When architect Anne-Marie Nequette was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, she used to build a city in the fireplace every winter night.
"My father taught middle school woodshop for 30 years, and he brought the scraps of wood home," Nequette remembers. "I'd get to build cities out of the wood in the fireplace." Then the family would gather around to watch the improvised city go up in flames. "It was cool to watch the city burn, too."
Those early wood-scrap constructions not only helped influence her eventual career choice; they directly inspired the bas-relief architectural installation Nequette is now showing at Conrad Wilde Gallery. La Ciudad/La Cittá ("The City") covers the whole back wall of the gallery, measuring 8 feet high by almost 14 1/2 feet wide.
It's made of some 2,000 tiny wood blocks, fitted like puzzle pieces into a grid of 112 Masonite squares.
These scraps of spliced and glued wood conjure up an imaginary city. The structures can be read, Nequette says, either as an "architectural elevation"--seen from the side--of a city on stilts, or as an "architectural plan"--seen from above--of a city spreading out over open space.
Beautifully crafted of woods in all shapes and tones, the work is in part an homage to the artist's father, Bill Nequette, who died in 2003.
"He was a real craftsman," she says. "I wanted to honor what he taught me, and what he gave me."
But the work also comes out of Anne-Marie Nequette's architectural convictions. A lecturer in architectural history and theory, and studio design at the UA's College of Architecture, she is a preservationist who helped found MAPP, the Modern Architecture Preservation Project of Tucson. Spearheaded by Nequette, the group has gone to bat to save Tucson's rich collection of mid-century modernist buildings--like the 1964 Wilmot Library by Nicholas Sakellar, only recently given a reprieve from the wrecking ball.
Similarly, the artwork reclaims pieces of wood. Just as her father once did, assorted woodworkers in Tucson gave Nequette their scraps--cubes, rectangles, trapezoids, curls--to build her imaginary city. The artist says as she designed the work, she was thinking of the ideas in Invisible Cities by the Italian author Italo Calvino.
"The book connects with all we hope for in how we live together in cities," Nequette says.
The 1972 novel has Marco Polo regaling Kublai Khan with tales of the most beautiful cities in the world. All of those ideal metropolises, Kublai Khan finally realizes, resemble Venice. Marco Polo replies that Venice is the best of all cities.
"For many architects, Venice is the city," Nequette says. Like Venice, her wood-scrap city--when seen as a vertical elevation--rises up from stilts and grows skyward, with the buildings elegantly packed together in a dense composition. But this Italian cittá gives way to a Southwestern ciudad when you adjust your vision and look at it instead as a horizontal plan. Think of the view of Tucson from the air.
This city--made out of desert woods like mesquite and ironwood--sprawls out over a big blank space, the unmolested desert, represented by the Masonite tiles painted in pale tans and pinks. Here and there, the rectangular wood blocks form a protected courtyard, painted green, like the Spanish-style courtyards Nequette and co-author R. Brooks Jeffery championed in their 2002 book A Guide to Tucson Architecture. The desert's scarce water reserves are indicated by a few patches of painted blue.
Nequette has drawn lines out into the unbuilt sections, hinting at unwanted future growth.
"I hope the desert remains a place where humans don't build," she says. "I'm looking for ways to stop growth into the desert."
She lived for years in the desert east of Tucson, but she recently moved to an apartment downtown when her longtime marriage ended. She loves the bustle of central Tucson, she says, enjoying the music coming from the guitarist practicing next door, and grabbing the No. 4 bus to work at the UA.
"I had longed for that, living in a city. On vacation, I always went to cities, sat in cafés."
And after recovering from a serious illness, she also returned to doing visual art. (She got an MFA from the University of California at Irvine before getting a master's in architecture at Princeton.) She used to make big paintings, body-sized, like the architectural installation, but she hadn't picked up a brush seriously in almost 25 years.
"I started to draw again. I got a sketchbook. I went to the Bailey Doogan show at Etherton, and I was so thrilled. I drew all those big pieces. And I drew the Deborah Butterfield horses at TMA. I was drawing other women's art that I admired."
Around this time, she answered a request for proposals from Miles Conrad, proprietor of Conrad Wilde. Conrad was looking to retire his wax-and-wire beehive piece, which had hung on the wall behind the gallery reception desk for a year, and give another artist the opportunity for a longtime showing. (The piece will stay up until September, while the regular gallery exhibitions change monthly; Lauri Slenning's Fowl Play is up during February.)
Conrad picked Nequette's proposal because "she had given the most thought to the project requirements. There was a story behind it, and in her architectural work, she promotes restoration preservation and sustainability. I was impressed that she was taking her whole self into the piece."
Not to mention almost her whole family. If her father inspired the piece, her children helped her build it. Matthew, a UA student, and Megan, a high school junior, worked with her on weekends from mid-September to mid-December. Bit by bit, the family, recently fractured, constructed the new city from shards.
"I did the composing and cutting on Saturday," Nequette says. "On Sundays, Megan helped me with gessoing the Masonite squares. Each one got three coats and then sanding--I wanted a really smooth finish. Matthew glued the pieces together.
"They're both involved in art. They were both really excited about it. They're great kids."