Q&A: A Native Fashion Designer Pursues His Passion

Courtesy of ACONAV. See more photos at the bottom of this story.

In October 2016, Native American fashion designer Loren Aragon left his engineering career and made his runway debut at Phoenix Fashion Week. This year, after making fashion his full-time job, the Arizona resident will return to the runway with a new collection — and hopes to claim the title of Designer of the Year.

We spoke with Aragon and asked him about his latest collection, what inspires his brand and how he became a fashion designer. You can see more photos of his designs at the bottom of this story. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tell us about yourself and your fashion brand.
I’m Loren Aragon, I’m originally from the Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico, and I’m a Native American fashion designer. I started living in Arizona in 1998 and graduated from Arizona State University in 2004.

My brand is ACONAV; we’re a couture fashion brand based out of Phoenix, specializing in women’s couture evening wear. We’re trying to express the idea of evoking the empowerment of the female spirit through fashion, and also representing Native fashion and Native America respectfully through fashion – mainly the Acoma Pueblo, which is mostly known for pottery art culture, you’ll see that a lot of my designs are representative of that and where I’m from.

When did you become a fashion designer?
I got into fashion about four years ago. Before that, I finished a degree in mechanical engineering from Arizona State. I worked around the Valley in different occupations as an engineer for about 13 years, and then, for about 11 of those 13 years, I got back into the arts. I started to explore different avenues of art. I love to draw and always had some connection to art, either traditional or contemporary.

Back in 2012, I was awarded a fellowship that allowed me to research my own textiles in New Mexico. I really wanted to give identity to Native fashion. A lot of prints weren’t satisfying as far as them being recognizable to one particular tribe, and I really wanted to represent our pottery culture in a more wearable art form, so with the help of that fellowship, I was able to develop my own textiles. I used those in my first small capsule collection, and people loved what they saw. From then on, I progressed my fashion designs. The only education I’ve gotten in sewing was from my mother and my aunt, who were seamstresses most of their lives.

When did you realize you wanted to transition from a career in engineering to a career in fashion?
I think it was just landing upon something unique that people really loved. I did illustration; I got into jewelry and sculpture and fine arts. People love those things, but they aren’t really moving, and I just felt like I wanted to do more. Going down the path of the fashion side of things sparked the passion for everything I like doing as an artist, and fashion is sort of a hub for everything. I love to draw, there’s a part of engineering that goes into it, there’s sculptural elements, and it's hands-on. To me, fashion carries everything, and the fact that people love what they see and what I do is just so encouraging and inspiring.

It was a scary decision to make at first, but I was really confident in what I had in my designs. It was tough because I was going between being an engineer and a fashion designer, back and forth, which was just so demanding.

Fortunately, my supervisor at my last job was really supportive of my decision, and he told me I should go for it. He was a great mentor of mine in making that decision, and he continues to be there to support me.

How did ACONAV get its start? What is the brand inspired by, and where does the name come from?
ACONAV started out as a greeting-card company. Me being an illustrator throughout high school and college, I had a small greeting-card company and it didn’t have a name yet; it was just to make money on the side to get me through school. When I met my wife, she discovered my drawing talents and we combined our artistic skills, and we started coming up with more unique cards. She was heavily into scrapbooking, and she wanted to make my cards a little more ornate.

At that time, we came up with the name ACONAV, because I’m Acoma Pueblo and she’s Navajo, so we combined those two cultural names. We both play a lot of roles. My wife is the operations manager — she has a background in business. She helps me with a lot of the sewing as well, and we also include my mother, who is our master seamstress.

We believe in a lot of the same things, and the main part of it being matrilineal culture. We heavily believe in our matriarchs, our mothers. We hold women in high regard, and we wanted to capture that and present it in fashion. Women’s fashion was the answer to that — taking a lot of those matrilineal ideas about empowering the female spirit. In our culture, we look up to them because they are givers of life, they’re nurturers, they’re teachers. We want women to feel empowered when they wear our designs.

Our other biggest influence is our pottery culture. It’s a real recognizable art here in the Southwest, and really world-renowned, it’s a heavily collected item, our pottery art. When I talk to collectors, they say in a lot these designs, they’re timeless and so elegant. And that’s in our brand message, cultural design embodied in timeless elegance. It’s basically taking a snapshot of our culture and embodying that in a wearable art form, and displaying it as a timeless piece that can be worn time and time again while looking elegant.

What was your experience like last year at Phoenix Fashion Week?
Last year was my first year actually applying. I observed Phoenix Fashion Week in 2014 and was really inspired and thought I’d really love to show my collection on that stage one day. In doing the research, I started to discover what was all involved and didn’t feel I was ready. But I met with Brian Hill, the director, on several occasions in meet-and-greets, and he encouraged me to apply.

In May we got the news we were in the 2016 lineup. I was still employed as an engineer at the time, and I had to make the decision to drop my engineering career and pursue this full time to make this work for us.

I’m really glad I did it; it was a great experience. What I really loved was that they helped us develop our brand and figure out who we really are. To be one of two designers that were Native American for the first time in Phoenix Fashion Week last year was awesome. That’s also part of our mission – to bring more awareness and exposure to Native fashion and be more representative of ourselves, rather than be represented by non-Native designers — because we’re still living, we’re still here and we still have a voice.

I came close to winning Designer of the Year last year. We came in second, according to the points system. This year they extended an invitation for us to come back, and for them to continue to believe in my brand is awesome, so I decided to try again.

What can we expect to see in your latest collection?
It’ll be my Spring/Summer 2018 collection. This year’s collection is still very heavily influenced by the pottery art. I’ve spent two months in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Ron and Susan Dubin Native American Artists Fellowship at the School for Advanced Research. They have an Indian arts research center that has a collection of our pottery, and I’ve been observing a lot of the textures. I want to bring a lot of that into my designs this year.

I also want to concentrate on combining my skills in jewelry making and fashion. I’m going to bring more of my metalwork and ornate embellishments to the designs, giving everything a more three-dimensional look. It’s a little darker, but there’s more color added to the designs.

It’s also going to tell the story of emergence. In our culture, we believe we are a product of the Earth. We emerged from the Earth much like plants — that’s part of our origin story. I’m really inspired by that this year and telling little parts of that story through fashion. The idea of the emerging spirit is also tied into me being an emerging designer.

Loren Aragon’s latest collection will be presented at Phoenix Fashion Week from Oct. 4-7 at Talking Stick Resort near Scottsdale. For more about Aragon and ACONAV, visit www.aconav.com.

— Emily Balli

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Q&A: Preserving Nature and Native Culture at Glen Canyon

Ka-Voka Jackson digs up invasive ravennagrass at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. | Courtesy of Ka-Voka Jackson

Master’s student Ka-Voka Jackson has combined her passion for biology and the environment with her Native American roots to help solve environmental issues from a unique perspective.

With the help of the National Park Service, her professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and volunteers, Jackson has been working on methods to control an invasive plant species at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

We talked to Jackson about her background and what she hopes to accomplish with her work. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tell us about yourself.
I’m 24 years old and I grew up in Peach Springs, Arizona, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, where I spent a lot of time out and about in nature. My mom was the director of the Cultural Resources Department for our tribe. Since we’re really close to the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, we spent a lot of time in the Canyon and on the river.

When I was 18, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and started college there. I did my first two years of general studies at Salt Lake Community College and then spent two years at the University of Utah, where in 2015 I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology, with an environmental and organismal emphasis. I kept working for the university for another year, until I found a positon with Dr. Scott Abella at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

He was looking for a master’s student to work on a restoration project in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Page, Arizona, and southern Utah, and it was just a perfect fit. They were looking for a Native American perspective, and I have that background. I wanted to continue working on the Colorado River, and it’s kind of like our homeland, so I was really drawn to the project.

What can you tell us about the Glen Canyon project?
The project I have been working on since the end of December 2016 is a restoration project that involves control of invasive species — particularly an invasive grass called ravennagrass. The National Park Service was looking for somebody to kind of take this project on, because they have had problems dealing with these invasive species.

I’m working on methods that will help control the invasive species, and, at the same time, revegetation methods that can help re-establish the native populations in areas where those invasive species have kind of taken over. Ravennagrass is a relatively new invasive species, and there’s not a lot known about its life history — how it grows and what its tolerances are — particularly in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Over spring break, we removed some of the ravennagrass by hand, and we were also doing a lot of the revegetation. We worked on about 12 to 15 plots during that week. It was a lot of work, but the volunteers were awesome. We spent five full days out there — it’s a five-hour drive from UNLV to the Park Service headquarters, and then another four-hour boat ride up to some of the plots, and then we just camped out on the lake.

Why is it crucial that the ravennagrass be removed and replaced in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area?
​Ravennagrass grows to be quite big: It can grow to be 14 to 15 feet tall, and it can grow quite wide as well. It grows in wetter areas, and a lot of these areas in Glen Canyon are hanging gardens. Once it starts growing there, it kind of just crowds [native species] out; it grows in these big clumps that kind of just take over all of the available space. We’re trying to save the biodiversity of this area and the plants and everything that depends on these plants.

It also creates a fire hazard, because it’s a perennial grass. All of the previous year’s growth dies off, but it still stays there, it dries up, and there’s a lot of dry biomass there. If any of these big clumps get set on fire, it’ll be a bigger blaze than what would normally be there.

It’s also not a very friendly plant. It has these really sharp, serrated leaf edges — if you brush up against it, it might cut you. It’s a nuisance for tourists trying to enjoy the park, and animals tend not to like it.

Where have you been focusing your efforts, and what plants do you use to replace the ravennagrass?
I have five side canyons that I’m focusing on: Slick Rock Canyon, Pollywog Bench, Cottonwood Canyon, Llewellyn Gulch and Cottonwood Gulch. A lot of them have their own set of native vegetation that occurs there. So I’m using plants that are nearby my plots, and I’m transplanting them. There’s a variety of things I’m using – bushy beardgrass, seep willow, a bunch of native grasses like Indian ricegrass, fourwing saltbush, a lot of cactus, white sagebrush and arrowweed.

What do you hope to accomplish with the project?
I have a few goals in mind. One of them is to really nail down a method that will successfully and efficiently control ravennagrass. It’s really important that we control this invasive grass so it doesn’t spread more than it already has. I want these methods to be able to be used elsewhere, in other national parks and other areas that are having problems with ravennagrass. Another goal is to successfully re-establish these native plant populations. That way, it’ll be harder for other invasive species to take that place — we want it to be native species that take that place.

Alongside that, I’ve had this cultural focus, so I’m using native plants that have a lot of cultural importance to Native American tribes in the area, including my own. We want these plants to continue growing in these areas because a lot of tribes depend on these plants and they’re really important in their cultures. Native Americans are heavily tied into their culture, and their culture is their lifestyle so it’s really important to be able to say we can successfully revegetate with native species.

What has been the most rewarding part of the project, and what has been the most challenging?

I’d say the most challenging part of the project is the logistics. It’s far away, and it’s kind of hard to get to. If something goes wrong, I can’t just go back in a couple of days and fix it really quick. I have to plan it out, usually weeks in advance, and reserve a boat with the Park Service. I have to take time off. I have to make sure I have the resources available to make it out to Page, and also the availability of volunteers, if I need them.

The most rewarding part, in general, just being out there is really awesome. We get to be out in these really beautiful areas. It’s really rewarding when you go there and spend all this time removing these invasive plants, and then, once it’s all done, you look back at the plot that we just spent two or three hours on and you notice a huge difference. Same with the revegetation. I just checked up on our plots in May, and some of the plants are growing. One cactus we had planted even bloomed. Being out there and noticing the difference is really great and really rewarding.

— Emily Balli

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Q&A: How Arizona Helped Mankind Get to the Moon

Astronauts Jim Irwin and Dave Scott operate a lunar rover model at the Cinder Lake crater field east of Flagstaff. | Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

It’s been nearly a half-century since Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind” on the surface of the moon. And Kevin Schindler hopes his new book can remind people of the role Arizona played in getting Armstrong and 11 other Apollo astronauts onto the surface of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Schindler and William Sheehan’s new book, Images of America: Northern Arizona Space Training, is a collection of photos of the Apollo astronauts training in the 1960s at several sites in Arizona — including Sunset Crater, Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon. Schindler is a longtime employee of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory, another site that was crucial in planning the moon missions. We asked him a few questions about the book, which is available for pre-order now and will be released June 19.

What’s your background, and how long have you been at Lowell Observatory?
My background is in paleontology, and I worked at a natural history museum in Florida for six years before I came to Lowell. I’ve been at Lowell for 22 years now. William Sheehan, my co-author, is a psychiatrist by trade who now lives in Flagstaff; in astronomy circles, he’s a well-known historian of astronomy and has written probably 12 or 15 books about Mars and the moon. We became friends years ago, and we’ve talked about doing a larger-scale, comprehensive book about moon stuff in Flagstaff, but we thought we’d at least start here.

What inspired you to do this book? How does your work at Lowell tie into the history of the moon landings and Arizona’s part in them?
I got interested in this subject years ago. Here at Lowell, for a decade, we had a moon mapping program. It was part of the Air Force — the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center — and they contracted with Lowell to use the Clark telescope to make maps of the moon and determine Apollo landing sites.

I was just fascinated, as I got involved in the science community in Flagstaff, with the heritage of what happened with the U.S. Geological Survey and the astronauts coming out here. There were a lot of garages around town that they rented to build rovers, cinder fields where they tested the rovers, tested the hammers and tongs, that sort of stuff. I found it fascinating that so much of that happened, but not much of it is known — that generation is kind of fading a little bit. I just wanted to document it in some way — not a hardcore, high-tech thing, but something the general public would be interested in. We’d like to do more in-depth coverage of it, but we did this as a start, because there are a lot of great pictures, and you can still go to these places and see where this happened.

What was it about these Northern Arizona sites that made them a good fit for training the Apollo astronauts?
The geology and topography is analogous to what they’d find on the moon. Meteor Crater — the best-preserved impact crater on Earth — is exactly what they’d expect to find on the moon. At Sunset Crater, they created a grid in the cinder fields, then buried dynamite at different depths to create different-sized craters and re-create, for example, the Apollo 11 landing site. You can still see those craters today.

They also took the astronauts to the Grand Canyon, and the rocks there aren’t the same as on the moon, but one of the reasons was to learn the basics of how rocks are laid down. The other was that these guys were fighter-pilot jocks and not necessarily interested in geology. The thinking was that if they visited an inspiring place like the Grand Canyon, it might generate more of an interest. And it worked.

What were some other interesting things you learned about the Arizona training?
Just the number of different places in Flagstaff that were used. The bank building downtown was an office; there were different garages around town; there are photos of [Apollo 13 astronaut] Jim Lovell sitting in a rover on the east side of Flagstaff. Most of Flagstaff doesn’t really know just how many different facilities were used and how many people were involved. These astronauts were the rock stars of their time; it’s just great to see these pictures and see what these guys did out here.

What was the research process like, and how long did the book take to complete?
In some ways, I’ve been working on it all through my time at Lowell — I’ll come across cool images, and I’ve done programs on the topic. Doing the book felt like a natural progression. We worked on it really heavily over several months, tracking down a lot of pictures I already had, then going through collections — at the USGS, especially, but also the stuff we have here at Lowell. Several years ago, I was down in Houston and visited Johnson Space Center, and in their archive, I tracked down pictures of astronauts in Flagstaff that I couldn’t find anywhere else, so that was a real gold mine. It’s a photo-rich book, so capturing and collecting all those pictures was the biggest part of it.

Where can people get the book when it comes out June 19?
A lot of places in Northern Arizona will carry it, such as Barnes & Noble and the Lowell gift shop. But it’s also on Amazon, which is a good place to get it if you’re not in the area.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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Q&A: A Tucson Artist Depicts the Buffalo Soldiers

Courtesy of David Laughlin

Last April, we talked with Tucson artist David Laughlin about his life as an artist and how it's changed since his 2001 stroke. In February, a collection of Laughlin’s work featuring the Buffalo Soldiers was hung in Tucson's Quincie Douglas Library in honor of African American History Month. The collection was extended because so many people enjoyed it, and a piece from the collection may soon be featured in a permanent Buffalo Soldiers memorial at the Quincie Douglas Center in Tucson.

We spoke to Laughlin about the collection and what inspired his work.

Tell me a little about the collection of your work that is being shown in the Quincie Douglas Library. How did it all come about?
Well, it has a history. When I first heard about them doing studies on the Buffalo Soldiers, I went down there — it was still after I had my stroke — and talked to the director, who at that moment was an African-American woman.

They are considering doing a bronze sculpture memorial to the Buffalo Soldiers down there. But they’re a long way from doing a bronze sculpture, because they just don’t have the money for it — it’s a very expensive medium. My daughter has an alternative of using one of my images on a tile and enlarging it on a big tile — they sensitize the surface of the tile, print an image on it, fire it and the image is there. So that is a possibility.

There’s been a regular showing of these about every two to three years at the Quincie Douglas Library.

Have you done other work on the Buffalo Soldiers?
I have a set of my Military Hours series — it's 24 hours of a day in the life of a Buffalo Soldier, in a print medium. It doesn’t have that many guns in it; it’s all about what a cook does, how they stand guard, how they report in at different times of the year in different places in Arizona. If you have all 24 images up, you can see the kind of activities they got involved in that weren’t necessarily military.

The project with the Buffalo Soldiers started in 1981. I had six pieces made of the original group of 24, and they were finished in 1996.

I looked at the Buffalo Soldiers as peacemakers — it was not a military exercise. When they came here in 1885 and 1886 from Texas, they were only one of several cavalry and Army units on foot, and they were all just peacemakers. They kept the Indians on the reservation so they didn’t get into trouble.

What inspired you to create these pieces?
The interest was purely visual. It was something that was so impressive, and I thought that Bob Burton’s VisionQuest was doing a wonderful job with it. It was something I had heard about, but I had never seen anything where people actually did something, and Bob Burton actually took 20 or 30 kids and they marched in parades and chanted songs and verses and so on that the cavalry would’ve used. I followed them from the parade to the university. Bob Burton and the kids were my inspiration.

How long did it take you to research this project?
Well, I did the research while I was doing the project. I got to a point where [when] I finished the prints, I realized I had enough material to write a book. I made a little paperbound book from their founding; it’s all done with pen and ink, page by page. The style of it is very much 1950s comic-book style.

What medium did you use for the ones featured in the library?
Oils, watercolors and pen and ink. There’s three different mediums, but all the same subject, close-up of Buffalo Soldiers, riding against the background. Every one of them has a story, and I could give you chapter and verse on it.

What do you hope people take away or learn from viewing this collection? What has been the response from those who have seen the collection?
It’s a curiosity — it happened a long time ago. These people didn’t have radios or cellphones, and it’s hard to imagine a home in those days that used coal oil for a lamp. It’s my most variegated work in the sense that I’m not limited to one thing. I’m a realist artist, and my work tells a story.

The work is a piece of history, and I hope that it’s relevant to people of color and people who are white who are interested in the military.

— Emily Balli

For more on David Laughlin’s work, visit www.davidlaughlinfineart.com. If you’re interested in purchasing prints of his work, you can email his daughter at [email protected].

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Q&A: Celebrating Page's History Through Photos

Glen Canyon Dam takes shape beneath the completed Glen Canyon Dam Bridge in an aerial U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Mike Adams grew up in the Northern Arizona city of Page during the 1960s. His interest in the history of the town and Glen Canyon Dam, coupled with a desire to share his experiences growing up on the bank of Lake Powell, inspired him to create a photo archive of the history of the region. In conjunction with our May issue on Lake Powell (on newsstands now), we asked Adams a few questions about Page's history, his own experiences and his current work.

What can you tell us about the history of the region?
Page was founded in 1957. Originally, it served as a housing community for those working on Glen Canyon Dam and their families. It was originally called Government Camp and was later named in honor of John C. Page, who served as commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation from 1936 to 1943. The city of Page was built atop Manson Mesa as the result of a land exchange between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Navajo Nation. The Bureau of Reclamation began the job of paving roads and oversaw the construction of a number of block homes on Manson Mesa, as well as the original hospital and other buildings that served as warehouses and administration buildings during the construction of the town and the dam and bridge. I remember the bureau selling those houses in the late '60s, after work on the dam was complete and the population of Page had dwindled significantly. Homes with a garage originally sold for $12,000, and those with a carport went for $11,500.

What is your family's history and connection to the Page area?
Our family moved to Page in late 1959 or early 1960, and my wife and I moved away in 1985. I started first grade there. My dad was a pilot, and until that point in time, his work consisted largely of crop dusting. When we moved to Page, we literally lived at the airport. Our trailer was located 50 to 75 feet behind the hangar, and since we lived right there, my dad managed the airport after hours for Royce Knight and was one of the pilots who flew scenic flights over the area. I have a lot of good memories from that time, and I remember well what the area looked like from the air. When I wasn’t in school, my spare time was spent in the hangar and/or on the tarmac, watching people who flew in, fueled up and usually flew right back out. There are several posts on my blog featuring aerial shots of the area in those early days.

The construction of Glen Canyon Bridge was complete by the time we moved there, but the construction of the dam was still in its early stages. It was fascinating to walk onto the bridge in those days and look down at the construction of the dam and watch the activity. Watching the trucks below hauling dirt out of the way, and the overhead cranes on either side of Glen Canyon moving large buckets of concrete to their rightful place, was something I will always remember. There was an elevator attached to the canyon wall on the Page side that seemed to run nonstop, carrying people and who-knows-what up and down the canyon wall. The sights and sounds are captured in an episode of the old TV series Route 66. If you can get past the cheesy acting, the background sights and sounds in this episode are worth watching. I wrote a short blog about it that I called Route 66: Season One, Episode Nine. Since writing that blog, I found that episode on Amazon Video and purchased it for a couple bucks. Well worth it.

I spent the next four years watching the dam rise from the vantage point of the bridge, the old visitors center lookout just downstream of the bridge on the Page side of the canyon, and from the air. That visitors center lookout is still there but is closed to the public now.

What was the motivating factor that made you start your photo archive?
I’m a big fan of history, and I love poring over old photos. I started my photo blog as a way to preserve the things I had seen, for myself and for others. I have so many memories of growing up there during the dam construction that I wanted to share the experience. I wanted others to see what I had seen, and I wanted to provide one place on the web where these old photos were available for anyone else who lived there during those early years. I’m by no means the most qualified to do this, but before I started my blog, I spent quite a bit of time searching the web for something similar to what I envisioned. I saw no point in reinventing the wheel. But there wasn’t anything like this on the internet at that time. There were a few pictures scattered here and there, but I couldn’t find one repository by someone else who lived there during that time, like I had. For me, this started as a somewhat selfish hobby, and it continues to be a hobby. It’s one I enjoy.

How long have you been documenting the history of the area?
I had what I call a false start in 2001 or 2002. I started a humble self-hosted website and threw some of my pictures on it. I didn’t have very many of my own, but I wanted to start something in hopes it would grow. It didn’t really go anywhere, and I ended up shutting it down. I started the website that you see today in 2013. I had gathered more pictures by that time, and I used them initially. Some of those are still there, but the quality is suffering. Then a friend, whom I had grown up with in Page, offered me 8x10 pictures his family had of those early years. His dad worked for the USBR, and his family had a great supply of photos. So I bought a scanner. Following that, several others who were there, or had a connection to someone who was, have supplied me with many more.

What is the most interesting thing you've uncovered about the region?
The evidence of what used to be. I love doing “then and now” comparisons. I’ve blogged a few of those. It’s interesting to pour over an old black and white photo and then get on Google Earth and look at the same spot to compare the two. It’s amazing to see the evidence of what used to be there, still there. There was a go-cart track in those early years, and parts of the paved track are still visible on Google Earth if one knows where to look. I blogged on that go-cart track at least once. Search for it on the site and see what comes up. There was also a foot bridge across the top of the canyon, upstream of the dam. Remnants of the parking lot on the west side of canyon are still visible today. The old visitors center parking lot and lookout area are still there but no longer accessible. I posted a great photo of the bridge that was taken from that lookout point. It’s in a post I called A Bridge Under Construction.

Have you made any memorable connections working on this project?
Yes. Some amazing people have come forward to offer photos and their own personal stories of having lived there in those early years. These people have been invaluable in filling in many of the blanks that would otherwise exist and in answering questions that I have, because, believe it or not, even though I was there, there are things I don’t know or don’t remember. I am indebted to everyone who has helped me and to those who continue to support my endeavors. I couldn’t do this without them.

What is something that someone unfamiliar with the area should know about Page and Lake Powell?
It’s a beautiful area that’s perfect for vacationing. The boating is unmatched. The lake is beautiful against the Navajo sandstone. There’s a lot there to explore. If you go, take some of my pictures with you to get a feel of what was there then versus what’s there now. Spend a good amount of time in the dam’s visitors center. Walk up to the upper visitors center parking lots and know that huge cranes used to sit on rails there and lower giant buckets of concrete into the canyon. Watch the movies of the construction of the dam that are offered in the theater inside the visitors center. Become familiar with the area, and you’ll be glad you did.

What is the best way for individuals interested in the project to contribute?
I’m constantly on the prowl for more photos. If you have some you would like to contribute, you can reach me via the contact form on my website. If your pictures are hard copies, I can scan and return them to you. I’m looking for pictures of the construction years, the 1950s and '60s. As much information as can be provided with each photo is appreciated, including who is in them, where was it taken, what’s in the picture, the date (if known) and the photographer (if known).

— Roman Russo

For more information, you can visit Adams' website, www.pageaz.org; follow along on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/pageaz; or follow his Instagram feed, www.instagram.com/page.az.

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Q&A: Katie Lee's Folk Opera

Courtesy of Katie Lee

Our May issue, on newsstands now, focuses on Lake Powell and Glen Canyon, and includes managing editor Kelly Vaughn's essay about the esteemed Katie Lee — who's spent most of her 97 years protesting Lake Powell's existence. Today, the actress, folk singer, author and wilderness activist lives in Jerome and is assisting on the first-ever production of Maude, Billy & Mr. "D," a folk opera she performed on her traveling show in the 1950s. It's being produced by the Blue Rose Theater of Prescott and will be performed one night only, Saturday, May 6, at Mingus Union High School Theater in Cottonwood.

We asked Ms. Lee to tell us a little about the opera, what inspired her to write it and what viewers can expect.

When did you originally write Maude, Billy & Mr. “D”?
I wrote it way back in the '50s, and for years I performed it as the second part of my concerts when I would do shows. I was on the road for many years, and I did concerts for universities, and for organizations and for clubs. I always used this because it was a beautiful thing to put at the end of a show. Kids from 4 and 5 years old through up to 95 years old, they just sat very quietly and watched this little drama unfold. It’s quite a story.

But I didn’t write [the original story]; I read it as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, and the woman who wrote the story, Helen Eustis, actually wrote the first paragraph in rhyme. Maybe she knew it, maybe she didn’t, but that just set me off. I said, “This story needs music!” So I just began writing music for it, and that’s how it all began.

I played it for her one time where she lived in New York; while I was on the road, I stopped in and played it for her, and she said, “That’s the best treatment I’ve ever heard of my story.” It had been done as a short for television and in the movies, but she didn’t like the way they treated it.

Did the Blue Rose Theater approach you to put on the show, or was it your idea to put on the show? How did it all come about?
That came about very strangely. I met this little girl a couple of years ago at a book signing who is a classical violinist; her name is Erin Burley. It seemed that she really wanted to make music, rather than read music. She was playing with orchestras, and she was also a teacher of violin.

We became friends, and I introduced her to Peter McLaughlin, who is an incredible musician and songwriter. They got together, and he started teaching her how to listen to words and make the music fit the words — that’s the way folk musicians work. She loved doing it, she was good, and she was quick to learn.

She wanted to use a song from the folk opera, which I had given to her to listen to. All she wanted to do was to come up and celebrate my birthday and play some songs for me with some other musicians she knew, and it just mushroomed. When I told my friend who owns the Blue Rose Theater over in Prescott, Jody Drake, she said, “Oh, my God! This needs to be produced!” And from there it just snowballed.

[Erin] became very ill, and we’ve missed her a lot because she can’t come to the rehearsals. But we’re still very much in touch with her, and we’re hoping she’s going to be able to come to the production with her family and sit in the front row and see what she started. Really, we just owe this whole thing to her.

When was the last time it was on a stage?
It has never been produced before. I put it on a CD back in the '70s, after I performed it for 20 years or more on the road, as a traveling musician. This is the first and only performance so far, but I know there’s an organization down in Tucson that wants the show, so it will probably be performed more than once.

Tell us a little about the show; what is it about, and what should viewers expect?
Maude Applegate is a young girl that goes out after Mr. Death to get him to stay his hand against her boyfriend, who just got shot up. While Billy lies there dying, Maude decides to go find Mr. Death, get him to stay his hand against her true love, and that begins the story. It’s a story kind of destined to discover whether true love can overcome the power of death.

The show features really fine performers that are actors as well as singers. It held audiences just spellbound when I used to perform it. It’s a simple story, but it’s really hard to explain — but people leave the theater feeling elated.

What role have you played in the production?
I’m not singing in this show. They just consult me whenever they need to know anything about the script. I help wherever I can. I’m just in the background, watching and waiting to see what’s going to happen.

— Emily Balli

Maude, Billy & Mr. "D" will be performed one night only, Saturday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Mingus Union High School Theater in Cottonwood. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/bluemaude, or call 928-899-5472 to purchase tickets.

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Q&A: The Rare Crested Saguaro

Crested saguaros exhibit a rare mutation whose cause remains unknown. | Courtesy of National Park Service

When you think about Arizona's landscape, the saguaro cactus is one of the quintessential images that come to mind — and Saguaro National Park, the subject of our March issue, celebrates this iconic Arizona plant. Saguaros are rarely symmetrical, but on even rarer occasions, an anomaly causes the tips to grow in a splayed, fan-like shape. These are the elusive crested saguaros — also known as cristate saguaros. It's not known why this mutation occurs, although scientists have a few theories.

Joe Pleggenkuhle and other saguaro enthusiasts joined forces to create the Crested Saguaro Society, dedicated to locating, cataloging and teaching people about these rare saguaros. We asked him a few questions about his passion. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

When was the first time you came across a crested saguaro?
My first crested saguaro I saw was on a tour of the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. My first wild crested saguaro I found was in Yavapai County — it's a double crested saguaro. My niece had heard that I found a champion saguaro, and she wanted to see it, so I showed it to her. I was explaining to her that there were crested saguaros, too, and she points over my shoulder and says, “You mean like that?”

I had never heard of a double crested saguaro, so I started writing several places, and I believe Arizona Highways sent me an article that included a double crested saguaro many years ago.

When you first saw the one on the tour, did you know what it was right away?
No, but the tour guide did a great job of explaining what it was.

What are some of the theories about what causes this mutation to happen?
Many theories of what causes it. Frost; insect infestation; damage from birds, animals, people, weather, power lines. Mine is that the top or tip's growth pattern gets disturbed, and it changes from a circle to being elongated with a seam.

How many of these saguaros has the society cataloged?
Roughly 3,000. More if you count other crested cactuses.

How many in Saguaro National Park?
I’ve heard 48, but I suspect there are more than that in both the east and west parks and in Tucson Mountain Park.

How did the Crested Saguaro Society get started? 
That’s a good question. A person in Tucson was documenting them, and his health was declining, and a couple from the Southern Arizona hiking club sort of picked up where he had left off. They soon were giving presentations of their crested saguaro finds to their club. One of the other members, Rex, sort of got us together and named us the Crested Saguaro Society.

There isn’t a lot of information as to where people can find a crested saguaro; is there a reason?
We do love our crested saguaros, but several have been dug up or vandalized, so we don’t publish GPS locations of any of them. A fair amount of them are on private property. Some are located in steep, remote canyons.

— Roman Russo

To learn more about the Crested Saguaro Society or get involved with the group, visit its website.

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Q&A: The Story Behind an Iconic Sonoita Sculpture

This metal sculpture greets visitors to Sonoita along State Route 83.

The February issue of Arizona Highways featured a Where Is This? item familiar to residents of the Sonoita and Patagonia area: a metal cutout sculpture called Gathering Strays. The artwork, designed by sculptor and Sonoita resident Deborah Copenhaver Fellows, has been along State Route 83 just north of Sonoita since early 2008. It depicts a cowboy on horseback guiding a cow and a calf. From afar, the sculpture could almost fool you, because at sunset, it looks like the silhouette of a cowboy riding by.

This sculpture has become an iconic symbol of the Sonoita countryside. And readers of Arizona Highways might recognize Copenhaver Fellows' name — J.P.S. Brown wrote about her in our October 2016 issue. We asked her about her creation and how it came to life.

Tell us about the sculpture and how that project came about.
The Chamber of Commerce got in touch with me here in Sonoita, I think in about 2005, and they asked me to do signage for the communities of Elgin, Sonoita and Patagonia. Two signs for Sonoita, two signs for Patagonia and one sign for Elgin. They asked me to design them, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it, but I have one request: If I design all of those signs, would you allow me to do a large cutout of a cowboy driving a cow and calf?” And they said yes.

My point was, no matter what happens in this country down here, there would always be a cowboy on horseback driving a cow and calf.

How long did the sculpture take you, and how did that process work?
It was about three months. I did the design for it, and a company called T.A. CAID did the cutouts in Tucson. I did the graphics, and they did the cutouts. I sent it to them; they pointed it up, which means they made my drawings larger, and cut it out of quarter-inch steel. Then we had local individuals that created the frames, and then we put it up here in Sonoita, on the stand-up bars.

It was fun finding a spot for it where it reads so well in the sunset and the morning light.

About how big is the cutout?
From the tail of the horse to the tip of the calf’s nose, it’s about 34 feet long. It’s huge.

What other sculptures and cutouts do you have around Sonoita?
Cutouts for signage for the welcome signs in Elgin, Sonoita and Patagonia. I have a monument of a cowboy on horseback down at the fairgrounds here in Sonoita — it’s a tribute to the cowboy and ranching. I have an interesting one in Elgin, which is our wine country, of three women that are stomping grapes, and it’s humorous.

A year ago, in February, I made the Barry Goldwater that’s in the U.S. Capitol building, in Statuary Hall. Quite often, on the interviews in the evening, you’ll see the long-standing bronzes behind the interviewers and interviewees, and one of mine is there right now, I was commissioned by the state of Arizona to do that.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on an 8-foot cast-bronze monument for the city of San Antonio.

What kind of feedback have you had from the community about your creation?
I think they’re pretty happy with it. They use it a lot for postcards and advertising. It symbolizes the whole neighborhood.

— Emily Balli

For more on Deborah Copenhaver Fellows' work, visit the Fellows Studios website. And to read more about Sonoita and Patagonia, pick up a copy of our April issue, on newsstands now.

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Q&A: New Director Takes Reins at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Carol Coyle Hagood | Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, located near Superior, is the largest and oldest botanical garden in the state. The arboretum’s 323 acres are home to 3,200 different desert plants, more than 230 bird species and 72 terrestrial animal species. And now, the arboretum has a new director: Dr. S.H. "Sy" Sohmer.

Sohmer has more than 40 years of experience and research in classical botany and taxonomy. He's currently based out of Washington, D.C., where he’s worked the last two years as a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. He also works as a faculty affiliate at George Mason University in Virginia. He'll soon make the move to Arizona to assume his new position at the arboretum. We asked him a few questions about himself, his background in botany and his new position.

Tell us a bit about your background and experience in botany.
I’m a classically trained taxonomist. My M.S. is from the University of Tennessee, and that’s where I really got my botanical training. From there, I went to the University of Hawaii and got my Ph.D. in systematic botany. My dissertation there was on what we thought was an endemic genus — a plant or something found nowhere else. It was an endemic genus found, they thought, only in Hawaii, and to my good fortune, there seemed to be one species, an outlier, that was found in the Austral Islands, which are south of Tahiti. I was able to get a grant from the National Science Foundation and go down there.

I really haven’t been able to do research for many years, because I’ve been in administration, but my interests still are with a genus in the coffee family called Psychotria. The coffee family is one of the largest woody families in the world, and Psychotria is one of the largest genera of woody plants in the world. I’ve done revisions of this genus for the Hawaiian archipelago, for the Philippine archipelago and for Papua New Guinea, where I spent a year as a forest officer.

What attracted you to the position of director at Boyce Thompson?
Well, the reason I know the arboretum is because I’m on the board of Biosphere 2. I’d go out to Biosphere 2, and I had heard about the arboretum, and so if I had time, I would drive over there on my own and just be a tourist. I loved it from the beginning. Most of my botanical work has been in the tropical rainforest, so this whole new world of desert plants, arid plants, was an eye-opener to me. I didn’t realize how diverse, how many species, how really interesting the desert flora was.

I had the good fortune of getting to know Mark Siegwarth, who was the former director, and when I would go up there, he would show me around and he was very kind to me; I appreciated that. So when this opportunity came up, I was in the right place for it, and I said, “OK, cool! I’d love to be director of that place!”

I’m going to be on a learning curve. One of the first things I want to do is go out and learn the local flora. I’m a botanist, so I know what a cactus is — I’ve seen many species of cacti — but I’m going to be on a learning curve. I’m going to grab someone at the arboretum who knows the flora and maybe have them take me out an hour or two each day, because I want to learn.

What do you hope to accomplish as the director?
I have some ideas, but until I really get fully on the ground there and really understand the rather complex way the place is governed, I think it would be presumptuous of me to declare what I want to do and what needs to be done. But I hope to be able to raise money for the organization in a variety of ways.

One thing I will bring to the arboretum are the connections to a lot of federal funding agencies and a lot of foundations, because I’ve worked with them. I hope that I can use this to the arboretum’s benefit. 

What do you think are some of the challenges facing the arboretum?
Well I think there are a number, but they’re the same problems I’ve seen at other organizations — governance and funding, especially funding. That’s true with every organization I’ve ever been associated with. There’s a lot of good organizations out there competing for the same dollar.

What will your day-to-day look like as director, and how will it be different from positions you’ve held in the past?
One week I might have to spend my time putting up fliers; the next week I might have to spend all my time fundraising. When I do something, I’m on 24/7. That’ll be particularly true with the arboretum. I’ll be working with staff, working on goals with the staff and working with the board.

A very important part of my job will be to be able to publically explain what the importance of an arboretum is, especially the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, for the conservation and knowledge of the ecology and the species and the evolution of arid land plants. And observation is also a very important thing, especially with so many natural habitats disappearing.

It’s important because it’s a unique organization that holds in trust this wonderful diversity of arid land plants and hopefully will be able to maintain these species even as the habitat disappears around it. This will be a bastion where these species will always thrive and not go extinct, I hope.

— Emily Balli

For more information about Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, visit the park's website

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Q&A: Buffalo Soldiers Live On at Fort Verde State Historic Park

Buffalo Soldier re-enactors. | Courtesy of Fort Verde State Historic Park

Each of the past 10 years, Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde has hosted a look back at a key part of American military history.

The Buffalo Soldiers were members of the first African-American regiments of the U.S. Army. Formed in the 1860s, the regiments fought in the Indian Wars, which occurred in present-day Arizona and other Western and Plains states.

The state park honors the Buffalo Soldiers’ legacy with an annual re-enactment event, and this year’s edition is this Saturday, February 18, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Along with learning the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, visitors can watch a vintage baseball game, with participants dressed in period replica uniforms, as well as demonstrations of how to cook Dutch oven meals.

Arizona Highways spoke with Red Turner, a re-enactor (also known as a “living historian”) participating in Saturday’s event, about what he does, what inspired his passion for history and the challenges he faces when it comes to his work.

How many years have you been participating in the Buffalo Soldier re-enactments at Fort Verde State Historic Park?
This is my third year out there in Arizona. I currently live in California.

How did you get into being a living history presenter?
I joined the New Buffalo Soldiers, based out of Los Angeles, and did things like the Rose Parade. We travel all over California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. We do about 20 to 25 events a year.

It all started after I retired. I’ve always been interested in history. I enjoy reading historical publications. I get different magazines in the mail from all over the country and saw an ad for living historians. My wife did the same thing with the Historical Citizens Association.

What motivated you to join?
People are hungry for history right now. There was a real need for good representation, and it was a good time to educate others. After seeing a need for living historians, I jumped right in to fill the gap.

Before becoming a living historian, what line of work were you in?
I’m retired from law enforcement, and now I do special operations training for the military.

What are some of the challenges that someone interested in becoming a living historian should know about?
Being a living historian is a lot of work. It’s a lot of research. You spend a lot of money on accurate costuming. When you say “living historian,” people think of it as a hobby, but it’s really a lifestyle. That’s the part that is a challenge, but it makes it all worth it when you see the faces of students, or people who show up for these events to learn something.

— Roman Russo

For more information about Saturday’s event, visit Fort Verde State Historic Park’s website.

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