The giant leaves tumbling out of John Wayne Jackson’s garden studio didn’t fall from trees. His touchable sculptures came from a compelling fusion of natural leaves, Portland cement, powdered metals, crowded airports, Martha Stewart and the inventive spirit of Jackson himself.
"For the past six years," the Scottsdale artist chuckled, "I’ve just been having a blast."
And that gorgeous landscape, spun through the brush of Scottsdale’s Heidi Rosner, blends Tuscany’s rolling countryside with an engineer’s eye, a teacher’s sound advice and a love of scene and color that transcends traditional career paths.
"I always thought artists led passive lives," Rosner said. "I’m busier than I ever was, but the work is exhilarating."
Mill Avenue clears its decks this weekend for Tempe’s Fall Festival of the Arts. As you read this, hundreds of artists are raising booths to sell their wares against a backdrop of live music, local characters and tasty eats. But the pieces sold this weekend amount more than holiday purchases —each is a moment in the career of a local or regional artist, for whom reaching the festival was more than a matter of parking.
Tempe’s Festival of the Arts is such a tradition, it has outlasted everyone who could pinpoint its origin. "It was here before my time," said Victor Linoff, owner of Those Were the Days and former president of the Mill Avenue Merchants Association. "My guess is it started between ’67 and ’69. Local merchants wanted to increase business around the holidays, so they got a bunch of artist friends — many of them hippies — to open stands on the corner."
For Jackson, a gregarious late-bloomer artist, last year’s festival was crucial in his conversion to mixed-media sculptor.
"It was one of the things that tipped the scale," he said. "It was so much fun." The 51-year-old had tired of the airport-to-office lifestyle of a corporate trainer. He’d dabbled in sculpture before a friend put him onto an episode of "Martha Stewart Living."
"She called and said, ‘When you see this, you’ll want to do it.’ " Martha’s guests were making sculptures from the intricate cross-hatched surfaces of leaves. Jackson followed suit with zeal. He invented his own medium, using Portland cement and powdered metals. "I wanted the flexibility of clay, with the burnished look. It was trial and error." And he sought out enormous, distinctively shaped leaves.
"They come from all over," he said. "I got some just from looking up ‘giant leaves’ on the Internet." The result is a stunning array of splayed sculptures. He uses a marble mixture to produce leaf-imprinted coasters, as well.
"The Tempe show is arts and crafts, so I’ll bring coasters. But right now the leaves are my focus," Jackson said. The festival is a juried event, where applicant artists submit slides of their work and their display. Since May, Jackson and his wife, Paige, have done 22 festivals — but they wouldn’t miss this one. "I’ll be there, in my 10-by-10 booth, with about 40 pieces," he laughed. After years of studio tinkering, he enjoys the fresh air and direct contact of festivals.
"One woman came back and bought five leaves for her wall," he said. "But I also like the feedback. In business, you’d get immediate feedback. To see someone come to your booth, to see their jaw drop," he said, smiling, "you know you’re getting the job done."
PLANNING AND PLAY
Studio artists create in sequestered studios, trusting their instincts and waiting for events like festivals to see their work connect.
"The thing I like most about festivals is the feedback," Rosner said. "You’ve got to have a thick skin. Not everybody is going to like your work. But nothing is more valuable than an unfiltered critique."
A vivid watercolorist, Rosner, 43, is fresh off a circuit of more than 20 shows. "I have to pull back a little, now — just to have time to create." But she makes time for the Tempe festival, which selected her painting "Prickly Pair" as this year’s logo.
Like Jackson, her art was a cherished hobby that blossomed into a second career.
"I love painting," she said, "and to be able to sell something you created? That’s the best. The trick is learning how to balance both sides of the life."
She came to the brush from mechanical engineering.
"I was in the aerospace industry for 12 years," she said. She was on the fast track in that career when she moved to Arizona 10 years ago. "I didn’t know anyone. I thought artists would be interesting to hang out with."
So she signed up for a painting class at the Scottsdale Artists’ School — not knowing it was a professional-level course.
"I bought a watercolor kit at Target and showed up the first day," she chuckled. "Here are all these people, with palettes and easels laid out in front of them like symphony conductors." But a generous teacher offered extra instruction and pivotal advice. "By the end of the class, she told me: ‘I don’t what you’re planning to do with this, but you have a gift and you should pursue it.’ "
She blends an engineer’s mind-set with an artist’s spontaneity. "I’m very plan-ful," she said. "I see it, I carefully sketch it out. By the time I get to painting, that’s play."
"It’s a lot," Jackson said of the anticipated large crowd. "And it’s a great chance to make connections and get your stuff seen." For shoppers, the festival represents a chance to grab a special piece of art and discover a little bit of the story behind it.
Wherefore park thou?
The art could be amazing and the food delectable, but it won’t matter much if you can’t get there. To reduce traffic snarls and blood pressure levels, the Downtown Tempe Community has established a free parking lot with free shuttle service at the northeast corner of Hardy Drive and Rio Salado Parkway. Those wishing to try their luck closer in can find paid parking spots at:
• Hayden Square West
• Hayden Square Garage
• Lot at Fifth Street and Farmer Avenue
• Centerpoint Garage (North of University Drive on Ash Avenue)
• Tempe City Hall
Additional spaces can found Saturday and Sunday at:
• P2 garage (Northwest corner of University Drive and Ash Avenue)
• America West garage
Free disabled parking is available on street spaces and at all Downtown Tempe Community facilities.
Tempe Fall Festival of the Arts
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today through Sunday
Where: Mill Avenue between University Drive and Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
Cost: Admission is free.
Information: (480) 921-2300
By the numbers
450: This fall’s festival will feature 450 artists.
20: More than 20 visual arts categories will be on display.
225,000: Festival organizers estimate the three-day event will attract 225,000 people.
39: Independent surveys estimate the average age is 39.
52,000: And the average income is $52,000.
Source: Downtown Tempe Community