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Bisbee's own brand of expressionism

Artistic types have turned the onetime mining town in southern Arizona into a funky enclave. Far out.

October 22, 2006|Hope Hamashige | Special to The Times

Bisbee, Ariz. — IF Santa Fe, N.M., with its celebrities and exclusive spas, represents the epitome of Southwestern sophistication, Bisbee is the bohemia of the high desert, a town where artists and hippies rub elbows with ranchers in a funky collection of dive bars and art galleries.

There is no high-priced resort in Bisbee, which lies 90 miles southeast of Tucson high in the Mule Mountains. There is no opera house. In a nod to its hard-drinking past, it's still easier to get a drink than a meal after 7 p.m. At one of the best-known lodgings in town, visitors bed down in vintage travel trailers for as little as $40 a night.

Equal parts Wild West saloon town and art colony, Bisbee is home to hundreds of working artists whose wares are on display all over town. Yet the greatest work of art may be the town itself. Nestled in a red-hued canyon a mile above the Sonoran Desert floor, the town is celebrated as one of the last havens in the U.S. for artistic souls and their unconventional ways.

Polite people might call Bisbee "eccentric."

"People either love that about Bisbee, or they hate it," said Cricket Rodriguez, 36, laughing.

In some places, for instance, a man with blond dreadlocks and a scruffy beard walking through town wearing a dress and fairy wings might draw stares. In Bisbee, people take little notice of Danny Boy.

Greg Pike, a self-described wanderer, spends much of the year in an RV parked on the edge of town, and most days, he can be found on Main Street, walking his pets. He stacks the cat on the dog and mice on the cat and points out to passersby, "If they can get along, can't we?"

Bisbee's long history of embracing all comers dates to its years as a Western boomtown. It grew up around some of the most prolific copper mines in the world. It was wild and wildly wealthy and an unusual ethnic stew: Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Chinese and African Americans all came to cash in. At the height of its prosperity in the early 1900s, more than 20,000 people lived here, making it the largest city then between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Most of the residents' time and money were spent in Brewery Gulch, where, a century ago, a visitor could have counted at least 50 bars and many houses of ill repute. Many of the bars were open 24 hours a day, and Bisbee got a well-deserved reputation as one of the hardest-drinking towns in the West.

Like so many mining towns perched on the edge of nowhere, Bisbee boomed, then busted and now claims 6,390 residents. Copper trickled out of the town until 1975, when mining halted for good. As the miners left, the artists and hippies staked their claim to the Victorian-era buildings that clutch Bisbee's steep hillsides.

The post-bust version of Bisbee embraced this free-spiritedness, and its many galleries and studios do their best to turn the town's struggling artists into working artists.

At the nonprofit Belleza Fine Art Gallery, for example, most of the 26 artists whose work is regularly for sale are local names such as Rose Johnson and William Spencer. Mina Tang Kan Gallery of Fine Art, across the street, mixes local work with pieces from around the country.

Atalanta Books sells new and used tomes and carries titles by local writers such as Rick McKinney, who recently published a book about walking the Appalachian Trail.

The winding roads and crumbling staircases that rise to Bisbee's rocky heights are strewn with mosaics, graffiti art, murals, sculptures and art cars -- including one topped with a golden fortune-telling lion in repose -- that have spilled out from people's homes into public view. Step into Red Light, Gretchen Baer's storefront studio in Brewery Gulch, and she might invite you to browse while she paints portraits of locals in one corner of her cavernous brick space.


Art, everywhere you turn

WELL-KNOWN Bisbee denizen Ben Dale is one whose creations are scattered all over town. A pair of Dale's angels stand guard over a walled entrance to one home. He added whimsical touches to St. John's Episcopal Church in the form of a tree-shaped sculpture whose metal branches stretch over a picnic area, providing some shade from the desert sun.

Johnson is responsible for two of the murals in town, including one that adorns the Jonquil Motel.

"I have lived here 30 years," artist Judy Perry said, "and every time I walk around, I see something new." Perry organizes Bisbee's studio tour each October but points out that most of the town's painters, sculptors, jewelers, potters and hatters will open their studios to visitors any weekend of the year.

Kate Pearson is one of those artists who relocated to Bisbee -- 23 years ago, after reading an article about the town's now-defunct bohemian poetry festival. "It called to me in a way nothing ever has," said Pearson, 53.

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