Park galleries connect art, nature, culture
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Vicki Donkersley, curator of exhibitions at Tohono Chul Park, lays out display letters for a new installment at the art gallery within the park.

Art, nature and culture all come together and connect in three gallery spaces housed at Tohono Chul Park.

The park's Education Center features the Wells Fargo Gallery, where selections from the park's permanent collection — mostly Native American crafts from the Southwest — are displayed.

The Exhibit House has two galleries — the Exhibit Hall and the Gallery — which display changing shows on a staggered schedule.

"We do a dozen shows a year in our three different galleries," said Vicki Donkersley, curator of exhibits for the park. "In the Wells Fargo Gallery, we show many of the Native American craft forms that are traditionally made from materials at hand in the Southwest."

Such materials include desert fibers for baskets, wood and tree roots for carvings, textiles from sheep and cotton, and pottery made from earth, minerals and clay, she said.

"All those elements ties to the land and the people who are here making use of those resources," Donkersley pointed out.

Tohono Chul's permanent collection includes crafts, pottery, basketry and kachinas that go back to the 1940s, when Native American art was being rediscovered, Donkersley noted, and continues to the present so that the evolution of the art and crafts can be seen.

"Our current show in that gallery is on Pascua Yaqui mask carvings," she said. "We change the show every summer and develop a new theme to display."

The park also has an exhibit program organized around the displays where events are held so people can meet the artisans and learn more about their artwork, processes and culture.

The displays in the two galleries in the Exhibit House change more frequently — the Gallery changes every six weeks and the Exhibit Hall every 12.

"When we plan the year's exhibits, we always try to get things on the schedule that relate to nature in some way," Donkersley pointed out. "For instance, a show we had in January in the Gallery featured photographs of flowering desert cacti and cactus flowers, done by Dr John Schaefer, the former University of Arizona president and co-founder with Ansel Adams of the Center for Creative Photography." The exhibition in that gallery now, through April 20, is Connecting Generations, a sampling of Navajo jewelry, weavings, basketry and pottery.

The show currently in the Exhibit Hall, through May 16, is called Art That Heals and was curated by Peggy Hazard, the park's assistant curator.

"It's about using art for getting through difficult health or grieving times," Donkersley said. "It includes the work of 60 artists and is very powerful stuff because each piece has a narrative of how the art helped the artist get through a difficult time. It's a very personal, heart-tugging exhibit."

Donkersley said 90 percent of the artists who show in Tohono Chul's galleries live in Southern Arizona, and many use their art to show how it relates to nature and their culture.

"They're amazingly talented people doing remarkable work," Donkersley said, "and we're here to support them and their art."

Many of the exhibits in the Exhibit House are participatory activities where demonstrations or workshops are done to allow people to meet and talk with the artists.

"Part of our program is in teaching and helping people understand what they are looking at," Donkersley noted. "And every summer for the past 14 years we've profiled the artwork of students from locals schools, usually hanging about 20 pieces in the Gallery."

The park does a series of shows for elementary, middle and high schools, running a month for each during summer. Art teachers at the school select the artwork, and the park staff mattes and frames the artwork to a 16-by-20-inch standard.

"We've worked with the Tohono O'odham and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the past, and this year we're working with the Native Education Alliance, which is collecting the artwork," Donkersley said.

That show will run from June 10 to July 27 in the Gallery.

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