The scenic Superstition Mountains with their intricate formation and impressive ridges are a source of inspiration for plenty of people, from hikers and trail blazing adventurers to photographers and artists alike.
For one local arts group, its name a gentle nod to the mountains, the Superstitions are only part of the story.
The Artists of the Superstitions brings together artists from across the county — including parts of the Valley — whose mediums and talents are just as widely varied.
The organization supports local fine artists; it regularly puts on shows and works to connect artists with other showing opportunities as well as other artists.
Julie Hathaway, a member for nearly 10 years, currently serves as the president.
“I love creating something out of nothing,” she said. “It gives a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when you create something. And if somebody wants to buy it, you know, ‘wow!’ That’s kind of always a surprise for people because they’re doing it just to satisfy their inner need. And yet, somebody else appreciates what they’re doing.”
For Hathaway, her love of art and creating began long before she became a member of the artist group. As an artist, Hathaway specializes in gourds as her medium.
It started as a curiosity when she joined a class on transforming gourds into works of art. The class was taught by two people who eventually retired and turned over the reins to Hathaway and her husband.
She joined AOTS in 2012 and continued to teach the class.
But because her husband suffers from asthma and could no longer handle working with the dust produced in the process of carving gourds, Hathaway and her husband passed on the torch to another teacher in 2019.
Still, Hathaway will always remain an artist at heart.
“I have ideas going around in my head that won’t shut up and won’t leave me alone when I’m trying to go to sleep,” she said. “I don’t know how to shut them out.”
Her inspirations for patterns and designs come from a host of places. They include pictures she’s seen in magazines, Pinterest or from things she sees while out and about. One idea, she noted, came from a T-shirt depicting stylized horses that she saw a woman wearing once. Another came from the carved rosettes on a credenza in her dentist’s office.
Other creations have included developing 62 Santa-themed Christmas ornaments made from egg gourds for an order. And sometimes, for Hathaway, it’s all about challenging herself to create something she has never seen before — something she was actively thinking about when she created a gourd wind chime.
But Hathaway is just one of six gourd artists that are part of AOTS — and that’s only a tiny sliver of the artists that make up the organization.
AOTS boasts membership from area artists across 19 different categories, encompassing everything from acrylic and oil painting to fiber arts and leather work. Some are retired community members who picked up art as a hobby. Others are artists that who found a way to make a living working through their mediums.
It all began with three founding members: Faith Rein, Kathleen Seery and Sandra Mayville.
In 2000, Rein retired and moved to Gold Canyon with her husband. Her initial plan was to spend her days happily playing golf with her friends and family. Then, the unexpected happened. She got bored. Naturally, this led her to find a new hobby.
“I started playing around with my crafts and hobbies, and then I’d enter a few art shows and found that there were a lot of people who were very interested in art and there were a lot of art shows out here,” she said.
Rein — now a retired member — started working with pastels. She eventually moved on to experimenting with oil painting and now currently paints predominately with oils.
Her work, as well as the work of other AOTS members, would go on to be featured as the annual festival posters for the Gold Canyon Arts Festival, organized by the Gold Canyon Arts Council, starting around 2010.
“We really had a nice group of people,” she said. “We really cared about art, we wanted to do things. Several of us managed to win the poster contest (for the arts festival) and they used our picture as the Picture of the Year.”
One day, while Rein was speaking with a neighbor — who was also an artist — the conversation turned to how there had to be other artists living in the area and their mutual desire to connect with them.
From there, the idea for a local arts group was hatched.
“We started out and it was going to be exclusively Gold Canyon,” Rein said. “We thought that there would probably be enough people that we ran into at different art shows that we could have a small group.”
This new club was called the Gold Canyon Artists Group and started out with just a handful of people.
In just a few short years, the membership list would grow to encompass about 76 artists from in and around Pinal, with members sometimes originating from as far as Casa Grande, Superior and Florence.
Since its establishment, the group was, and continues to be, ever-evolving. Rein noted that as the club picked up more people, the structure and organization evolved.
Hathaway was a new member around the time the Gold Canyon Artists Group decided to expand, to be more inclusive of artists living in the Apache Junction area. As such, the name of the group was changed to the Artists of the Superstitions — a nod to the Superstition Mountains not far from both communities. To be even more inclusive, initial residency requirements were done away with all together, allowing even seasonal visitors to join.
Kathy Mitchell, whose mediums include acrylics and silk painting, has been with AOTS since 2008. A retired art teacher of 30 years, Mitchell and her husband moved to Gold Canyon in 2006, and she said she started looking for an art group to help her polish her own style.
“I wanted a group that would be supportive and interested in the same things I was interested in,” Mitchell said.
She found what she was looking for in AOTS, then in its early stages of formation, with maybe a total of about 20 members at the time.
A painter by study and profession, with a master’s degree in fine arts and plenty of experience working with acrylics and oil, Mitchell decided to experiment more with watercolors and silk painting.
Silk painting, the practice of applying paint directly to silk fabric, is believed to have originated in India, China, Japan and other parts of Eastern Asia. Mitchell has been working with the technique for about 15 years.
Her work is characterized by bright colors, florals and landscapes. Her style is sometimes reminiscent of watercolor, though she noted that her work also allows the shimmer and transparency of the silk fabric to be visible as well.
A curious artist, Mitchell was interested in developing batik, a method of using hot wax and dyes on fabric for the development of clothing, as a framed work of art. After taking a workshop on silk painting taught by a Japanese artist in Germany, however, she quickly started practicing the techniques and making them her own.
The method, she noted, is similar to working with watercolor because silk painters use dyes that are water based. Watercolor is also another medium Mitchell explores as part of her membership with AOTS.
AOTS is open to anyone who is interested, though applicants are required to be juried in by a committee of existing members. The idea behind the jurying process, said Hathaway, is to ensure that artists involved in AOTS fall into the category of fine arts.
As a by-product, the process also often encourages artists who have been turned away to refine their art and re-submit for consideration at a later date, she noted. “People will be denied one time, and then they’ll improve on their work and reapply and get accepted,” she said.
The group has come a long way from what Rein ever imagined when she and a group of local artists started it. “The club is very flexible,” she said with a laugh. “It just changes with whoever is active at the time and has changed a lot since it started... And it got so big it had to have a lot more rules than we ever intended to have.”
The group boasts several members whose names are listed under multiple mediums, and interested applicants are welcome to apply for more than one medium. However, artists must be juried on each medium they apply for — a process that even existing members must go through if they would like to have their work in another medium featured in the group’s shows.
“We’re trying to increase the quality of our work because when you’re juried it’s supposed to mean something,” Hathaway said of the jurying process. “We want to be defined as fine art, not craft.”
Though the group didn’t start with very many craft artists, over the years AOTS has worked to refine its focus. Hathaway noted that the distinction is not arbitrary, and that AOTS has specific guidelines that outline what categorizes certain types of work as fine arts or crafts. Since the early days of the organization when she initially joined, Mitchell said the quality of art created by AOTS’s more than 70 members has dramatically improved.
Beyond the jurying process, members are also asked to regularly attend meetings and volunteer to support AOTS.
The organization currently runs five annual shows, with the possibility of adding another in the near future. Although most of the group’s shows are designed specifically for members, two of the shows in particular — known as the Studio Tours — do not require membership for participation. According to Hathaway, however, participants still have to be juried, even if they’re not a member. The shows are held in Gold Canyon and Apache Junction, and feature dozens of artists and an abundance of local studios.
“Oftentimes, the people who want to participate in one of our Studio Tours will get juried and accepted for that, even though they’re not a member, then they’ll turn around and see the value in being a member and apply,” Hathaway said. In those types of cases, she noted, the organization typically does not re-jury the artist.
Scheduled for March 19-20, the AOTS Spring Studio Tour is arranged in the form of a self-guided tour. Similar to the group’s fall tour, the event allows local art lovers to bounce from studio to studio around Gold Canyon and Apache Junction to view art created by area artists. This year’s spring tour is expected to feature about 60 juried artists and 14 studios.
The availability of shows throughout the year is something Mitchell says she has always appreciated as a long-standing member because it provides artists with ample opportunities to show their work in local venues.
In addition, participation in AOTS offers members a chance to get feedback from other local artists, with Mitchell noting that members frequently critique each other’s work in a positive way and are eager to help brainstorm solutions to problems artists might encounter in their work. The group’s inclusivity and even its supportive nature is one of the things Mitchell says she feels makes AOTS unique.
AOTS is also interested in supporting young fine artists, with Hathaway adding that even if applicants are initially turned away they should consider taking the criticism they’ve been given, continuing to hone their practice and reapplying at a later date. “We’re always enthusiastic about seeing younger artists show what they like to do and to express themselves in an original way,” added Mitchell.
Mitchell is also a member of the Gold Canyon Arts Council and regularly works between the local arts groups to run the Artist in Residence program. Funded through money raised by the Gold Canyon Arts Council, the Artist in Residence program is a partnership with AOTS that brings local artists into area schools for a week. The idea is to empower area students by allowing them to get to know professional artists working in the area and see that a career in art is possible.
Beyond offering shows for local artists to participate in, the goal of AOTS is also to connect artists with other possible showing opportunities — just one of the ways the organization seeks to support local artists.
Though no longer an active member, Rein said she hopes to see the club continue with its original mission to bring together local artists. “I hope that the organization continues with a strong emphasis on art and artists getting together … (who) want to learn more and want to enjoy their art and be with other artists,” she said.
More information about AOTS can be found at: www.artistsofthesuperstitions.com. PW