Turns out, Rim Country could declare itself an artist colony. The proof will go on display for a fleeting two hours this evening at Gila Community College, with a show featuring hundreds of pieces in every conceivable medium produced by student artists and some of their teachers.
“I keep wondering, where did these people come from?” said pottery teacher David Sanchez about the 30 students from his classes that will display pieces in GCC’s fourth annual student/faculty art show. “It’s shocking the talent that’s here.”
Each of the teachers with students entering work in the show made similar comments about the blossoming of talent — sometimes from people who have never created art, sometimes from people creating in isolation for years.
For instance, Jananda Sample will exhibit a vivid lampshade painstakingly created from slivers of silk she spend hundreds of hours creating for her folk art class.
Juliette Wing will display a strange, other-worldly sculpture of papier mache that the viewer can walk into and disappear, part of her fascination with portals that hint at other realities.
Mark Werner will display a beautifully abstract and sensual S-shaped clay sculpture tinted with a colorful glaze, having started the semester haltingly using forms to punch shapes out of clay.
“Many students perhaps felt they are artists, but they’re not appreciated or understood,” said Elissa Aleshire, a formally trained painter who teaches the folk art class at GCC. “But in folk art at least, they feel more amongst their own. They either needed to be liberated — or just appreciated.”
“It’s always a surprise,” said Shannon Bielke, who teaches both paper arts and mixed media. “When they come into the class, they’re not sure what to expect. They say, ‘oh, I can’t do that.’ Then they go off and do it and come back with something fabulous.”
The artists will provide refreshments for the show, which will erupt and then vanish like a riotous circus of color on Friday. The show draws together a diverse community of artists and offers viewers one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts.
The college offers a rich array of art classes, including watercolors, oils, design, drawing, folk art, pottery, paper arts, photography and mixed media. Students can earn an AA degree in art on campus. Moreover, retirees who have finally plucked up the courage to create have created an artist community here.
“I’d really love to see Payson become an art destination, like Flagstaff or Sedona or Santa Fe,” said Sanchez, who last year moved to Payson from Flagstaff with little expectation of the talent he’d find here.
He said he’s inspired by artists like Werner. “He started out making coil pots, then slabs, then the wheel. Suddenly his creativity took over. It’s amazing to see him pause, and think, and all of a sudden something beautiful comes out.”
Such efforts then inspire other students. “That’s the key to the class, more than the equipment or the kiln: The things they draw from one another.”
Bielke said the show becomes a major focus for the semester, as students rush to complete work they’d feel proud to exhibit.
“They often surprise themselves,” she said, of the satisfaction they find in many mediums. “They have their own aesthetic: Each person has her own style. They just don’t know it when they start.”
Many of the students find a deep passion to create they have yearned to feed all their lives.
Aleshire noted that one of her students created 200 postcard-sized watercolors, together with vivid caricatures, halfway between dreams and cartoons.
Near the end of the semester, the student suffered heart problems that required him to undergo a procedure. Nonetheless, he plans to check out of the hospital and bring a band of friends to the show.
“He’s been doing art all his life and he just had to be in the show and show his friends this work,” said Aleshire.
Watercolorist Maria Cohen will also display a series of landscapes.
“Her work is wonderful,” said Aleshire, who has an MFA from Arizona State University and she has made a study of the utterly original and unpredictable work of folk artists.
“Maria does these unique landscapes she picks from arbitrary sources — I never know where. But she always takes a really dramatic turn. She does these terrifying things with it that make me very anxious when she’s doing them, but it always turns out great.”
For instance, Aleshire warns her watercolor students against using black, since it can easily overwhelm a painting.
So in Maria’s first painting, she just put this black triangle right in the middle — but somehow it worked out.”
Other students, like Sample, have discovered validation for a once-private, almost obsessive life-long need to create.
“Jananda did this bizarre, wonderful-looking lampshade she sewed for months — sewed it by hand, every stitch. It just took forever. She somehow bought a dozen lampshade frames and she’s going through them one by one. She got one made out of gold chicken wire. Instead of spraying it, which would have taken five minutes, she painted it by hand, which took a week.”
The students gain inspiration from weekly lectures on folk artists, who have gained much greater respect in the art world in recent decades. That includes lectures about people like the retired bulldozer operator in Phoenix who spent 20 years creating a fantasy world of concrete, glass and found-art in his back yard. Aleshire said her Payson students have inspired her.
“It just totally refreshed art for me. It’s made art new again: It’s so wonderful to work with people who are so bright and interesting and quirky.”
Besides an eye-popping sampling of the unsuspected depth of artistic talent in Rim Country, the show will offer viewers a chance to invest in art as an utterly original Christmas gift.
“When a piece sells,” said Sanchez, “it really brings them joy. They think ‘wow, I’m not just doing this for me — people actually want to buy it.’ When I see a student sell a piece, it gives me such fulfillment as an instructor.”