Positioned in a studio in a bright corner of the old Steinfeld Warehouse, Nancy Charak paints watercolor abstractions.
"I'm a committed abstract expressionist," she says. "My idols are Helen Frankenthaler and Agnes Martin"—two famed abstractionists.
Charak, who will be exhibit her work at Steinfeld (101 W. Sixth St.) during the Tucson Artists' Open Studio event this weekend and next, is a Chicago native. After earning an MFA in painting and drawing from Northern Illinois University in the "corn country" west of Chicago, she went back to her hometown and exhibited widely, working for years as anything from a legal secretary to a camera saleswoman to support her painting habit.
Three and a half years ago, Charak switched to desert country, hoping for "new experiences and new scenery," she says. In Tucson, she quickly connected with fellow artists and scored some exhibitions, including a group show at Conrad Wilde Gallery in 2015.
Recently, she made what might count as an even bigger coup: she landed one of the first studios to re-open in the Steinfeld, a legendary downtown arts space that, years ago, was shut down for safety reasons. The way Charak did it was simple. She asked.
"I had work to do for my gallery in Chicago," she says, speaking in a heavy Chicago accent. She needed a studio fast, so she called Jim Wilcox, a consultant for WAMO (Warehouse Arts Management Organization), which oversees Steinfeld and other properties in the Tucson Historic Warehouse District.
The south bay of the building was already houses the studios of three artists, including painter Mary Theresa Dietz, who will also open her doors for the tour. Wilcox assigned Charak a bright corner studio at the north end of the sprawling 1907 warehouse, two doors up from Conrad Wilde Gallery. Charak and fellow painter Greta Ward now share the space, which once was home to Alamo Woodworkers and Alamo Gallery.
Steinfeld, the oldest surviving warehouse in downtown Tucson, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as part of the warehouse historic district. It's still under renovation, but has a temporary permit to open to the public for the four days of the studio tour, Wilcox says. Some twenty visiting artists will set up temporary displays on tables in the vast interior space, measuring some 8000 square feet.
"It's totally safe now," says David Aguirre, a downtown arts entrepreneur who's volunteering on the Steinfeld project, "It feels so good and secure in here now."
Outfitted with a new roof, plumbing, two working bathrooms and a sprinkler system, the warehouse still needs an overhaul of the electrical system. WAMO is waiting for financing for the final renovations, Wilcox says. Assuming the money comes through, that vast interior space will be divided into about 20 studios. The hope is that it will open completely this summer., or as Aguirre puts it, "Finally."
For the tour weekends, visiting artists include Barbara Brandel, a collagist and mixed-media painter; Tom Buchanan, another abstract painter; Eliza Craig, a jeweler and leatherworker; and Patrick Hynes, a mixed-media artist and sculptor.
"The studio tour will be energy coming back," Aguirre says.
Artist Dirk Arnold, says that some 95 artists from all over the city have signed up for the independent artists' tour, which he's been running for 11 years. About 62 different studios will be on the tour, not only in the downtown warehouses and barrio adobes, but in living rooms and backyard guest houses all over town—from mid-town to the eastside and clear up to Marana.
"We say, `Explore art in your neighborhood,'" Arnold says, wherever that neighborhood might be.
Liz Vaughn, a Dove Mountain painter (5486 W. Durham Hills St.) who makes stylized figurative works, is farthest north. Open only the first weekend, May 14 and 15, she's invited jeweler Michelle Spanyard to exhibit with her as a guest artist.
The far east prize goes to Debra Little (1720 N. Forty Niner Dr.), who works in water color and colored pencil. The southernmost venue is the Process Museum, way down south where Kolb Road meets the I-10 (8000 S. Kolb Rd.). There, the heartbreaking burnt papier-mâché sculptures of Michael Cajero and the digital paintings of Joe Rebholz will be on view.
Arnold notes that while the reemergence of the Steinfeld is the biggest news of the tour, there's another, sadder story.: the Seventh Avenue Studios (549 N. Seventh Ave.), once owned by the Tucson Arts District Partnership, is set to close soon.
"This will likely be its last studio tour," he says.
After it was sold to a private developer, the artists were told vacate the premises, though a few still remain. Seven artists, including photographer Kathryn Wilde, will welcome tour visitors.
"It's one of the most nicely built-out spaces," Arnold says, with a central hallway that served as a gallery.
Arnold will show his own work at Citizens Art Studios, a warehouse at 44 W. Sixth Street. Perhaps best known for his popular magnets of treasured Tucson landmarks, Arnold makes what he calls "historic preservation miniatures," to-scale architectural models of treasured local buildings.
The artist-run tour, open to anyone willing to pay the $50 fee, is important for local artists, Arnold says. "Exposure is the big thing. If you don't have a gallery, you get your work shown and maybe make some sales."
Not all studios are open to visitors both weekends, so check the website for schedules. Nearly all the artists, though, offer refreshments to add an extra enticement to the art. Charak, the painter with the primo studio in the historic Steinfeld, says she and Ward who will "of course" offer snacks to lure crowds to view her paintings.
"They may not be those cute little squares of cheese," she says, "but we'll have something."