painter Alec Laughlin. Copies of the book, at $40 apiece, will be on sale during the studio tour, Arnold says.
The tour will be bittersweet for painter Cynthia E. Miller, a local favorite for her bright mixed-media paintings of birds and flowers and household objects. This weekend marks her last Artists' Open Studios tour in her studio at Small Planet Bakery, 411 N. Seventh Ave. "Small Planet is going to get torn down" to make way for a roadway, she says. Plus, she's leaving her longtime Tucson home to start a studio art program at the University of Houston-Victoria.
"Lots of change," Miller says. "It will be an adventure."
Her husband, poet and publisher Charles Alexander, has also accepted a faculty position at Victoria, in poetry and book design, and he'll bring his Chax Press with him to Texas. He shares the Small Planet studio with Miller, but he won't participate in the tour. Ever the devoted teacher, Miller won't open up for the tour on Saturday until 12:30 p.m., after she finishes her morning class.
She plans on setting up a painting demo—introducing visitors to her many media, including acrylic paints and oil sticks. And she'll show the exuberant painted flowers in vases in her Fleurs series and the un-still objects in her dancing Still Life series.
Hanging on one wall will be "Magic Vessels," a work on paper that's groundbreaking for the artist. "It has vases and pots," she says, "but it's more drawing and less painting."
And it's also of unprecedented dimensions for Miller. At 20 feet long and 4 feet high, it's a Texas-sized work for the Texas-bound artist.
Artist Richard Zelens will open his home and studio during this weekend's Tucson Artists' Open Studios. At upper left is his "Freesia in Pitcher," an oil on canvas; at upper right, is an untitled ceramic stoneware platter.