IF YOU'RE A professional artist, you basically have two choices: struggle in the conventional sense (which can be particularly insulting to those with a natural inclination to reject conventionality), or head for the hills and set up your own survivalist outpost where nobody will bother you.
You don't hear much about the latter. By definition, they're an elite and elusive group. Most enigmatic American artists don't enjoy the luxury of emigrating to a villa in Southern France (like R. Crumb) or building a mansion in Ahwatukee (like Spawn creator Todd McFarlane). Ain't life a bitch.
So three years ago, inspired by the Copper State's much-vaunted if short-lived reputation for separatist activity, 43-year-old artist and long-time Tucson resident Wendy Timm liquidated her life savings for a mortgage in the foothills. Now she's a struggling artist with a swimming pool.
"I live way above my means," she gloats. "And I deserve it!" In actual income, she says nonchalantly, she's currently enjoying "the lowest-paying job I've ever had."
Her near-acre spread in a quiet and unsuspecting Oro Valley subdivision is part survivalist theme park and part holy shrine to Saturday morning cartoons. It's also her working studio, and a complicated study in aesthetic composition.
Outside, sculpture gardens highlight the indigenous desert landscaping; a covered carport awaits two additional gas kilns; and everywhere you look there are warning signs of imminent attack. At the end of the long, dirt driveway a substantial German Shepherd barks on the other side of a fence that says "Beware of Dog." Immediately underneath a second sign reads, "Never mind the dog, beware of owner."
Gingerly we make our way to the front door. The sun is shining in the early afternoon, and an assortment of chattering birds feed off a quail block...unconcerned by predatory tail and dorsal fins ominously pointed in their direction from an adjacent patch of sand. An obtrusive sign denotes, "Sand Shark."
Next to the front door, under the jojoba bush and behind the sandbags, the muzzle of a plastic machine gun (its industry-mandated neon orange inked over by smoky black modeling paint) takes aim vaguely in our direction. We wait for Timm to appear through the security screen welded with the spiral logo of her Wicked Winds studio. Did we mention the rectangular slot, which might be for mail except that it opens only from the inside? Now what is that about?
When we ask, she responds coyly that it absolutely is not a javelina feeding slot, because that would be illegal. As yet undiscovered, but not far away on the property's eastern wall, another sign offers an alternate explanation: "Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
CLEARLY, THE ARTIST is in her element. She's all smiles as she welcomes us into a cozy suburban living room studded incongruously with abstract art, antiques, and country cow decorations. She warms up the room with a chilling story about the proliferation of deer antlers around the property. "I have some earlier works that just weren't popular here, like the pieces for my Predator series. When I showed them here, people thought I'd killed Bambi.
"They were killed by my family members, actually. I grew up corn-fed. My parents absolutely lived from the land, processed their own meat and vegetables. So they didn't just cut these horns off and leave the carcasses to rot in the woods (of Wisconsin).
"Anyway, my sister sent me a whole box of deer heads, UPS. And they had the hair on their heads yet, their sullen eyes still in their skulls! The dog went crazy. In the night, so I wouldn't have to see them, I put the gloves on and put them all on the roof of my house -- all 13 of them. I thought the Arizona sun would rot off the skin, but all it did was dry it, make it like leather.
"...My neighbor sees them up there, and he says to me, 'I felt like telling my daughter, "Santa's not going to be visiting this year!" ' Finally, out here, the birds have eaten off most of the scraps."
The grand tour of the 1,500 square-foot house begins with a utility room, where she proudly throws open the doors to her Y2K storage cabinet. Inside, every imaginable processed food gleams from cans several rows deep. There's at least 120 pounds of dog food, corned beef, emergency supplies and the crown jewel, a whole chicken in a can.
At this point, I should mention none of this comes as a surprise. I've crossed paths with the character in question for going on a decade, and despite an artfully cultivated reputation for misanthropy, to my knowledge she's never killed a man, woman or child, despite the fact that she was a middle-school art teacher for several years. Back when there was such a thing.
"I graduated from the UA with a BFA in art education in 1980, and immediately started teaching. I couldn't wait to make a difference and touch all those lives, blah, blah, blah. I didn't pursue my master's because at that time, art jobs were plentiful. I had offers to choose from," she says. Fondly she recalls the Sahuarita Junior High class that helped her refinish the stock and barrel of her first gun, a Daisy rifle.
TW: You would be so fired now.
"I know, that's what scares me about going back to teaching today," she says, with no intention of going back into teaching. "I bet it's nowhere near as fun."
TW: Yeah, it's changed a lot. There are no art positions, and you can't bring guns to school. That's basically it.
"(The gun) was in pieces," she defends. "Back then I could always have fun at my students' expense, all my little teacher's pests, and they loved it." It's true. In a part of the state with high teen-pregnancy and drop-out rates, those kids never missed art class. Some still track her down from time to time.
During those teaching years she coached basketball, worked through "a cop fetish," and honed her interest in weapons, starting in the middle ages and ending somewhere between Star Trek and her subscription to Soldier of Fortune magazine. Years of practice with a variety of semi-automatics have made her a very good shot at close range. One of the deputies she dated proudly took her bullet-riddled target to work, telling her she was a better shot than half the people he worked with. Gee, how comforting.
I wouldn't test her trigger finger, even though the most dangerous thing I've seen her pull suddenly was a maverick run, fully clothed, down a natural water slide in Oak Creek Canyon. I do love her sense of humor, though.
As evidenced by the over-the-top arsenal of soup and beans in her laundry room, next to the "confirmed kills" chart (documenting canine and human attempts at packrat and starling population control).
TW: Did you really think something would happen with Y2K, or is this just for fun?
"I hoped something would happen," she admits under duress. "Not something earth-shattering, like China's nuclear weapons going off. But something that'd throw a little thrill into life. I stocked up basically because I didn't want to deal with the panicky people out...there." She affects a shudder.
"When Smith's converted to Fry's and they were selling off all the Smith's brands, people were maniacs. They were buying things like lima beans, for godsakes. Who even eats those? It was rude, and they were just frantic, and I thought, 'Well, if this is any indication of people panicking, I don't want any part of it.' So over the course of six months, I built up slowly. Just got a few extra things each time."
Throughout our interview, she will continue to offer me plastic bottles of water, consuming two simultaneously herself.
TW: Do you have a lot of bottled water lying around?
"Yes I do, as a matter of fact!" she grins broadly. "And a lot of bottles with water in them, and a few with gasoline."
TW: So your plan was that you were just going to stay home for six months?
"Yeah, yep. I thought, I have all those basic skills: I know how to render children into soap; I have a lot of dog food, a lot of water. No problem. I didn't think six months, but I thought maybe three weeks."
SHE SETS DOWN a couple of bowls of chicken soup, homemade down to the noodles themselves, and then warns, "It may be a little salty. Salt is one of my favorite food groups." Generously spiked with cayenne and garlic, it's delicious.
In the back yard, two desert tortoises hibernate in a WWII-style bunker, and a bunny crouches in the shade of a mesquite tree, dispassionately eyeing 12 pieces of squid that've broken through their sandy bed -- the latter another sculpture in a new series that borrows equally from Star Wars and marine biology textbooks. A cartoonish clan of stem-eyed, jointed-legged "sand crabs" guard the perimeter fence of the swimming pool.
The wistful notes of George Winston's December drift into the sun-dappled Arizona room where we're having lunch with cloth napkins. "Now you guys, don't fight right under us!" she says as the two guard dogs snarl and tear at each other over a toy. We stare idly westward, about two o'clock, where a dozen life-cast, stoneware torsos gracefully arch toward the sky from their concrete pedestals.
"I had myself cast, and then I cast three of my friends who had the kind of body I was looking for. I was picky. They had to be certain heights," she explains.
She's like the Martha Stewart of the militia movement.
TW: All women?
"Mm-hmmm. I never could find a guy that had the right kind of body. They had to be over 6-foot-2, with very little body fat, and really well defined muscles, and I never found anyone like that."
TW: You and me both.
"Well, actually I found one, but he refused to shave."
The torsos were an independent sculpture/ceramics project at school, she says. Though moveable, they've never had a public showing -- a consistent theme with this ceramist's original work.
Most of her non-commissioned pieces languish in a home gallery, last door on the left next to the Toy Room. Glossy, primitive "cow pie" novelties, a sentimental reminder of her upbringing on a dairy farm (the uddered underside of a Guernsey glazed in a pie crust), stand in marked contrast to a stunningly detailed series of life-sized war helmets. Part of her Warlord series, these serious historical and mythological pieces nonetheless hearken back to what we recall as her early-'90s obsession with X-Men cartoons.
There's also a trio of grimacing gargoyles, their detailed musculature, lolling pointed tongues and anguished postures wilting in protest under a spotlight representing the Arizona sun. Timm made a lot of gargoyles pending a year of grueling knee surgery, and in addition to distinctive body piercings, each of these has an identical scar on its knee. "I have to say," she says in a rare moment of self-praise, "these are perfect, my favorites. They have no flaws."
The rest, more "realistic" studies shown eating their young, sold immediately.
An entire utility shelf sports an army of armed wildlife, from commando rabbits with hand grenades and AK-47s and javelinas with six-guns, to a desert tortoise with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted to his shell. They surround a more benign huddle of civilian rabbits. "Rarebits," she calls the Wild West twist on the ubiquitous cottontail lawn ornament. A German soldier rabbit, "Hasenpfeffer," is fully outfitted in WWII Nazi gear, down to a removable pistol cast in a mold taken from one of her toys. His Nazi insignia looks sort of like a shamrock. "That wasn't intentional," Timm says. "I'm just not very political, I guess."
Another half-dozen rabbits are locked in a tug-of-war on the tile floor as they arduously attempt to steal a (clay) quail block bound with twine. Life-sized and extraordinarily animated, each of these animals typifies the comic/tragic collision between real and imaginary worlds that is Timm's signature style. She has a penchant for black comedy. Her characters may appear cute, even non-threatening, but the world they inhabit is by implication precarious and menacing. The element of lurking menace is even more apparent in her abstract sculpture.
Take the raku pot on top of the entertainment center, which seems innocuous enough. It's bulbous, uneven, melon-sized, with a protruding narrow stem -- an homage to the tumor Timm had removed from her lower abdomen earlier this year, along with her reproductive organs, after being routinely misdiagnosed by her primary care physician. Her plan was to send the "tumor pot" to said physician for Christmas. "I gave one to my surgeon instead," she says. "He thought it was hilarious."
"Of course, in the show I didn't call them tumor pots. I said they were 'organic forms based on a design that I had recently discovered.' "
Some medieval weaponry, a tree of novelty Christmas ornaments (including evil gingerbread men inspired by the canceled Fox cartoon The Tick), and several dozen Southwest-inspired wall plaques and fetish pots round out a collection of more than 100 works.
Then there's the sculpted bust entitled "The Antichrist," anchoring the room atop a metal filing cabinet. Low-fired stoneware, glazed and sawdust fired, his goat-horned, Vulcan-eared humanoid face is half-stripped to reveal a shiny, black (and distinctly Terminator-like) robot skull.
Every piece is hand-built using slab and coil, and depending on design finished with raku, sawdust firing, low- and high-fired stoneware, and natural oxides.
"My art work is influenced by science fiction a lot more than what you see," she says. "And the animal thing is very definite, and the gun thing does influence the whole, because I do believe in arming the innocent.
"Like, if it was a law that all women had to carry guns, I think you'd see a lot of crimes against us go down."
TW: Not all women are innocent.
"Oh, no, that's true," she says a little regretfully. She picks up a stoneware quail with an assault rifle hidden under its wing. "I was flipping through the channels and saw a program on pheasant hunting, and I thought, what kind of sport is that? The pheasant doesn't have a chance. But what if you gave her one of these? Now that would be a sport!"
She laughs, adding, "If desert tortoises had little 50-caliber machine guns on their backs, they wouldn't need to be protected."
Her original Sonora Militia was comprised of a javelina with two six-guns, a jack rabbit with an AK-47, a desert tortoise with machine gun popping out of a trapdoor in his shell, a coiled rattlesnake with an army helmet, and perched on him a little roadrunner with a bazooka. It earned both Best of Show and Most Popular Piece at the Tubac Festival of the Arts a few years ago, and was bought by a collector in Dallas who would later donate the set to a children's museum. Timm hasn't entered the show since, saying, "It's a hard piece to top." She's also shown her work at Clees Gallery in Tubac, and locally at the Tohono Chul Park Gallery.
Together we size up a collared peccary with two revolvers strapped around his belly.
TW: Javelina are destructive enough without packing heat, don't you think?
"Oh, they are not destructive," she croons. "So what, they tip over a little trash? I've had all that artwork in my front yard and herds of javelina that come on a weekly basis, and they've never broken a thing. But you let two 10-year-old boys run through my yard, and it's destroyed."
TW: Oh yeah, let's talk about the bus stop.
This is a woman whose value for privacy is rivaled only by her belief in private property. When, as a new resident, she discovered the local school district was using a corner of her front yard to pick up school children, she launched her first vigilante covert op. At its mention, she throws her head back. "The bus stop...!" she says affectionately.
"I just decided that area should be landscaped, in keeping with the natural desert theme I have going out there."
Landscaped, indeed. A minefield of cactus, thorny acacia and other armed succulents four feet deep and some 50 feet long now covers the area, stretching all the way down the curb to where the sidewalk narrows.
TW: ...And some of it just happened to be jumping cholla.
"Well, cholla, prickly pear, whatever I had in my yard. I didn't go out of my way. Well, okay, I did get some cholla from my neighbor. It looks better aesthetically now. There's no bare area there, and I don't have that problem anymore. I wanted to put up barbed wire, but I didn't think they'd let me. They moved the bus stop across the street."
TW: You have an odd ambivalence with kids. You liked teaching, and kids liked you.
TW: What happened?
"Oh, I don't have anything against kids. Luckily I'm immature, so at least I've got that going for me. In fact, my protégé Amber and I were a big hit in the neighborhood on Halloween. We went trick-or-treating as Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine. Amber made a latex cast of the Borg implant. It was fantastic.
"It was so much fun that later we thought about sitting on a street corner with a cardboard sign that said, 'Need money to get back to Delta quadrant.' " Then the next-door neighbor's kids set up a paintball course in their backyard, and the panhandling was scrapped in favor of planning an ambush with Timm's own paintball guns.
"Basically, they're all used to me now. The novelty of 'that artist on the corner' wore off after about a year and a half. I invited the neighbors to my shows, and some of them even brought their kids to the last one."
AS AN ARTIST and individual, Timm has an inverted sense of seriousness. In a medium rife with cliché and kitsch, she is zealous in her dedication to craft. (As a teacher, I remember her delivering a rare, passionate statement to a Parks and Rec class that clay was a natural resource that shouldn't be squandered. It was her polite way of saying, as she did later, "If it sucks, for godsakes, don't fire it!")
But as to the larger issues, she proudly admits her most vital link to the outside world is Fox television. "I don't read the front section of the newspaper, I glance through it. I don't watch the news. All my political information I get from watching The Simpsons. Everything you need to know in life, I think you can get by watching that television show."
TW: So how many guns do you own?
"Enough. But everyone's got an UZI but me," she whines. "I'm still bitter about that. Look at all those cops I dated, all those years. You'd think that one, just one of them would've gotten me an UZI."
We're surrounded by guns, mostly .22-caliber rifles re-outfitted in custom stocks that make them look like instruments of war, with high-powered scopes and magazines. A BB gun looks like an M-16, and a Ruger .22 is outfitted with scope and pistol grip. She calls it her sniper rifle.
"I ordered that stock out of Soldier of Fortune," she says. "Folding stocks are illegal now, I suppose because they're making it less easy for you to conceal it.
"...whereas this dust bunny is SKS, in another pre-fab type stock. I'm still working on it. I traded a rabbit (sculpture) for this gun. It was a Chinese SKS, the common army rifle. I actually haven't even fired the one that you're holding."
She's referring to a Russian SKS I can barely lift, the kind with a bayonet at the end of it. It's an ugly weapon.
"Sanded, re-stained and varnished like a piece of furniture!" she beams.
"They're all legal," she says of the modifications. "You're just making your gun look fancier. If it's a choice between a plain-old, stupid .22 or a gun that looks like an assassin's weapon," she says, "I'll always go for the assassin's weapon. I like those sci-fi things."
TW: Are you going to pursue your UZI fetish?
TW: I guess if you were, you couldn't tell me.
"Yeah, I wouldn't," she says, changing the subject. "But I am going to make a decorative machine gun for my front yard when I learn how to weld. Out of metal, on a tripod and everything. It will probably be your basic bird feeder/perch, but it will look like a 50-caliber machine gun. I already have the belts for it. It's a yard ornament. My neighbors have flamingoes....
TW: Do you have a neighborhood association that reviews such things?
"Gawd, no," she smirks, reflecting on life in general. "No. And I'm over 40 and my parents are both deceased. I figure I can do pretty much whatever I want."
God bless the American West, where talk is cheap, the artists are armed, and there's still plenty of bottled water to go around.