Sam Woolcott calls her Bisbee studio by the affectionate nickname "the playhouse."
And you can't escape the notion that for her—and her husband, artist Poe Dismuke—art is about fun and joy.
Take Woolcott's painting "Play Day at the Playhouse," in the pair's two-person show Visual Delights and Fanciful Flights of Imagination at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It's a jubilant explosion of color, the very definition of a "visual delight," with bands of pastel yellows and pinks and greens sailing across the canvas like confetti.
The painting's cheery layering of acrylic paint over paper and over canvas speaks to the good-natured inclination of both Woolcott and Dismuke to turn anything and everything into art.
The walls of the large main gallery at UAMA are lined with some 30 of Woolcott's paintings, drawings and collage, many zeroing in on architectural fragments of old Bisbee buildings. In her bright and lyrical works, she routinely mixes magically named "marble dust" with old-time found receipts and bits of wallpaper collaged onto canvas, and colors them with acrylics and pastels, charcoal and conté crayon.
Dismuke uses an array of found objects—wheels and wire, wood and paint, lightbulbs and electrical cords—to craft fantastic sculptures. Of the dozen or so Dismukes in the show, half are enormous flying objects, from rocket ships to a rowboat, dangling from the ceiling.
The others include a platoon of mechanized soapbox cars—one shaped like a giant yellow pencil and another a shuttlecock. In an animal series, a bug-eyed housefly clings to a wall, and a life-sized gentleman bear with glowing lightbulb eyes and a kangaroo companion stand amiably together on the floor. Both are made of twisted wire.
"Roo" has already won a favorable review. A kid who'd been to see the show wrote in a gallery comment book, "I liked the kangaroo," and added a smiley drawing of the Australian marsupial for good measure.
If Dismuke's playful work is childlike, that's partly because he's been making things ever since he was a little kid in his grandpa's basement workshop.
Using materials that today would be called "recycled," Dismuke writes in an online artist bio, he and his grandfather patched together a "rambling bird-house. Since that time I've never lost interest in building things."
Woolcott and Dismuke moved to quirky Bisbee some 15 years ago and settled right into its eccentric art scene. Ten years ago, they opened Sam Poe Gallery on Main Street, where they show their own art. (Their UAMA show is their first dual museum exhibition.) And Dismuke co-founded Bisbee's annual artist's soapbox derby, the Bisbee Rolling Arts Transport Society (BRATS), hence his cavalcade of art car.
Both artists draw from the mile-high city's energy, and Woolcott's work is inspired in large part by its architecture and history. She daily walks the streets of the old mining town, where hideous open pits abandoned by the copper mines compete with the charm of crooked streets and tiny houses clinging to the hillsides. And much as she loves making joyous paintings in her playhouse, Woolcott also makes serious works inspired by the remnants of the town's harder times.
She seeks out what she calls "deconstruction sites," buildings that are disintegrating or being torn down, old architecture that embeds the town's tumultuous labor history. As the recent commemoration of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation recounted, the arts town was once a place where miners worked in unsafe conditions underground and where striking workers were kidnapped and permanently expelled. (See Tom Danehy story, July 6, 2017).
As a student of painters of darkness (Rembrandt) and light (Richard Diebenkorn), Woolcott makes airy, light-filled paintings that allude obliquely to this bleak history. She doesn't usually make fully recognizable images of the old buildings; instead her paintings are metaphoric, with fragments of beams and posts tumbling across open spaces.
In "Trestle House Pass," a mixed-media painting, a splintering shack appears at an extreme angle, precariously perched on a railroad trestle high above. Barely hanging onto the fragile trestle's wooden ties, the hut seems ready to fracture and tumble at the faintest breeze. Old receipts are glued to the canvas, reminders of the hardscrabble lives of the people who passed through the shack's doors.
The painting is about desolation and even fear, but it's also alive to the beauty of deterioration. Inspired perhaps by the radiant colors of Diebenkorn, Woolcott deployed deep pink for the shack, yellow for the southwest light on its roof, and a delicate blend of lavender and white for the treacherous void below.
Even Woolcott's "Play Day at the Playhouse," a painted ode to joy, has a few shadows, with black paint underlying some of the painting's dancing stripes. But a classic Bisbee bungalow bathed in light rises up at the top of the painting, above the careening colors, like the sun coming over the mountain, dispelling the darkness at daybreak.