At a recent party, a new Tucsonan was describing a puzzling ritual that he observed last summer just after moving to town.
He was driving up Campbell Avenue one afternoon, he said, and for block after block he saw people rushing out of stores and onto sidewalks and parking lots. Nearly all of them began dancing a little jig, he remembered, and then they threw their hands up to the sky, tossed their heads back and laughed.
The funny thing was, it was starting to rain, and they didn't even seem to mind getting wet.
Indeed. Tucsonans don't mind at all. Who among us hasn't run out to do the rain dance when the skies blacken, when the clouds roll over the Catalinas, when the thunder cracks, when the first drops begin to fall? Who hasn't breathed in deeply when the desert begins to smells like rain?
As of this writing, only a sprinkle of rain has tumbled down from the sky over Tucson this summer. Temperatures have spiked to an ungodly degree, with every day in June hitting 100 or more for the first time ever.
During this dry-bone period of waiting for rain, Raices Taller 222 gallery is offering artistic respite.
Storm clouds and flooded streets and trees bent over in the monsoon winds—rendered in paint and canvas—line the gallery walls. A "Virgen de la Lluvia" (Rain Virgin) by David Tineo weeps among raindrops and floats on painted waves. In a digital barrage of blue, green and purple, Joe Rebholz's "Monster Storm" explodes in pixelated fury.
And while you look at these arty approximations of the real thing, you can almost persuade yourself that the sound of the swamp cooler whirring above is actually the rumbling of the rains rolling in.
For gallery co-director John Salgado, there's a metaphor both to the monsoon and to the art that annually occupies the space during the weeks leading up to the first drops of rain.
"It's a time of anticipation," he says, when people wait for the "cleansing effect" of the storms.
This year's show, Lluvia de Vida (Water of Life), has 62 pieces by 47 local artists. The Lluvia media are all over the map, with oils on canvas and straight photos at one end. And at the other, burnt papier-mâché sculptures (by Michael Cajero, of course) and a puffy mobile of clouds raining down colored beads on a grateful cat (Mary Theresa Dietz).
Plenty of the artists go for realism, re-creating the monsoon sights we long to see.
Nicole DiSante, a homegrown Tucsonan who recently moved back to town, paints well-loved monsoon scenes in nostalgic sepia. Her diptych, "Unlimited," is a set of two tiny oils, each just 8 by 6 inches. One captures the open country of rural Arizona at the moment just before the storm, when the thunderhead clouds gather overhead. The other painting moves on to the city and the actual deluge: a barrio house is being battered by the downpour, its electrical lines tempest-tossed above the slanting tin roof. You can almost hear the deafening clatter of the raindrops against metal.
Susan Rider continues DiSante's chronology, checking in post-storm in "Monsoon Traffic Light Series #11." A soft-edged oil on panel, big at 54 inches square, the Rider work pictures a flooded street glistening after the rain. And Rider faithfully replicates the peculiar orangey-ochre light that sets the city a-glimmer once the showers have stopped.
"Monsoon," a small acrylic on canvas by retired UA art prof George Welch, goes up in the air for a cloud's eye view of a breaking storm. The big cloud, delicately colored in pinks and pale blues and violet, takes over the top of the painting; below this heavenly bulwark, the sheets of rain have just begun to fall.
Tineo goes mythical, conjuring higher powers up in the skies who might be persuaded to unleash the downpours. His three goddesses, including a Corn Maiden and the weeping Rain Virgin, are large painted drawings, quickly sketched out with a brush in Tineo's typical Mexico-tinged style.
Still other artists prefer to distill the rain's beauty, making abstractions of its color and shimmer. In three acrylics on clayboard from Ciri Johnson's Blue series, vertical cascades of wavy turquoise lines stand in for torrents of rain. The same lines flowing sideways, in slightly darker blues, evoke currents in the sea.
Bisbee artist Mina Tang Kan has more or less the same idea in "Outside My Window," but she limits the view to what she can see from inside her own house. Kan's painted windowpane turns into a proscenium theater, framing a view of Arizona's best summer show: a monsoon storm at its peak. Sheets of rain in rainbow orange, green and gray cascade in the background, while white drips trickle down the window in the foreground. This mixed media acrylic reminds us of what we're waiting for: the sound of raindrops beating against the glass.
Meantime, we can empathize with Pat Frederick's braying dog. Made of recycled metal, the pitiful pooch is "Howling for Rain." Or we can hope that Monica Zavala-Durazo's prayerful "Puerta" gets good results. Against a tapestry of handmade felt, the artist has set out native pots reimagined in modern materials. She's turned their openings toward the clouds, ready to capture the drops of water when they fall.
If pining and whining and praying all fail, we can imitate Clay Morgan's prostrate figure in ceramic. Made of what looks like brown mud—so dry it has cracked in a thousand places—the little human has assumed a desperate fetal position.
Just like us, this figure can barely move in the deadening heat. And like us, it's "Waiting for the Weather to Break."