Below the slopes of the Catalinas' north face, the Bachman Wash twists its way through thickets of mesquite and creosote.
Given a German name loosely translated as "man by the brook," the beloved wash snakes through the Rancho Linda Vista artist colony in Oracle. It's an arroyo both sandy and rocky, and it changes with the seasons. Sometimes it's a raging creek, sometimes a bed of wildflowers, sometimes a parched and desperate gulch.
For 38 years, from 1968, when the ranch got started, to 1999 when he died, painter Bruce McGrew lived just a few steps away. He was deeply attached to a distinctive bend in the wash, and he painted it again and again.
The bend was McGrew's favorite painting spot, and author Paul Gold honored the painter and the place by naming his new book Bend in the Wash: The Rancho Linda Vista Artist Community.
Gold reports that McGrew once told arts writer Kathleen Allen, "I go out of my house every day and look at the desert, and every day is new and exciting."
That nearly sums up the reason d'être for the Rancho Linda Vista—the ranch of the beautiful view—an arts community still going strong after 53 years. The lush desert plants, blue skies and dramatic mountains on its 80 acres have lured some 100 artists over the years, by Gold's calculation. But the opportunity to live in a community of artists, with shared interests, has been almost as beguiling as the gorgeous landscape.
"The shared intend of making art in a beautiful place is what led artists over fifty years ago to Rancho Linda Vista..." as Gold puts it.
Many communes were created in the rebellious '60s, but not many survived. Gold's book examines not only the exhilarating art that came out of this lovely place, but the ways the ranch residents managed to stay together.
Plenty of important Tucson artists (including McGrew, Joy Fox McGrew, James Davis, Charles Littler and Andrew Rush, all profiled in this book) have lived and worked at the ranch, influencing each other, arguing about art, laughing, bickering and drinking together. Luckily for the survival of the art community, the artists and their families can keep their privacy by living in one of the ranch's 21 separate houses, all of them modest and eccentric.
The ranch has often been profiled in magazines and newspapers, but Gold's welcome tome is apparently the first book on RLV. It's a beautiful volume, chockablock with color photos of artworks and black-and-whites from the early days, featuring ranch kids and their then-youthful parents.
An art lover who studied art at the UA but didn't pursue it as a career, Gold is an unapologetic fan of RLV and its artists. He spent 15 years on the project, conducting in-person interviews, with artists as well as spouses, grown children and friends; researching the archives; and even staying at the ranch's guest house. Musing about his magical time waking up at the ranch, he writes, "...this day, every day, begins perfectly, laid out in beauty..."
Gold briskly lays out the interesting history of the place, including the legendary episode when an Andy Warhol film shoot on the property ended with an FBI raid. More prosaically, the Wilson family ran cattle on the land from 1911 until 1957. The next owners turned it into a dude ranch, adding a pool that would later become a cherished gathering place for the artists, who preferred to swim au naturel.
It was a time of rebellion, and when the ranch property went up for sale, Littler rounded up a likely bunch of nonconformists eager to live on the land.
Ten families—31 people—signed on in 1968. Five of them, including Littler and McGrew, were UA professors. They paid for shares, not houses, so there was no individual ownership of property. By the time the artists moved in, the old dude ranch was "in a condition that was good for the price but would require its new inhabitants to be handy with a hammer," Gold writes.
Rush joined up the next year, 1969, and Davis followed in 1970 when he got hired at the UA.
The five artists Gold highlights all thrived at the rancho, though just two of them are still alive.
Joy Fox McGrew, Bruce's widow, the only artist from the founding 1968 crew still living there, is admired for ceramic sculptures, half animal, half human, made from the clay that she pulls from the earth. So is Andrew Rush, known for exquisite prints and drawings, teaching and founder of The Drawing Studio, a school in Tucson. Both artists are still busy having exhibitions, Rush at Tohono Chul last year, and McGrew at Davis Dominguez until it closed down last year.
The late Bruce McGrew was a matchless master of watercolor. Davis, who died in 2016, was a painter of edgy urban scenes—and subtle homages to the ranch of the beautiful view. His haunting work found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other lofty venues. Littler, who died suddenly in 1991, originally worked for abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. He was a talented painter but he eventually moved away from the idea of art as product.
Working with his second wife Pat Dolan, he made the desert itself into art, turning twigs and other debris into ephemeral constructions. The ranch, he would say, was his finest work of art.
Certainly life at the ranch was not always idyllic. Littler and Bruce could knock heads about what art is or should be. They were the "most polarized," Rush told author Gold. McGrew loved grand paintings and he revered the art history tradition. Littler was the visionary and trailblazer. "The ranch was a performance piece to Charles," Rush said. "...Bruce was the keeper of the tabernacle when it came to art."
There was plenty of drinking, drug using and extramarital sex in the old days, and the legendary parties were outright debauches. Broken marriages abounded. Gold doesn't shy away from detailing the behavior of the male artists. He cites their "flamboyant lifestyle," but in these very different #MeToo times, the ranch's women might call it something far worse.
The children of the artists had extraordinary childhoods: they played undisturbed in nature with a crew of readily available friends and they watched a whole colony of serious artists at work. But some of these free-range kids felt abandoned. One now-grown offspring told Gold that he felt like he had no parents, but he also said the independence he was given strengthened his character.
Tellingly, many of the children who grew up there, as second-generation RLV'ers, left for a time as adults. But eventually they came back so that their own kids, the third generation, could grow up among artists and live an unconventional life near the bend in the wash.
Bend in the Wash: The Rancho Linda Vista Artist Community
A book by Paul Gold
Hardback, large format, 256 pages, many color photos of the art and the artists. Limited edition of 250 copies.
Self-published as Tubecat LLC
Available at the Museum Shop at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave., 624-2333; at Deadwood Framing, 2530 E. Sixth St., 882-0505, appointment only; and online via Paypal. Contact author for links at firstname.lastname@example.org.
$90 plus tax, shipping and handling