Newsletters  | Mobile

Under the Tucson Sun

You expect to hear Spanish at mass. But San Xavier is the parish church of the Tohono O'odham; their land begins six feet from the mission door. Father Stephen Barnufsky, who came from Oakland to be the pastor of San Xavier last March, says, "I'm living on their land and trying to learn about their culture. I would not hold a mass in Spanish, it's not their language."

After each mass, a line forms to the reclining wooden statue of San Xavier in the west chapel, which like the east chapel is as dense with ornament and color as the altar. On a pale blue blanket over his torso and legs are pinned little silver effigies of legs, arms, hearts, and photos. It is a shrine, a parish church, a museum. The millions necessary for the careful and expensive restoration of what is known as the Sistine Chapel of America were raised by the Patronato, a committee founded to preserve the mission.

"This is the first parish I've been in where I don't have to worry if the church roof is leaking," says Father Barnufsky.

6. Outside the norm. Artists, like musicians, need cheap places where they can live and work. "There is an insular quality to the desert," says Anne-Marie Russell, the brilliant and bright-eyed woman who runs MOCA, "so that Tucson is less subject to rampant growth and development. It stays authentic." I'd first become aware of her when I saw on PBS her playful and incisive documentary on the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz (his main medium is Bosco chocolate syrup). Having helped develop and run an M.A. program, "Modern Art, Connoisseurship, and the History of the Art Market," at Christie's in New York, she knows the potential of things that fall outside of categories. The space that MOCA occupies, she says, "was originally the space in between things—an alley between two buildings was roofed over, and then the two buildings on either side were torn down. It was briefly a produce warehouse, and then Mr. Walsh started a business equipment company called Walsh Brothers. He had a fleet of Harley-Davidsons with sidecars, and when someone's rented Walsh Brothers typewriter jammed or broke, he would dispatch one of his drivers on a hog with a new typewriter in the sidecar. The hogs ran right up the ramp into MOCA and parked at their station—the letters of the motorcycle bays are still on the walls."

Surrounded by eager interns, she schedules shows by local and international artists, and works within, or despite, an awareness of what you can only call the cultural contradictions of art. At MOCA, a sign over the (small) gift shop says "Commerce," and a sign pointing to the exhibition space says "Art," and both signs are in German.

Anne-Marie Russell takes me to hear Ken Shorr, artist and professor, give a lecture at the U. of A., where she also teaches. The campus, 357 acres set in the middle of Tucson, with some five million books in the library, has the perfect look of something beamed to another planet to tell them how well we are doing. Perfect students move across green grass from one hunk of architecture to another, shaded by small and interesting trees. Trundling alone through a crowd of perfect young people with big smiles, a dusky overweight boy wears a T-shirt printed with the word PARIAH.

In the school's Museum of Art, Ken Shorr's lecture is about his installation of a hundred 33-rpm album covers that form a square on the wall, 10 albums by 10. We sit on the floor, our hats carefully placed in front of us. "Nostalgia," he says, "is a powerful tool. People can always find something lovable in it." The album covers date from the fifties and sixties and have been amended, corrected, appropriated. He describes his work as "very superficial, the result of endless self-absorption." His key, he says, for responding to all things, art included, is: "You get three choices: Deny, Absorb, or Purge."

7. Deny, absorb, or purge. If art can reference healing, what metaphors can healing use?

The pioneering Dr. Andrew Weil has installed a program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, and the state itself is only one of three in the United States that licenses and certifies homeopathic physicians. He became famous with the publication of The Natural Mind in 1972. Right now he's at work on a book about aging, a lengthy process. "Arizona is a haven for alternative medicine," he says as he sits in his well-concealed house surrounded by cacti, small ones indoors and large ones out. "The desert is why I'm here. In 1970 when I first came, to lecture at the university about marijuana, it was like another planet. This is the most interesting and stimulating natural environment I have ever lived in. There's a fitness-conscious population here, people are more active, closer to nature, and smoke less than in the East. I'd like to see Tucson as a health tourism destination."

Of course it already is.

"Desert people are maybe a little more eccentric," says Dr. Weil, and hands me a saguaro fruit that he has dried himself; with its tiny black seeds and red flesh, it resembles a fig. I nibble at it very slowly.

"There's a tradition, after all, of people going into the desert to find enlightenment."

I went into the desert to find enlightenment, abandoned the cozy reaches of my imaginary great-aunt's house and drove north to Miraval, deemed by universal suffrage the best spa on earth. After the discreet if noble proportions of the Arizona Inn, Miraval's high ceilings and gigantic serial lobbies were astonishing. I asked when, and why, it had been built. "It used to be Sierra Tucson," I was told.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition