In the southwestern town of Tubac, history and art intersect
It wasn’t by design, but the village of Tubac (pop. 1,000) in southwestern Arizona seemed destined to become an arts town. Located 45 minutes south of Tucson in Santa Cruz County, Tubac is known as a place “where history meets art.”
Home to five known distinct cultures, Tubac is the oldest European settlement in Arizona. It was established in 1752 by Spanish colonists who built San Ignacio de Tubac, a post-military presidio to keep local rebels at bay. While remnants of the fort have been preserved as part of the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, Tubac has let its guard down considerably over the years.
Now a thriving arts community with hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains, Tubac is still a tiny enclave, but it welcomes the masses.
An art school founded in 1948 by rural landscape painter Dale Nichols, a major figure of the Regionalist movement, is believed to have set the tone for the modern-day art scene in Tubac. Today, the village includes a walkable footprint with more than 100 galleries, art studios and shops showcasing the diverse works of painters, photographers, sculptors, jewelers, furniture makers, potters and mixed media artists.
Tubac’s evolution as an arts town isn’t all that surprising given its cultural and historical roots, a vivid backstory that lends itself to artistic exploration and discovery, according to Angela Kirkner, executive director of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce.
“Artists are naturally drawn to and tend to flock to towns with historical zones,” she says. “Tubac has a past that artists can draw on for inspiration.”
It’s distinct geography also has endeared Tubac to many artists, like-minded residents and visitors who admire its picturesque, non-urban setting. Situated at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains along the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River, the valley has unobstructed, scenic high-desert vistas that provide a stunning creative canvas for the imagination.
One local artist taken by Tubac’s natural beauty and historical prominence is Roberta Rogers, a third-generation landscape watercolorist who, along with her husband, packed up and moved to Tubac 12 years ago after living in Flagstaff for more than 30 years.
“Tubac is visually interesting from 360 degrees. The adobes, the cottonwoods, the mountain shapes, the lighting, the clear air, the riparian habitats, the monsoons, and sunrises and sunsets—all of it attracted me to Tubac,” says Rogers, whose work appears in the Purcell Gallery of Fine Art. “Historical architecture always has intrigued me, too. The Southwest has many different variations and represents many metaphors for people who live here.”
The historical arts colony is a magnet not only for artists, but art lovers, as well. Each February, thousands descend on the town for the Tubac Festival of the Arts, a showcase for hundreds of visiting artists from across the country and Canada who exhibit their work along the village streets.
The fine art celebration attracts between 8,000 to 10,000 people daily during the five-day juried event. Internationally acclaimed, the Tubac Festival of the Arts is the longest running outdoor arts gathering if its kind in Arizona and will mark its 59th anniversary in 2018.
Not only does Tubac spotlight a range of art through gallery representation and festivals—a smaller show featuring handmade arts and crafts was added last fall to the village’s event lineup—it also is a community genuinely invested in the development of the arts.
Undoubtedly, at the heart of that commitment is the Tubac Center of the Arts (TCA), a nonprofit arts facility that opened in 1972 through the fundraising efforts of the Santa Cruz Valley Art Association, a group of local artists who organized in the early ’60s to help foster education, art-consciousness and an art-consuming public in the area.
As the core of arts in Tubac, TCA sponsors a variety of member artist, regional and national exhibits; a performing arts series; art and cultural workshops and programming for adults and children including the Summer Arts Program for Children; a literary review group; an arts lecture series; and cultural travel services. The TCA also features the Master Artist Gallery, a permanent collection of work that honors those instrumental in helping shape the early Tubac arts scene, including artists such as Nichols, Ross Stefan, Jean Wilson and Mortimer Wilson.
In 2017, devoted students of another master artist, Lou Maestas, created the Tubac School of Fine Art, a working artist haven located in the El Presidito, the entrance to Old Town Tubac, which offers art education in a number of mediums to both locals and visitors, from beginners to professionals.
On the surface, Tubac is a quintessential Arizona town, but its appreciation for art and the diversity of creative styles is so much more than that, says Rogers.
“The galleries don’t just feature Southwest art. You can see a range of art that appeals to a wide audience, from traditional to contemporary and abstract mediums. And that’s the beauty of Tubac. It has something for everyone.”
Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photography by Mark Lipczynski