Oct. 13, 2004 - When Tucson artist To-Ree-Nee Wolf Keiser approaches a public art project she tries to become a conduit of the community's history and culture.
Before she even starts working, she likes to interview community members. She said she begins with the elders and works her way through to the youth.
"I become a vessel of the community," she said. "The community tells me their stories, hopes, and dreams, and the challenges of the community come forth. What it does, if you do it right, the community has ownership and it has ripple effect you can't even see."
The Tucson artist has created murals and public art in major cities such as Los Angeles and Tucson. She said a mural is more than just a large painting on the side of the wall; it has a deeper meaning. A mural expresses an aspect or idea about the condition of the community, whether it be about struggle or triumph.
"What makes a mural different is it addresses cultural and historical issues," Keiser said. "So it becomes a teaching tool as well as a piece of art."
Currently, Keiser is working on two projects in Marana. One of her projects will go on display in two places - along the side of the road on Silverbell, between Ina and Cortaro, and in a future park nearby. She's also redesigned the town seal for the future town municipal complex.
For the Silverbell project, Keiser has created colorful glass panels five feet tall and three feet wide that tell the history of Marana using images and symbols.
With the town emblem, Keiser used red, green, yellow and blue pieces of glass to create a sparkling mosaic. When finished, a 10 foot mosaic will go on the floor of the municipal complex, and smaller versions of the seal will be behind the council's meeting site and the magistrate judge's bench.
Marana's manager of construction, Tim Allen, said Keiser's easygoing personality is one of her greatest assets. The town has continued to work with her because she is easy to communicate with and always considers the needs of the town and the community. He said town officials were so pleased with her work for Silverbell, they asked her to stay and work on the town seal.
To create the seal, Keiser went through the painstaking process of cutting pieces of glass into the correct shape to create an image of Marana's town emblem. What's also impressive is the way Keiser was thrust into tile work - the art technique she used to design the town seal - involuntarily.
Until 1997, Keiser had primarily been a painter working in acrylic. At that time she began working on a project on South Park Avenue in Tucson. It was a joint project with another artist. Keiser was going to do the painting and the other artist would create the tile mosaic.
As she always likes to do when starting a project, Keiser began by interviewing the elders in the primarily black community. She learned that the people had moved there in the 1930s and 1940s, living in tents until they could afford to build their own houses. She remembers that despite the hardship in their stories, the elders looked back on the time with a certain fondness.
Meanwhile, the tile artist taught classes to children in the community about how to create a mosaic so they could contribute to the artwork. Unfortunately, in the middle of the project, Keiser said the other artist had a "nervous breakdown or something" and left the project, leaving her to pick up the tile work. Not one to give up on a project, Keiser learned how to do tile work, and now she's applied the knowledge to her work in Marana.
Keiser said the relationship between her and the town began when Marana contacted several artists, including her, from the Tucson Pima Arts Council and invited them to an interview for a public art project. What was interesting about Marana, Keiser said, is that Marana officials could offer few details about the project at the time of the interview.
Marana insisted the interview would be informal, but Keiser said she approaches every project seriously. Because Marana had little information about the specific project, all she could do was show them slides of her work and talk about whether or not her work would coincide with what the town envisioned.
Marana selected her to do the art for the Silverbell Road improvement and was so impressed with her work they re-hired for the new town emblem.
Keiser learned that Marana wanted an artist to create a timeline that expressed the history of the town using images rather than words.
For Keiser the first step was researching the history of the town.
From that she decided to break the history into five periods. She wanted to start the story with the land alone, she said, because the land was here long before any human set foot on it. For that reason, the first panel in her timeline represented the time of the fossil before the entrance of mankind. From there she delved into four other historical periods: the prehistoric when the Hohokam Indians lived in what is now Marana, the time of Spanish exploration and colonization, the period when Southern Arizona was under Mexican control, the first half of the nineteenth century when Arizona was annexed into the United States, and finally when the town came into existence.
She created ten of the panels, five of which will go on display on Silverbell and five in a park which has yet to be constructed.
She worked with students from Marana High School as part of the project and their contribution will be seen on the finished project. Keiser said she loves working with kids and they provide an amazing expression in her work.
"The secret to working with kids is if you give them your heart first, they will always respond in kind," she said.
When she works with them, she hopes they leave the experience with an understanding of art that can benefit them throughout life.
"If you allow yourself to be moved by beauty that will carry you to where you need to go in life," she said.
Keiser said she carries her artistic integrity into every project she does, but when she does a work of public art she must consider the desires of her client and the community as well as her own. She can do this because of her to affinity for colors and images and her ability to listen to the needs of her client and the community.
"I have a physical response to beauty," Keiser said. "I listen, I listen well and I listen from a deep place."
This is important for town officials because, at times, public art can be controversial, making its unveiling stressful, Allen said. He added that Keiser has relieved much of that stress for Marana. When she creates a piece of artwork for the town, officials are confident it will be embraced by the community.
Keiser enjoys this because it allows her to express the importance of art to a wider audience.
"Art is knowledge brought back from the spiritual realm made accessible to the rest of us," she said.