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A Colorful History

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Listening to Terry Etherton describe vintage-postcard collecting is eerily similar to listening to an addict.

"Like with anything, you get a few of these, and you need more," Etherton says.

It started 15 years ago, when Etherton first began collecting vintage Tucson postcards, traveling to trade shows and keeping an open ear for anything available. Then, with the advent of the Internet and eBay, collectors' dreams became a reality: They had fast means to locate highly specialized items. Etherton got online and started searching for the 1930s and 1940s postcards that depict Tucson's city streets and open landscapes.

As he describes the postcards while pulling out numerous examples from two black boxes, he is calm and detached enough that one can tell that this isn't really an addiction, but more the result of a love for nostalgia and the oddities that appear on the postcards once used to sell Tucson.

"I just love how they exaggerate the color on these," he says. "And the border on this one is great." He points to the small caricatures of people playing various sports that surround the Santa Rita Hotel. Lassoed in the right-hand corner is a portrait of hotel manager Nick Hall. He looks like an Old West cowboy.

Etherton is right about the colors, too: They're great and, at times, hysterical. Aside from the basic utility the postcards provided, the vintage cards were small advertisements for the Old Pueblo, and the designers saw to it that the colors of sunsets and mountains were as vivid as possible.

Postcard manufacturers used lithographic techniques for the photographs, adding burning reds and numerous shades of orange and pink to the Tucson skyline. The technique also gives the postcards the appearance of detailed illustrations--rather than photographs--capturing Tucson in a 5 1/2-inch-by-3-1/2-inch frame.

Because of the small size of the postcards, Etherton realized the difficulty in sharing the old images. So the Etherton Gallery decided to have 24 of the better postcards scanned and printed onto canvasses that were then stretched and fitted on wood. The process produces an image that looks more like a 30-inch-by-20-inch painting than an old photograph.

The painting-like snippets of Tucson's past are now hanging at the Temple Gallery as a part of the Wish You Were Here: Vintage Tucson Postcards exhibition.

"We did this about two years ago, and it was well-received," Etherton says. A majority of the postcards hung on the walls at the Tucson International Airport, and the airport later purchased them for its private collection.

"I think some of them are now hanging in offices over there," Etherton says, laughing.

One goal of the exhibition is to sell the prints to any willing buyer. The prints are all available for purchase; each has the price tag of $375.

"My hope is that some of the places that are still around, like the Chase Bank, will purchase these after the show so they can have a piece of their past," he says.

The purchasing or viewing isn't limited, however, to those with connections to historic Tucson. Etherton says he hopes that people will come down to the show to see the city's past and enjoy an era that no longer exists in Tucson--or in postcards.

"I was in a Walgreens the other day and took a look at the postcard rack; it sucked," he says. Etherton cites examples of boring shots of sunsets from the viewpoint of Mount Lemmon, and the typical picture of the UA campus. The artistic appeal isn't there anymore, he says.

Etherton doesn't plan on holding out for a transformation in postcards; he's content--determined, actually--to continue searching for the postcards that have captivated him for the last 15 years.

"What I'm trying to do is find all of these, and despite how difficult that is, I don't plan on stopping until I do."

Wish You Were Here: Vintage Tucson Postcards is on display at Temple Gallery, 330 S. Scott Ave., through Friday, May 30. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and prior to Arizona Theatre Company performances. The opening reception is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 11. Call 624-7370 or visit the Etherton Web site for more information.

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