Residents of Oro Valley might consider a compilation of photographs, locations and information about the community's public art to be "a coffee table book that relates to where they live," according to artist, photographer and compiler Gail Munden.

"Excellence by Design: A Visual History of Public Art in Oro Valley, Arizona," also serves as chronicle of more than 70 pieces of public art installed in community spaces since the town adopted its public art mandate more than a dozen years ago.

The work of more than 50 artists is displayed in "Excellence By Design," produced by the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance with the help of several major contributors.

"It's in no way comprehensive," Munden said.

"We believe more than 100 pieces of public art have been created over the years," said Ty Bowers, the part-time SAACA employee who helped Munden finish the book. "What Gail was able to do, generously volunteering her time the way she did, is she got the first-ever catalogue of public art. We look at this as a first sketch. There are so many more."

Part of the project consisted of "searching for art," Munden said. There are few formal records for Oro Valley public art, so Munden assembled a list of the pieces she knew.

"The nature of these projects is that they're all project-specific," Bowers said. Contractors might have records … and might not.

In addition, while some of the town's public art is obvious, and the artists identified, the rest required "Google, gossip and calls" to find, Munden said.

There's one piece she never found. "Somewhere down in a ditch," Munden said, there is a sculpture of a little girl with a dog.

Munden, a photographer and artist – she painted the desert scene at Oro Valley Hospital's surgery center – was keenly focused on photographing the works.

"I tried to make them come out of their surroundings," whether they sit at gas stations, in parking lots or at other routine places in daily existence. "I like to try to capture the moment, with the light."

"The Spirit Within," a sculpture outside a gas station in Rancho Vistoso, has but a few minutes of light on it each day. Munden went to the scene, blocked off any access by others, and caught the last beams of daylight on the piece. Her picture brings new majesty to a sculpture people walk past or drive by without looking every day.

"All of these consisted of four or five visits," Munden said. She volunteered 20 hours a week for two years, her family forced to eat store-bought sandwiches and carry-out dinners.

The journey to capture public art, and the production of the book, is bringing new realization to the sheer number of public art installations in the community. So many works of art are "right there, and people don't even realize it," Munden said.

People look at the book and say "oh, oh, I recognize that," Bowers said. "More often than not," though, they say "I didn't realize it was there. A lot of these things are hiding in plain sight."

"One of the things I learned through her" and the book is the intent to make art visible and accessible for everyone, Bowers said. With the book, "new people come to appreciate something maybe they've overlooked before," he said. When people read the book, or go on one of SAACA's public art tours, "they realize these things do add some value to the community."

That reflects well on town leaders who enacted an ordinance requiring 1 percent of a project's cost go toward public art, he said.

"The town saw it was important," Bowers said. When Oro Valley is listed as a great place to raise a family, or to do business in, or to live in, "art plays into that," he said. "It shows off the aspect that Oro Valley has done very well over the years. It's a shot across the bow at what you can do to draw attention to the arts."

As she visited public art installations, Munden was startled by the level of "disrespect at some locations;" namely, the number of cigarette butts around and pieces of gum stuck on public art. On SAACA's public art tours, people have "recognized it's not as respected as it should be."

She's been further surprised by some reactions to public art. At Oro Valley Audiology, the town insisted a wire sculpture of a woman be moved from the front of the building to one side. "This is not a naked woman," Munden said. "It's the image of a female. It borders on ridiculous, it's ridiculous that could be offensive."

Feedback on "Excellence by Design" has been positive. People say "they didn't know there was so much," she said. "It's mind-numbingly slow to edit something," Munden said, and it's not easy when the book had to be reduced from 120 to 100 pages. Bowers came in late in the project to edit copy. "Gail did this thing almost single-handedly," he said.

More than 1,000 of the paperback books were published. The initial printing of hard-cover volumes was more than 100. SAACA's intent is to have "as many of the artists as possible sign those," Bowers said, and many have come forward.

"I'm proud of it," Munden said. "I don't hate it." She learned a great deal. "I could actually get a degree with this book," she said. "I get nothing out of this but to volunteer in a field I love, and to make a difference."

'Excellence by Design'

112 pages

9-by-12 inches

$35, soft-bound

$80, hard-bound and autographed

On sale at the Oro Valley Book Festival, Feb. 13, and the Tucson Festival of Books, March 13-13


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