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After the Move

The Open Studio Tour features displaced ex-Steinfeld residents in their new homes

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Painter Cynthia Miller has a strategy for this weekend's Open Studio Tour.

"I think we'd better put a sign on the Steinfeld Warehouse," she said last week in her new studio digs south of Tucson High School. The notice will alert art lovers that no artists are inside.

People probably need the reminder. Studio-tour-goers have long been used to visiting a host of colorful artists' studios in the rambling old warehouse, located by the railroad tracks at Ninth Avenue and Sixth Street. But the painters and woodworkers and poets who occupied it--some for almost two decades--are now gone.

After nearly a year of contentious negotiations, Miller and more than a dozen other artists were finally evicted at the end of July. The building's owner, the Arizona Department of Transportation, insisted that the artists had to leave the creaky building while it undergoes repairs. The artists managed to wrangle multiple extensions, but they finally hit a firm deadline.

Miller and a half-dozen of the other Steinfeld refugees have alighted in a sturdier warehouse at 650 E. Ninth St., at the southwest corner of Ninth and First Avenue. Along with more than 130 artists all over town--and some in the county--they'll open up their studios to the public for free on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, in a self-guided tour sponsored by Tucson Pima Arts Council.

At the new place, dubbed P.E.A.C.E. Studios by the beleaguered ex-Steinfeld artists, art lovers can get a glimpse of paintings in progress, a letterpress printer, a photographic studio and a weaver's looms. Not only will they see art in the making, but they can take in all the eclectic items--from carved animal masks to stacks of books to rows of rainbow yarns--that fill the studios.

The relocated Steinfeld gang includes Charles Alexander, poet, maker of fine books, executive director of Chax Press and Miller's husband; painters Betina Fink, Mary Theresa Dietz and Elizabeth Criger; and another husband-and-wife team, photographer Joe Labate and painter Laura LaFave.

"It's a romantic getaway" for the married couples, Alexander joked. Miller and Alexander share a single space, with Alexander's books, printing press and office wrapping in an "L" shape around Miller's crowded painting quarters. Labate and LaFave likewise share one studio.

Formerly the home of a commercial-printing business, the building was a warren of carpeted offices upfront, and an open warehouse beyond.

"It smelled like cigars," Miller said. "It was chopped up strangely."

So the artists tore up carpets, knocked down some walls, built others, and painted walls and floors. They're used to putting in sweat equity--at the Steinfeld, their low rent was coupled with an as-is clause, and they had to keep up the place themselves. Their new landlord actually pays for repairs.

"He patched some leaks really well," Miller marveled. "And he fixed the cooler."

These kinds of luxuries don't come cheap. Alexander calculated that the new place is costing the artists more than six times as much as the Steinfeld. He and Miller used to pay $150 a month in rent; now they must cough up $850 a month, plus utilities. In theory, the artists are supposed to be invited back to the Steinfeld once--or if--it gets fixed.

Meantime, to help share the costs and space in the 4,100-square-foot building, the seven ex-Steinfelders recruited three other artists. Painters Curt Kiwak and Jane Mohler and weaver Joyce Jaden have now set up shop. (The other ex-Steinfeld artists are in other studios in the Warehouse District and on West St. Mary's Road, Miller said.)

Jaden, a self-described "emerging artist," is delighted to find herself among such a committed and serious bunch.

"It's so nice to be in this environment, being with people doing what they love," said Jaden, at work on her loom in her new studio. At home, she had her loom "in my dining room, and storage in the garage."

Jaden has done art for years, but at the end of September, she left a full-time job as executive director of a nonprofit so she could do art morning, noon and night.

She makes functional and fine-art weavings, from seagrass baskets that hold potted plants to mixed-media abstractions that can be hung on a wall. On tour day, visitors might catch her at one of her four looms: a Navajo, a four-harness, a 12-harness and a "dobby" loom. With its templates, "It's like a player piano," she explains.

If Jaden is luxuriating in a space much bigger than the corner of her dining room, painter Dietz is still getting used to a studio much smaller than her old one at Steinfeld. A veterinarian's assistant who cares for live animals by day, by night, Dietz paints their images on canvas, or carves them in wood.

Lately, she said, "I've been making monoprints"--prints on paper drawn from wet paintings on glass. Last week on her studio table, she had a painting of a blackbird set against a backdrop of blues and greens. She had already hand-pulled three prints from the original painting. Each one is different.

"You don't know what it's going to turn out like," she said. "It's Christmas every time."

She said that with the expected crush of visitors on tour day, she probably won't do any printing demos. Still, she'll have multiple prints on view to give some idea of the process--as well as paintings of dogs and cats and jaguars chock-a-block on her walls.

In her studio, painter Miller was putting together work for her upcoming solo show at Temple Gallery, opening Nov. 24.

"I'll have a bunch of things," she said, most of them mixed media on paper, painted in acrylic, chalk, oil pastels and oil paint sticks. Rendered in lively lines and multiple hues, her paintings of late have been shaped by nature.

One was inspired by a fire that set a neighbor's palm trees ablaze in the middle of the night, she said. The monsoons triggered a whole series, and so did the fires in the Catalina Mountains a few years back--a pinecone suite: "I brought pinecones down from Mount Lemmon after the fire."

These small works on canvas, just 8 inches square, each picture a single pinecone. Each cone is different--muted, bold, dreamy--and each one has a different colored backdrop: pink, green and so on.

"They're like little self-portraits," she said.

Miller also plans to paint some big works on canvas for a two-person exhibition next April at the CUE Art Foundation in New York, in the happening art neighborhood of Chelsea. The gallery showcases "under-recognized" artists, displaying their work and publishing it in a catalogue, Miller said.

She needs to get started, but she's got a problem: So far, her studio doesn't have a wall big enough to hold large swathes of canvas. She's got to build a wall before she can paint.

"It's very disruptive to move," she sighed. But looking on the bright side--literally--she said she has much more natural light in the P.E.A.C.E. Studios than she did at Steinfeld.

"My paintings have been so bright, because the studio was so dark," she said. Odds are the new studio will kindle some interesting changes in her work.

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