From world-famous photographers to muralists, for decades, Pinal County has been a home for artists.

Whether they grew up in Pinal’s communities or were drawn to the desert from other places, there have been many artists who have come to live in and make their mark on Pinal, as made evident by the murals and other artistic projects that can be found in communities like Florence, Casa Grande and Maricopa.

We’ve interviewed five local artists from around the county or, as in the case of one, pieced together his story from historical records to learn more about their artistic approaches and inspirations.

Paul Modlin

Known for his vibrant use of color and his ability to capture meaningful and expressive representations of life in his art, Paul Modlin is one of the most celebrated local artists in the Casa Grande area.

Among his many oil paintings that circulated in the American Southwest and Mexico during his lifetime, some of Modlin’s work celebrated the history of Casa Grande — the place where he lived, worked as the owner of the Quick Draw Tavern and served as vice mayor.

Though originally from Iowa, with a degree from the Cumming School of Art of Des Moines, Modlin moved to Casa Grande with his wife June and eventually opened Quick Draw Tavern.

But Modlin was an artist at heart, and at some point decided to turn over the bar to his brother and to study art at Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.

Mexico would inspire a great deal of his work.

Named Artist of the Year in 1978 at the Casa Grande Art Fiesta, Modlin’s bio for the festival said that the country “and her people motivate him to a representation on canvas that express, undeniably, the spiritual dignity of man.”

That same year, he published a small book of pencil sketches featuring scenes from around the village of Copala, a place he was especially found of.

But though he was greatly inspired by Mexico and its culture, it was far from his only subject. One of Modlin’s most well-recognized bodies of work locally would include many Casa Grande faces.

In the 1960s, Modlin contributed weekly sketches for a serial column published in the Casa Grande Dispatch titled “Familiar Faces.” The column was a collaboration between Modlin and Women’s Editor Mary Metzger and spotlighted people from around the Casa Grande community — local faces and names most readers of the Dispatch would have known at the time.

Casa Grande would also feature in other areas of his work.

One example, a bright and colorful painting of Central School, now hangs at Grande Central Station by the Neon Sign Park, a tribute to the city’s rich history and the area man who painted it.

Many caricatures he created, some of Pinal County residents, hang at the popular Charlie Clark’s Steakhouse in Pinetop.

In 1979 Modlin worked with the Casa Grande Rotary Club to create the Casa Grande Dollar, designed to celebrate the city’s centennial. Throughout the month of January 1979 the metal coin was considered the equivalent of one dollar in trade at cooperating local businesses.

Impressed on the front of the coin was a drawing of the early settlement of Casa Grande, the Southern Pacific Railroad — which had been central to the founding of the settlement and the lifeblood of the slowly growing community for many years — and an early train station. The drawing, Modlin’s work, was based on an earlier sketch he had created.

Many of those coins would later be donated to The Museum of Casa Grande following the passing of former Pinal County Supervisor and businessman Dean Weatherly.

Modlin passed at the age of 81 in 2008.

Charlene Southern

Charlene Southern is a versatile artist.

She’s experimented with plenty of different mediums; her work has consisted of textile work with rugs and macrame, oil and acrylic landscape painting, gourds and even stained glass.

“I try everything,” she said when asked about her techniques.

Along with landscapes, her work often features more abstract designs. And as an artist, Southern typically focuses on making do with the materials readily available to her.

“I have a tendency to use what’s on hand,” she said.

Southern noted her interest in working with gourds was first peaked through her friendship with Gila River Indian Community artist Amil Pedro. But she became especially interested in working with the medium in light of the relative ease of access to gourds in Arizona.

“I just like the fact that you can do almost anything with a gourd,” she said. “I can use those for so many different types of things — anywhere from a decorative pot to animal figurine. You can cut them, you can shape them, you can use either side of them for different textures — they’re just so versatile that it really opens up a whole realm of possibilities.”

Southern has been interested in art ever since she was a student in junior high school. The love for art stayed with her, and when she retired she found she had more time to dedicate to that lifelong passion.

From Colorado, Southern and her husband chose to move to Casa Grande after retiring. The move was driven in part by Southern’s struggle with arthritis; the colder climate of Colorado, she said, often exacerbated her symptoms. She’s now a volunteer at The Museum of Casa Grande.

Whether the medium is stained glass or gourds, her work often features bright colors. That’s especially the case for one gourd housed on display at the museum. It features a vibrant desert landscape and kokopelli under a starry night sky.

Other creations are more for fun, like a tiny mouse crafted out of small gourd or a small pot that’s home to a bright red character tucked inside.

Southern’s gourds are up for sale in the museum’s lobby. Proceeds from the sales benefit the museum.

However, in general, Southern says she practices her art more for herself than to sell or turn a profit on her work, though she can usually be found at the CG museum, for those who are looking to learn more about her artwork.

Carol Bradley

Photographer Carol Bradley’s vivid photos capture scenic landscapes and wildlife around Arizona.

Her eye-catching and colorful pictures are displayed at the front of crisp notecards in the front lobby of The Museum of Casa Grande.

Bradley first became interested in photography when she and her husband began traveling, which she said has been the case for the majority of the 43 years they’ve been married.

Though her photography is mostly inspired by the Arizona desert, Bradley has also had the opportunity to photograph a number of places around the world, including parts of Spain, the Amazon, Iceland and Greenland.

Her work typically focuses on capturing what she calls the “harmony in nature” and the tranquil energy that scenic nature scenes often emanate.

“Everything works together,” she said. “You see wildflowers, and they may be a variety of colors, but they all work together.”

Originally from Washington, Bradley and her husband moved to Casa Grande 14 and a half years ago after eight years of living and traveling in a motor home when they found they kept returning to CG on their trips around the United States and Canada.

Not long after moving, she started getting involved with local art groups, like the Southwest Gourd Association and the Arizona Art Alliance. With some encouragement by a member of the alliance, Bradley eventually submitted her photography to the Arizona Art Alliance.

She is now a juried artist through the alliance.

For a time, her work was on display in the organization’s Scottsdale showroom. Bradley was also a regular participant in local art shows.

But shows started to become too much for Bradley and her husband to keep up with.

“As we’re getting older, the tents and the tables and everything for the shows is just such a hassle,” she said.

A solution came about when Bradley and her husband started volunteering at the museum; she was given the opportunity to display notecards with her pictures on them in the museum’s lobby.

“Particularly the winter visitors like to have something to take back or send to people who don’t know the desert,” she said. “You know, people in other places don’t (always) know what a javelina looks like or the beauty of the desert when it’s in bloom.”

Today, the museum is the only place you can find Bradley’s work on display publicly. Proceeds from sales of Bradley’s notecards raise funds for the museum.

Visit the museum to learn more about Bradley’s work.

Charlene Guffa

One thing that stands out about the work of Charlene Guffa is the vibrant colors throughout her work.

“The first thing I start with is color,” said Guffa. “I love color.”

Her paintings, like the vivid abstract of hummingbirds and flowers that hangs on a wall in her home, usually begin with a color scheme she gets inspired to experiment with. Sometimes, she might start with a broad brush stroke and then let her imagination fill out the rest.

Guffa, a San Tan Valley artist, is inspired by the vibrant heritage and artistic movements from areas like New Orleans as well as abstract painters like Michael Lang. She’s even done her own abstract take on some of Lang’s work, a series of portraits which hang in her home.

Originally from Chicago, she says blues music — along with New Orlean jazz — tend to be another source of inspiration; music plays an important role in her creative process.

While she remembers being passionate about art since she was in grade school, Guffa became even more serious about honing her skills as an artist in high school.

“I did every kind of art I could possibly get my hands on,” she said.

She continued her studies at a community college, taking courses in pottery, watercolors and oils to name a few.

Though oil is her favorite medium, Guffa has also worked on plenty of pieces featuring acrylic as the main medium. They include a line of hydro-dipped and hand-painted guitars, an idea that was first pitched to her by her brother.

“I like oils because they blend better,” said Guffa, though she’s managed to create a slightly similar effect by layering acrylics.

Though she’s worked in several mediums, painting remains her biggest passion; canvases with brightly colored abstracts and landscapes line her San Tan Valley home.

“What’s so great about painting is that you get lost in it,” she said. And though she’s done several landscapes, her go-to mode of expression tends to be abstract due to its subjective nature.

“That’s what I like about abstract,” she said, referring to its interpretive nature. It’s one of the reasons she’ll rarely title a piece. “I want the imagination to take over when you’re looking at my artwork.”

Beyond peaking the viewer’s interest, Guffa noted she also hopes her artwork helps those doing the looking to relax, describing the effect she hopes her work creates as similar to cloud gazing — an activity that both engages the imagination and calms the mind.

“The longer you stare at it, the more you see,” she said.

Guffa can be reached at cguffa29@gmail.com.

Steve Lang

Navajo artist Steve Lang’s work as a silversmith is closely tied to his heritage and upbringing.

Though he occasionally uses other precious metals or stones, much of his work as a jeweler uses silver and turquoise, two materials Lang said have traditionally been considered culturally important to the Navajo and many other Indigenous tribes.

He noted that although the metalsmithing was actually introduced to the Navajo tribe by smiths from Central America or Spain, jewelry became an important instrument in trade for the Navajos, and some would often break off portions of their jewelry to trade, or in some cases the whole piece, for goods and supplies.

Growing up on the Navajo Nation 30 miles north of Chinle, Arizona, Lang noted that jewelry still plays an important role in the Navajo community, often signifying the role someone plays within the community or religiously.

“The style definitely change(s) depending on where the actual jewelry comes from,” Lang said. “Hopi have their own distinct style, I believe the Apaches and Aztecs and the Mayans — they have their own style of jewelry and all of it is still using precious metals. Same thing with the Navajos — Navajos have their own style of jewelry.”

Beadwork, silversmithing and goldsmithing are often stylistic elements featured in Navajo jewelry.

Lang first became interested in jewelry at a very young age after he saw his first storytelling piece. Storytelling pieces, which Lang said are frequently bracelets, often feature scenery and cultural elements. One example, he noted, might be a hogan with livestock and mountains in the the background.

“I remember seeing one like that and it just took me back,” he said. “It was like ‘that actually reminds me of home — that’s very beautiful.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I could do that — I could learn how to make that.’”

Whenever he works with these mediums, Lang said he prefers to keep his designs simple, which he said often gives his pieces a more traditional look. In his work, Lang frequently tries to stick with materials that can be readily found in Arizona and the surrounding states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Occasionally, he will work coral into his designs, but it’s pretty rare considering that the material is not locally sourced.

Other materials he works with at times include copper and brass, but silver and turquoise are the predominant materials he uses.

Aside from his silversmithing, Lang also works with another medium — watercolor.

He started experimenting with watercolor as an outlet to break away from the precision required for silversmithing. Watercolor, Lang said, tends to be more interpretive, and there are fewer rules for how things should be done compared to silversmithing.

“You could mess up, you can splash a couple of paints here and there and it looks (like you did it) on purpose,” he said. “And you don’t have to stay to one strict style of watercolor either. There’s different ways to manifest the water into what you think you see or what you want to present on a sheet of paper.”

Through his watercolors, Lang typically tries to capture nature still-life or landscapes. His inspiration for painting is often paired with his inspiration to learn about different plant life. PW

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