A white star hangs in a midnight sky, and an angel is there to guide the way.
But the two men walking the desert in "For Those Who Went Before Us" are not shepherds looking for the Christ child. They're migrants looking to save their own lives.
The angel walks just behind them. He's dressed as they are, in jeans and sneakers, and like them, he's carrying jugs of water. But he has white wings on his back instead of a backpack: He's leading the men safely out of the wilderness, walking them past white crosses marking the desert's dead.
I found this radiant oil on canvas by Lydia Maldonado at Contreras Gallery last week, on a Christmastime tour of downtown galleries. Maldonado likely did not intend the work to be a Christmas painting. Migrants, after all, recount their providential encounters with angels year-round. But at this season, this work easily connects the plight of Arizona's desert wanderers to the Christmas story, with its lost shepherds and with Mary and Joseph—impoverished travelers far from home.
Maldonado is one of six artists in the gallery's holiday show, Reflections of the Sonoran Desert. Carmen Sonnes' multimedia piece "The Fence" has dried desert plants strung horizontally across a canvas to make a border wall. Standing over it is a cross of agave leaves, studded with milagros (miracles)—tiny metal arms, legs and flaming hearts that Mexicans use to pray.
Gallery co-owner Neda Contreras sticks to the desert's beauty. Her oil "Hiding in Plain Sight" has a saguaro, a flowering palo verde and a jackrabbit nearly invisible in the dust; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Jan. 26; closed Dec. 25 and 26, and Jan.1 and 2; 110 E. Sixth St.; 398-6557; www.contrerashousefineart.com.
Next door at Davis Dominguez, Tucson painter James Cook also sticks with the local landscape. His 15 buttery, near-realist paintings show Sabino Canyon in all its glowing glory. Thickly painted slab rocks, more yellow palo verdes and leaf-green saguaros cascade down the canyon slopes in these oils on linen. Sculptor Mark Rossi's hand-worked bronzes of desert animals complement Cook's canyons. Right by a painted Sabino, he has a bronze mountain lion, ready to pounce. (Holiday visitors, beware: The real-life Sabino boasts a population of lions.)
Josh Goldberg fills the main gallery with lush, monumental abstractions. His gorgeous swaths of bold colors always seem to have a relationship to the landscape. "Traveling to Painting" pushes the metaphor: The colors—rust, yellow, lime green—take viewers on a journey into pure beauty; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Dec. 29; closed Dec. 22 to 25; 154 E. Sixth St.; 629-9759; www.davisdominguez.com.
Conrad Wilde Gallery opens Running Amok, an exhibition of art by five women who boldly experiment with technique and media, this Saturday, Dec. 15; see City Week for details; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through Saturday, Jan. 26; closed Dec. 23 through Jan. 1; reception Jan. 5; 439 N. Sixth Ave., No. 195; 622-8997; www.conradwildegallery.com.
Every year, Santa Theresa Tile Works, the tile studio led by artist Susan Gamble, comes up with new holiday ornaments. This year's winner, hands down, is "Festive Filly," a red-tile horse adorned with saguaros, prickly pears and a tiny San Xavier; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday; closed Christmas and New Year's; 440 N. Sixth Ave.; 623-8640; www.santatheresatileworks.com.
Genius outsider artist Michael Cajero was hanging a new work at Raices Taller 222 when I stopped by. The Latino arts gallery's holiday exhibition, Tesoros Pequeños (Little Treasures), has small works priced at $222 or less. Cajero's first contribution was snatched up on opening night, so he was replacing it with "Having Coffee," a classic tortured Cajero in torn paper painted with black gesso, acrylic medium and pastels. Its suffering souls, a woman and man indistinctly seen among the creases, are agonizing over a café table.
Among the other Tesoros Pequeños are a small acrylic abstraction, "Organic Spring Mix," by retired Pima professor George Welch, and explosive ink and collage portraits drawn by 18-year-old Lester Aguirre; 1 to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, Dec. 29; 218 E. Sixth St.; 881-5335.
The last chance to inspect The Drawing Studio's Small Wonders benefit show is this Saturday, Dec. 15. A cascade of tiny art in all media, the small wonders have small prices to match; noon to 4 p.m., through Saturday, Dec. 15; 33 S. Sixth Ave.; 620-0947; www.thedrawingstudio.org.
ATLAS fine art services likewise is exhibiting Small Works, an invitational exhibition of 55 pieces by 30 artists. Big names include Jim Waid, a painter of abstracted deserts and plants, and Paco Velez, the young artist who riffs on the border's cross-cultural collisions. Velez has two uncharacteristically lighthearted "Borderscapes" in cheerful greens. Dare we call them Christmasy? Waid debuts his recent turn toward digital: For his two "September Song" works, he layered digital prints on canvas and then painted atop the photos; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, Jan. 19; 41 S. Sixth Ave.; 622-2139; www.atlasfineartservices.com.
In Home for the Holidays, Obsidian Gallery exhibits a trio of artists who strip the house down to its basic shape: the kindergartener's box with a pointy roof. Londoner Rowena Brown's 3-D houses are raku-fired. Philadelphian Robert Winokur's are low-relief ceramics. Coloradan Lynn Cornelius' are steel frames draped with weavings; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 6; 410 N. Toole Ave., No. 120; 577-3598; www.obsidian-gallery.com
At this time of year, the team at the Philabaum Glass Studio and Gallery fires up luminous glass ornaments that can be hung on the tree. But the gallery has a regular glass art show, Ins and Outs. The Ins refers to optical paintings that Wes Hunting traps inside clear, solid glass. The Outs are Bob and Laurie Kliss' witty "bobtanicals"—glass flowers growing out of glass pods; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through Saturday, Jan. 26; closed Christmas and New Year's; 711 S. Sixth Ave.; 884-7404; www.philabaumglass.com.
Seeing in Silver at Etherton Gallery celebrates three master photographers of gelatin silver prints, photographs shot with film: Ralph Gibson, John Loengard and Harry Callahan. The incomparable Callahan even has a photo that marks the season. "Eleanor, Chicago," 1949, pictures his wife among stripped wintry trees along the city's cold lake; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through Saturday, Jan. 5; closed Christmas and New Year's; 135 S. Sixth Ave.; 624-7370; www.ethertongallery.com.
At the Temple Gallery, Valerie Galloway has a collection of sexy hand-painted photos. Hidden among the gender-bending nudes is a tiny photo of a grand cathedral—Notre Dame in Paris; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and before Arizona Theatre Company performances, through Tuesday, Jan. 8; closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31, and Jan. 1; 330 S. Scott Ave.; 624-7370; www.ethertongallery.com.
This Friday, Dec. 14, MOCA Tucson opens an exhibition of paintings by the acclaimed Peter Young, who decamped New York for Bisbee decades ago. His lyrical abstractions explode into hundreds of brightly colored dots and circles; noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday; 265 S. Church Ave.; 624-5019; www.moca-tucson.org.
End your holiday art tour at the Tucson Museum of Art. With paid admission, you get to see a host of exhibitions, plus the Corbett House decorated for the holidays. The spectacular Nacimiento in the historic Casa Cordova is free. Originally assembled by Tucsonan Maria Luisa Tena, its hundreds of figures re-create scenes of Mexican village life. Plus, its Nativity scene honors Navidad, with Mary and Joseph adoring the baby in the manger; through June 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Thursday; noon to 5 p.m., Sunday; 140 N. Main Ave.; 624-2333; www.tucsonmuseumofart.org.