"No Bull" by Tubac artist Fred Collins at Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery — Photo courtesy of Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery
The next great American arts community has quietly been thriving in the middle of the Arizona desert for decades.
In fact, the tiny town of Tubac is actually one of the oldest towns in the state and is often referred to as the area "where art and history meet."
For the past 59 years, the annual Tubac Festival of the Arts has attracted artists from around the globe and has become the country’s longest running art festival. 2018’s juried show featured more than 175 artists, including Daniel Ramirez, who’s working on "The World’s Longest Native American Painting" and whose widely-recognized work has already paid tribute to more than 250 Native American women.
Artist Daniel Ramirez at the Tubac Festival of the Arts — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Although thousands of people attend the Festival of the Arts every February, the rest of the year Tubac still flies under the radar for most travelers, despite being home to more than 100 galleries.
"Maybe it’s because they can’t figure out the road signs," laughed Patti Todd, who found herself in Tubac 20 years ago and ended up staying.
Tubac is located about 40 miles south of Tucson, off Interstate 19, the only highway in America where distances are posted solely in kilometers. The fact that residents refuse to give up this unique feature despite the failure of the Metric Conversion Act says so much about the quirkiness and creativity of this vibrant arts community.
"You have to really want to be here because it’s pretty off the grid," said Tige Reeve, who recently moved to Tubac from Nashville (where he still owns Endeavor Fine Art) with his wife, Sherry. Together, they opened Casa de Tesoro, a gorgeous space featuring world-renowned artists including Southwestern painters Lawrence Lee and Ray Tigerman, French sculptor Athena Jahantigh, and Spain’s bestselling contemporary figurative painter, Didier Lourenco.
"The desert, with its inherent beauty, dramatic landscapes and vast quiet spaces, has always been our place to recharge. When we stumbled upon Tubac, it was love at first sight."
Casa de Tesoro Gallery of Fine Art — Photo courtesy of Casa de Tesoro
They’re not the only ones to experience that feeling. Artists have been flocking to Tubac since the 1930s to escape the big cities, get back to nature and take advantage of the town’s "good light."
"It’s a very clear light," explained John Marbury, who you can usually find working in his studio/gallery at El Presidito, the home of Tubac School of Fine Art. "The dry climate allows the dust to filter through the sunlight. As an artist, I find it so exciting and inspiring."
One reason the light is so clear is because of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, which sits atop Mt. Hopkins, and is the largest field installation of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory outside of their main site in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because it features one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, the towns surrounding the observatory have light restrictions, which keep the sky unusually clear.
"Shadows of Our Past" by Fred Collins at Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery — Photo courtesy of Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery
According to artist Fred Collins, "There’s an energy around the mountains, and the sky – at sunrise or sunset or when lightning strikes during the rainy season – can be electric. That, coupled with all the desert creatures and plants that are trying to kill you, provides an endless supply of material."
Nature may be a popular subject for the artists of Tubac, but so are people and animals and abstracts.
"This is a magical environment for wildlife and birding," said Bob Brown of Big Horn Galleries, which features an extensive collection of significant Western art, and which has a second location in Cody, Wyoming. "Sherry Salari Sander’s animal sculptures are prominently featured around the country. We also have some other fantastic women artists like Deborah Copenhaver Fellows who are bringing cowgirls to the forefront and depicting the West in a whole new way. Tubac has great flair for a small town, and there are so many interesting stories behind each piece of art."
"She Flies Without Wings" by Deborah Copenhaver Fellows at Big Horn Galleries — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Debbie Barrios of Rogoway Turquoise Tortoise Gallery agrees. "Each piece of art has some kind of meaning here, from Wolfgang Vaatz’ landscape-inspired jewelry to Judy Richie’s gourds to Chris Turri’s masks and sculptures repurposed from the scrap metal of old cars," she said. "Tubac doesn’t have fudge shops or T-shirt vendors. It’s a true artist community – like early Santa Fe."
The comparison to Santa Fe is something you hear over and over again in Tubac. "The town has grown up a lot," said Mesia Hachadorian of Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery. "Our owner-occupied galleries are filled with world class art."
Much of the credit for bringing the artists together goes to the Tubac Center of the Arts, which was built in 1972 when, according to Executive Director Karin Topping, "artists decided they didn’t want to hang their art on barbed wire anymore."
The Center has expanded twice since then, hosting dozens of exhibits, workshops and special events. In 2012, they added a Master Artist Gallery to pay homage to local artists who have helped transform this small Arizona town into the next big destination for art lovers.
Tubac Golf Resort and Spa looks like a painting — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Even if you don’t have a real appreciation for art, you’ll appreciate a couple of nights at the AAA Four Diamond-rated Tubac Golf Resort and Spa. It’s a Historic Hotel of America, and some of the most famous scenes from Tin Cup were filmed there.
It’s also where you’ll find yourself immersed in the art form the resort is best known for: the art of pampering.