There is no way to prove this, of course, but Cochise County may be the Arizona capital of unexpected art.
While there is an abundance of galleries, studios, shops and museums, art often defies traditional boundaries in this corner of the state. Look for colorful murals covering walls throughout Benson. A mountainside shrine adorned with soaring sculptures overlooks the San Pedro River Valley. The town of Douglas houses an assortment of funky and outrageous art cars. A deliciously intimate venue for the performing arts sits in the shade of sycamore trees at the mouth of Ramsey Canyon. An amazing collection of fine art can be found amid the jumbled boulders of Texas Canyon. And Bisbee…well, Bisbee is a work of art unto itself.
The story of Benson unfolds one wall at a time. More than 30 large-scale murals are spread through the town, each conveying a chapter of local history. The program was initiated by the Benson Clean and Beautiful committee in 2013.
Artist Doug Quarles moved from Tucumcari, New Mexico, to Benson to sling the paint. Working from old photos, Quarles creates vivid and detailed murals depicting different eras from Benson’s past – when it served as a stagecoach stop, mining center, cattle town and railroad hub.
Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine occupies a high perch on the slope of the Huachuca Mountains above Sierra Vista. A 75-foot-tall Celtic cross anchors the peaceful scene, which includes a large angel with arms open in welcome and a 31-foot-tall Madonna figure. A small chapel nestles at the base of the cross where travelers of all faiths can enjoy a few meditative moments.
If Willy Wonka had a car dealership and employed Mad Max as head mechanic, you’d see more art cars on the highways. Until then, head for Douglas where Harrod Blank is building the Art Car World Museum. Art cars are street-legal vehicles that have been permanently transformed into mobile sculptures.
Blank, an artist and filmmaker, created his first art car in college – a VW Beetle painted in multiple colors with decorations glued inside and outside. In Douglas, he has gathered a convoy of over-accessorized rolling fiestas of metal, color, whimsy and drama. The museum is a work in progress, open by appointment only.
The Arizona Folklore Preserve, nestled in Ramsey Canyon, is an intimate state-of-the-art theater that seats 60, putting the audience practically on stage with the entertainers.
It was founded by Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s Official State Balladeer, so performers could celebrate the area’s Western heritage and to help preserve local folk songs, stories and legends. Ellis, who was an original member of the New Christy Minstrels, remains artist-in-residence. He performs one weekend each month and his shows are a riveting, joyous lesson in Arizona history and lore.
Tucked away amid the dazzling rock formations of Texas Canyon, the Amerind Museum in Dragoon tells the story of America’s first peoples through exhibits and artifacts. The beautiful grounds include walking paths and picnic tables set amidst the boulder fields. In addition, an impressive art gallery displays works of all Western genres. The Fulton-Hayden Memorial Art Gallery houses a permanent collection of art gathered over several decades, and reserves one room for the presentation of contemporary American Indian art.
No surprise that Cochise County crackles with so much creative energy with Bisbee at its artistic core. Blessed with a spectacular setting and oldvworld architectural flourishes, the former mining town has emerged as a highly desirable and multi-faceted destination garnering national acclaim. Historic and funky, creaky and classy, Bisbee has evolved into a haven for artists.
At 5,300 feet, Bisbee sprawls in the canyons and gullies of the Mule Mountains. When the last copper mine closed in Bisbee in the mid-1970s, much of the town was abandoned. That’s when folks of an artistic temperament moved in. Shops and galleries opened along narrow streets. Houses were refurbished, often set ablaze with color. Murals splashed across walls, intriguing sculptures sprang up in postage stamp-sized yards and music spilled from every open saloon door.
Today, Bisbee’s creative spirit is renowned. This is where you come to experience art, to buy art or to see life as an artist does. This is where you come for a jolt of inspiration.
Walk the hilly streets. Dip in and out of the dozens of galleries that fill downtown. You’ll find paintings, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, wearable art, mixed media and more. Often the artist is the person running the shop. Explore the neighborhoods. Stop to listen to music. Catch a show or a play. Absorb the fun and quirky cosmopolitan air of this unique burg.
Cochise County is known for its legendary history and epic scenery. But don’t think for a minute that begins to capture it all. It will dazzle you with art, some of it completely unexpected. And isn’t that the very best kind?
(Brought to you by the Cochise County Tourism Council and contributor Roger Naylor, (520) 432-9215, www.explorecochise.com.)