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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Q&A: Unlocking the Secrets of Petrified Forest

Ray Lee | Petrified Forest National Park

Our February issue, on newsstands now, celebrates Petrified Forest National Park. Though the park is best known for its 200 million-year-old petrified wood, it also has an extensive human history. That's where park archaeologist William Reitze comes in. For the issue, we had Reitze annotate a story that originally appeared in the April 1963 issue of Arizona Highways. We also asked him a few questions about his work.

Tell us about your background. What led you to a career in archaeology, and how did you end up at Petrified Forest?
I have always loved archaeology. When I was a little kid, I got to go hiking and camping with my family quite a bit. We often got to go and see archaeology sites throughout Colorado and Utah. I love learning about the past and working outside, so archaeology seemed like a good career. I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico and my master's at Colorado State University. I am currently finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.

I ended up at Petrified Forest through the student Pathways program. This program allows the Park Service to hire students to work in parks while they are in school. I was looking for a job, and this seemed like an interesting opportunity. When I started here, I really had no idea how much archaeology was actually preserved here at Petrified Forest.

What’s something about your career field that people might not know or understand?
A lot of the people I talk to think that archaeologists are always looking for the biggest sites or the rarest artifacts. But often, the more interesting questions that we can ask are how people in the past lived on a day-to-day basis. This involves looking at a lot of small sites through time and getting a detailed look at all of the artifacts that they left behind and how they relate to each other.

What’s a typical workday like for you? (If there is such a thing as a typical workday.)
Describing a typical workday is difficult. During the summer months, when there are more staff and the field crews are bigger, I spend a little more time working on paperwork to keep them in the field. But most days start at 7 a.m. (or 6 a.m., if it is a really hot summer). We will then typically go out into the field for the day. Our fieldwork is typically broken into three different types of activities. First is systematically looking for new sites on the landscape. Second would be documenting those sites in detail, including recording and mapping the artifacts and features found. Third is site preservation, or preventing erosion or other damage from occurring on these sites.

So on field days, I’ll typically be out hiking in the field until 4:30 p.m. In the summers, I’ll do this with a crew, but often in the fall, winter and spring, a lot of my field time is on my own. So on a field day, you’ll have to carry everything that you might need for the day, including water, your lunch and field recording gear.

But field days are always offset with office and lab days. All of the data that we collect needs to be timed up and entered into different databases. Artifacts need to be drawn, photographed and analyzed; site maps need to be made; and forms for the site files need to be written up.

What are some interesting things going on at Petrified Forest these days that relate to your job?
I think that the most interesting thing happening in archaeology at Petrified Forest is the boundary expansion. Right now, the park is doubling in size to protect additional archaeology sites, which is not something a lot of national parks are doing. This allows us to explore whole new areas, find new sites and set up new directions for research in archaeology.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love going into the field to discover something new. Here at Petrified Forest, we have the opportunity to find really fascinating new archaeology all the time, which is great. A lot of people who pass through Petrified Forest do not realize the human story that is here. People have been living and farming here since the end of the last ice age. We have more than 1,000 recorded archaeology sites, and there is a lot of human history here to experience.

To learn more about Petrified Forest National Park, pick up our February issue or visit www.nps.gov/pefo.

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Q&A: Joe Bill on Lookout Towers and the Lookouts He Found There

Joe Bill checks out the view from a fire lookout tower atop Kendrick Mountain. Humphreys Peak is in the background. | Courtesy of Joe Bill

Joe Bill, the author of Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled, spent four months driving nearly 4,000 miles (and hiking more than 100 miles) to interview 35 fire lookouts. He turned one big journey into a book and acquired an endless number of life lessons. And Jo Baeza, a longtime contributor to Arizona Highways, edited the book. We got the chance to ask Bill a few questions about his book.

What inspired you to take on this project?
My wife and I have hiked a lot in Arizona. Some of those hikes led us to the top of mountains with lookout towers. We would visit with the lookouts, and hearing about their life journeys fascinated me. These people have dared to do something different.

Furthermore, these people spend a lot of time in silence. It’s a lot of time to themselves and a lot of time to think. I always wondered if they would have words of wisdom for those of us who work at lower levels, so to speak. 

How did you go about starting this project?
I had to find out where all the fire towers were located, which ones were staffed and when they were staffed. It was a lot of calls to the Forest Service and ranger stations. I put together a large map of where they were, including the schedules, and started making appointments.

Did you face any challenges?
After my first appointment, with a lookout on Mount Ord, I asked myself, “Is this really going to work?” But while I was interviewing the lookout, a fire broke out. That created a fitting first chapter for my book, because it would give readers a honest description of what a lookout does when fires break out, what they do on the radio and how they coordinate the activities of the firefighters, etc. At that point, I said to myself, “Oh, my gosh, this really is going to work.”

But then it was the challenge of finding the towers. While we were on the Fort Apache Reservation, we were particularly lost. But my son made me stick it out, and fortunately, we caught the lookout just in time before he left for the day. It’s amazing how it all worked out.

What did you learn from this journey?
I often wondered: How can people spend that much time by themselves in a tower without getting bored and having a sluggish day?

So, I spent some time with Gary McElfresh (Chapter 10), and he trained me to be a relief lookout, which is someone who fills in when the lookout is taking time off. I’ve served as a relief lookout a number of times in a couple different locations. What an incredible experience that was for me.

After about two days of work, you start getting into the zone and not thinking much about what’s going on in the world. You appreciate the quiet — the beauty. It’s a totally different life than the one you and I are probably living.

What do the lookouts do in their down time?
Some were authors, and others were musicians. A couple were into quilting, and a couple others were painters. One person’s hobby was cooking in the tower. They were all talented people.

When you asked the lookouts if they had any words of wisdom, what did they say?
At the end of every chapter, you’ll see a quote from each lookout regarding their philosophical perspective. But to give you a few examples, Jo Baeza said, “By most people’s standards, I’m a well-educated person, but I’ve learned far more from silence than I ever learned from books or classrooms.” 

And after interviewing Adam Henry, from the Fort Apache Reservation where we were lost, he said, “Wherever it might be, find your own quiet tower. Make it your special place and spend some time there.”

Was there one person in particular who stuck out to you?
Let me begin by saying that each person I spoke to is special — they’re all great people. But the one that was most touching of all was the woman in the very last chapter, Chris Magill. I interviewed her on her very last day, after 35 years of service, and she was in her 80s. She said to me, “You know, when you think about life, there doesn’t have to be a last chapter. There just does not have to be a last chapter.” And, guess what, she returned to work the next year as a lookout. So she was right: There really doesn’t have to be a last chapter.

— Brianna Cossavella

Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled is available for purchase on Amazon.

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Q&A: Turning Aerial Photographs Into 'Paintings'

One of Greg Young's pieces shows the Sedona area and the distant San Francisco Peaks. | Courtesy of Greg Young

Greg Young is a retired commercial photographer who resides in Pennsylvania. He’s a self-proclaimed geek, and about a year ago, he found a computer program, Dynamic Auto Painter, to turn his photographs into works of art. We asked Young a few questions about his “paintings” and what keeps drawing him back to the Grand Canyon State.

What brought you to Arizona?
I enjoy traveling with my wife and capturing photos of the different places we visit. Usually, we choose a different destination every year; I’d like to see as much as I can while I’m still here. Arizona is a bit of an exception because there are so many beautiful places to see, and partly because it gives us a reason to see my sister and her husband in Cottonwood.

What is it that you love about Arizona?
I just love the outdoors, I love the scenery, I love the textures, and the colors of Sedona just really wow me. As an aerial photographer, I just love to see that. I can’t approach it like a professional job, because I don’t live there and I can’t spend as much time as I’d like to, but I did charter a plane around sunset a couple of years ago. Originally, Arizona to me was the Grand Canyon, and I didn’t know much more about the state than that. As I got to see my sister in Cottonwood, I learned more about the Sedona area, and the more I was there, the more I enjoyed it.

Tell us about your paintings.
For a year or so, I’ve been working with software that turns photos into some great-looking paintings. It’s not a filter effect; it actually redraws the entire image and provides dozens of presets that were inspired by real artists.

I basically consider it an extension of my interest in photography. In no way do I present them as original paintings or original drawings. I’m sure some traditionalist artists may resent the approach, but I don’t think they should, as long as no one tries to claim that their work is an original painting. In fact, most traditional paintings are done by artists who take photographs of their subject and then paint from the photo. I don’t have that skill. I’m a creative photographer, but I can’t paint worth a lick.

How did you discover the program?
I’m a computer geek, so I’m always surfing the web, exploring different things. I got into digital imaging probably as early as anybody. I was editing traditional photography years before digital cameras. Pictures would be scanned, and then digital images could be brought into the computer. I evolved with the technology. There were some programs doing simple filter effects, which I was amazed by 20 years ago, and now it’s such child's play — you could do better on your phone.

Do you have a preference for the software paintings versus your traditional photography?
I enjoy both. Some subjects just don’t lend themselves to it as well, regardless of the style, but some really do. I think there’s a place for both. I don’t see it replacing any of my photography. There are just things that it does. It enhances the colors and the textures in such a cool way.

— Kirsten Kraklio

To learn more about Greg Young or to see more of his work, visit his website.

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Q&A: Queen Creek Teen on Finding a Passion for Art

"Running the Distance" | Courtesy of Dimitra Milan

While many 16-year-olds are heading back to school and possibly beginning to think about college, Queen Creek’s Dimitra Milan is focusing on creating pieces of art that capture the attention of collectors around the world. “I paint the dream that's deep in my heart, to inspire others, to make them feel like they can do anything," Milan says. "I want my art to shine light on a bright future; stir passion, love, confidence, hope, and serenity." We asked Milan a few questions about her work; you can see more of her paintings at the bottom of this story.

How did you begin your painting career?
I began painting when I was 12 at an art school my parents had just opened, the Milan Art Institute. They taught everything: classical oil techniques, drawing, abstract/mixed media and collage. I learned many of my skills from them. My parents were a major factor for me advancing into my art career; they helped pave the way. They are professional artists themselves. It wasn't until I took their portfolio class that I figured out my lifelong passion would be art. Somewhere along the way in that class, I found my voice as an artist. I realized creating these surreal atmospheres with dreamlike qualities, and telling a story, was something unique.

How do you describe your painting style, and how has it changed over the years?
My painting style has definitely evolved over the past few years, and it really changed the most within the last year. The more I paint, the more I learn and perfect my skills. I would say my artwork could be called abstract surrealism, painted loosely but accurate. I have fun bringing my imagination into real life. I feel as if each piece becomes something living as I paint it. It says something, evokes questions, and it moves people.

Do you ever travel to get inspiration, and if so, what's your favorite spot in Arizona to visit and paint?
Traveling definitely brings new inspiration. Europe, and particularly Greece, are my favorite places to travel. I have lived in Arizona for most of my life, and I find its desert climate also very beautiful. I enjoy being outdoors, in nature, and working on my photography. I love hiking in the Superstitions and the San Tan Mountains.

What else inspires you and your artwork?
I'm inspired by what is beautiful and genuine. I'm inspired to paint the unseen things from a distant place and bring them near and familiar. I paint animals in my artwork, believing they can represent something deeper. For example, a tiger can be a symbol of confidence, boldness and being true to who you really are. For every person, the meaning will change. I paint women and animals together, to create a story that we connect to and for that to mean something different unique to each of us.

What is your favorite piece of artwork?
It’s hard to choose a favorite artwork of mine, because it changes all the time. There have always been a few that really stood out to me. Ascending Vision is one I really love. It's of a girl with a rhinoceros at her side and snowy mountains inside them. I felt that this painting's message was really powerful. As I stared at it finished, the meaning came to me. It was about expanding your vision and conquering those mountains, not letting anything stop you from reaching the heights.

How did you begin combining your art with helping charities?
When I was 12 years old, we found out that our friend's daughter had cancer. She was the same age as me. My friends and I were always praying for her, and my mom would keep me updated on how she was doing. She ended up losing her life. Her mom started an organization called Comfy Cozys for Chemo. She makes specially designed T-shirts for people during chemotherapy, while they have very sensitive skin. It was her daughter's invention. Her mom asked me one year later to paint live at their charity event for Comfy Cozys and donate the piece. The painting was sold that night in the live auction. I've been donating to them ever since.

— Kirsten Kraklio

To learn more about Dimitra Milan and her art, visit her website.

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Q&A: Artist Turns His Focus on National Parks

"Grand Canyon Splendor" | Courtesy of Anthony Rudisill

Anthony Rudisill has been painting landscapes and other subjects for six decades. His most recent work celebrates what he calls "the best of America's natural resources." That includes his National Parks Series — which is timely, since the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this month. Rudisill resides in New Jersey, but many of his paintings feature Arizona's national parks, national monuments and other picturesque locations. Via email, we asked the artist a few questions about his work. You can see more of Rudisill's work on his website, and a selection of his paintings appears at the end of his Q&A.

Tell us about your background. What led you to a career in paintings?
I was interested as a young boy in wildlife, and birds in particular. That started with being involved with the Cub Scouts with another friend. I also wanted to draw, or to learn to draw. [John James] Audubon was my hero, and I copied him when I was young, eventually developing my own style. My dad used to take me into Philadelphia when I was young, where I wandered the galleries. I would go and see other artists’ work and admire it and want to do that. I felt “if they could do it, I could do it.”

After many years focused on painting birds primarily, I got into wildfowl carvings, or wood sculpture. I did well at it and won several competitions and “Best in World” titles. Eventually I got tired of the competition and the detail and got back into painting. I realized as I got back into painting that I had a much different outlook on it.  I was painting more freely, and focused on my own subjects rather than what I thought someone else wanted. Over the years I got into painting on a different level, bringing me to where I am now. It’s very important to me to work every day. I look forward to it.

What is it about national parks, in particular, that appeals to you as a subject of your paintings?
Several things led to my current focus on national parks. When I was a youngster, I always admired scenery and landscapes in magazines and calendars, particularly national parks. That was always an inspiration to me and I always wanted to be able to see those places. Later in life, when my daughter lived in California, we visited her and she took us to see Yosemite [National Park]. Well, that did it. I had to see more national parks after that.  My wife and I made subsequent trips back to California and always found places to visit along those lines. 

Eventually, my wife and I planned a trip in 2010 to see as many parks as we could in the western states, with the idea of creating a collection of national parks paintings. As I got started, it really took control of my work. The scenery is fantastic and the challenge is great. Just to see those places and to be able to paint them is quite rewarding. When I’m working on a painting, I always feel I can’t wait to get to the next one.

Are you aiming for a true-to-life representation of your subjects, or do you take some liberties with them?
Regarding “true-to-life representation,” I want to do that very much, so I don’t take many liberties at all.  I may move a rock or something for better composition, but I’m really painting a scene exactly as it is. 

I work from my own photographs. When I’m in a park, I photograph a scene that inspires me from all angles, composing with my camera. When I get home, I work from those photographs. I pick one photograph and work from that scene. So my paintings are true to life, and I feel that’s the way they should be. I don’t feel I should change anything. That’s the way Nature intended it, so that’s the way I paint them. 

I’m definitely a realist. I see things like that. I see every leaf, while an impressionist sees the whole tree. I like the detail. It’s a challenge, too, to paint it really to look real. The detail is what I strive for. Actually, some people think my work is photography, which can sometimes frustrate me a bit.

What is your process for creating a painting?
The process for creating a painting is basically pretty simple. Once I have selected the scene from my photographs, I then scale it onto a larger board, drawing everything in pencil onto the board. I don’t deviate from my photograph, which keeps my work very accurate. I draw it, then paint it. 

Interestingly, many times when I decide what I want to paint, I get all set up and do the pencil work and then my mind is on what’s next while I’m painting. I’m up to 42 paintings in the collection, and still looking forward to the next one.

How long does one piece take to create, from start to finish?
The time it takes to create a painting from start to finish is very variable. As I mentioned, I start with photography to begin with, so you have to include the time it took to go to these places and select the scene. Then, from drawing it through painting it, for a larger painting, could take me up to six weeks to do.

Where can people see your work, and how can they go about purchasing it?
Right now, people can see my work on my website, www.ajrudisill.com. As it happens, a lot of the galleries I’ve been with are currently going out of business, so I’m not associated with a specific gallery at the moment. At the moment, my daughter is assisting me with the business part of things that most artists like myself are not too good at. She is working on sharing my work around the country and looking for opportunities to show, exhibit and sell the National Parks Series of paintings.

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Q&A: Renovations at Flagstaff's Weatherford Hotel

Flagstaff's Weatherford Hotel is known for the Great Pinecone Drop, which occurs on New Year's Eve every year. | Courtesy of Weatherford Hotel

The Weatherford Hotel is located in the heart of downtown Flagstaff. It’s part of Northern Arizona’s history, and owner Henry Taylor plans to keep it that way.

Taylor, who bought the building in 1975, spoke with Arizona Highways about the Weatherford’s past four months of renovations, which are intended to restore a hotel that opened in 1900 to its original, historical look.

What renovations are being done?
It’s a project trying to restore the main floor of the hotel itself. In the beginning it was built with 19-foot ceilings, and it was cut in half in 1916 and put into two floors instead of one, so we wanted to restore [the lobby] back to its original 19-foot ceiling height. We also added six new rooms to the building. 

How important is it to you to preserve the hotel’s historical look?
It’s absolutely essential.  That’s why we’re here, to restore the building. It’s probably the most iconic building in Northern Arizona. The whole goal is to take it back to the way it was.

How are the new rooms different from the existing rooms?
They’re newer rooms, but again, when they cut the ceiling in half, they added 12 new rooms to the building, and we had to take those rooms out because structurally, they weren’t sound enough. All of these years, we’ve been working around that. So we just [finished] putting the rooms back, along with the lobby entrance.  The historic nature of the rooms is furnished well, but they’re modern rooms.

Have you uncovered anything interesting and new in the building?
It’s always new and exciting and different. It’s just nice to see the building open back up again. When I bought the building in 1975, I think it had 42 rooms in it; we’ve since then reduced it down to 16. So the whole idea is to open the building up to what it used to be like. Over the years they kept cutting it down to smaller rooms because there was a demand for hotel rooms. But after a while you can only cut and piece so many parcels before it’s not reusable. We’ve opened it back up in this renovation to make it more like it was in the beginning.

What is the Gopher Hole?
The Gopher Hole was originally an event space and function room, and right now it is an event space, restaurant and game room. We took on the restoration two years ago for the basement area. I bought the building in 1975, and I really couldn’t restore the building until I restored the structural engineering in the basement and on up into the roof. It was originally called the Gopher Hole at the turn of the century, and we were able to restore the area structurally to the point where we could reopen it.

— Isabel Menzel

To learn more about the Weatherford Hotel, call 928-779-1919 or visit www.weatherfordhotel.com.

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