Untold Arizona: Ajo Artists Colony Brings Century-Old Curley School To Life
“It’s got a lot of history here and it’s gorgeous, you know. It’s grand, it’s one of these grand places,” Narcho said. “And it’s very spooky, too.”
He’s describing the Curley School in the rural town of Ajo. He processes his photos, eats his meals and writes his music in one of the 30 classrooms-turned-apartments. Narcho’s door is on the basement level, facing onto the street. The glass-paneled window is covered with black-and-white drawings of movie villains, which Narcho said is to scare away curious kids.
He plays the best he can on the out-of-tune keys. The piano he sits at is under a window facing out the front of the school, toward the Ajo town plaza flanked by two historical, stark white churches.
Narcho’s music sounds a little like if a David Lynch show took a trip to the middle of the Arizona desert.
“I know everyone likes to focus on the bright things, flowers, and that’s cool. But there’s also a little beauty in the darkness too,” Narcho said. “That’s why I like to make this kind of creepy, beautiful music. There’s something that draws you into it.”
Narcho grew up on the Tohono O’odham nation, just east of Ajo. His tribe traditionally uses music to celebrate the bounties of nature, like the crops growing or the desert rain.
A lot of his photography celebrates the modern ways O’odham people incorporate long-learned techniques of living in this desert.
“It is your native land, and there’s a lot of culture there. You grow up learning these things about your culture, the songs, the traditional practices,” Narcho said. “Just living in the desert, too, you get to know about the resources that it offers, like the foods. The saguaro cactus root, the prickly pear, the cholla buds.”
The Tohono O’odham tribe has lived in the southeastern part of Arizona for thousands of years. They foraged as well as farmed. For example, the Tohono O’odham use saguaro fruit pulp and boil it down into a ceremonial wine.
“It was great living on the rez, I really do miss it, but I’m not too far from home, either,” he said.
The name Ajo actually comes from a bastardized version of the Tohono O’odham word for body paint, “au-auho.” That’s because the tribe mined the copper-rich area for its red oxide. And that copper-rich land is what drew Spanish and European settlers.
The most famous mine owner and his wife helped design the town their employees would live in. It’s basically a model town.
“The plaza and the school were a place where everybody was welcome,” Tracy Taft said. “That’s the idea of the ‘City Beautiful’ movement, is to create a town center that brings everyone together. And this was a mining town so the owner of the mine was playing on that City Beautiful movement idea that the town center will civilize your population.”
Taft is a former executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA). It’s a group trying to preserve the historic parts of this post-mining town.
“[The town design] is really a stunning example in the entire West,” Taft said. “It’s a hidden treasure.”
The giant copper mine pit closed in the 1980s. That dormant maw still sits above the town like a curled up, sleeping coyote. The town itself was designed like a bird with its wings unfurled. The plaza is the heart of the town, with wings fanning out as the residential neighborhoods, north and south. The Curley School is like the head, and both it and the plaza are built in a Spanish Colonial Revival style.
And originally, Ajo homes were all segregated.
Lorraine Marquez Eiler is Tohono O’odham, and helped found the ISDA .
“It’s history for the people, it’s a lot of memories. We all went to school here, I went to school here,” Marquez Eiler said. “This is where we grew up.”
She grew up in the Indian village built closest to the mine. Then there was the Mexican Town, and the Anglo-American town.
In a historical text about the early years of Ajo compiled by Forrest Rickard, the point of the segregated designed was because “Frankly … the view that democracy and the ideal of a universal middle class were exclusively Anglo-American.”
None of the historical text describes the quality of the Mexican or Indian blocs.
Marquez Eiler remembers.
“When Indian village was first set up, they put little one-bedroom, two-bedroom houses. Most of the families had 8-13 kids. And you stuff them all in there, and that’s what they did!” she recounted. “Not only that, they put outhouses out there. I mean, what can you say about that.”
The bathrooms were really like a hole in the ground. Marquez Eiler knew a boy who fell into one.
“Next door, luckily the man behind us was chopping wood because we had, again, wood stoves, and heard the mother scream and chopped the thing down, jumped in and dragged the kid out,” Marquez Eiler said.
After that, the Indian village got indoor plumbing.
The segregation followed her into school. She’d be punished for speaking O’odham in elementary school.
We take a tour of the vaulted, white-painted auditorium. The soft wooden floor squeaks under our feet, and light bulbs are strung from wall-to-wall like a courtyard. Marquez Eiler reflects on her time here.
“So, there’s a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories,” she said.
One bad memory comes from freshman year of high school, in this auditorium.
“There’s one that will forever stick in my mind,” Marquez Eiler said. “When I was a freshman, it was the last year they did this initiation because it went above and beyond. We were dressed in sacks and we were marched [on the stage] and we were sold to a student. It got a little out of hand.”
I asked how that made her feel.
“Terrible,” she said. “I was very shy then and so to get up there in this mini-thing, it was totally embarrassing.”
A good memory comes from making her first skirt in home economics class.
“I try to remember the good parts,” she said. “I loved home ec. I made my first A-line skirt, that I wore until it was almost in threads.
It was kind of a checkered white and red. I think about it now and I think, ‘My god!’” she laughed. “I wouldn’t wear it now.”
This day, she’s wearing an all denim outfit; a button up shirt and jeans, with a necklace that takes up most of the real estate below the red floral bandana around her neck. It’s a scene by famous Tucson artist DeGrazia, with a scene of Native American women, beaded with blue yellow brown and white fetishes in the shape of birds.
Lorraine, Tracy and I are speaking in the old library, with the piano Bobby Narcho was playing. Above the high-arched doorway reads a sign that says “Silence is akin to learning.”
“It still feels like a school, doesn’t it?” Taft said.
Most of the population left after the mine closed, and before that the school was vacant when a new one was built on the other side of town.
In the 1990s, the town voted to sell the Curley School.
So, what do you do with a 100-year-old, historic school building that’s not a school anymore?
The ISDA, then headed by Tracy Taft, took a vision from the locals to save it and turn it into affordable housing for artists.
“They were doing that in big cities and were intrigued. Could you make that happen in a rural, remote town like Ajo?“ Taft said. “Could we use bringing artists to Ajo as a way to kind of jump-start a new economy here?”
Almost half of the people living in Ajo left between 1980 and 1986, when the mine and ore smelter closed.
In 1990, less than 3,000 people lived there.
Marquez Eiler said they asked the people who stuck around after the mine closed what the foundation should do to help, and they heard the same thing from a lot of people; save the historic buildings, including the Curley School. It was a way to take back a town that had been abandoned by the industry that created it.
So the ISDA bought the building. It was remodeled for about $10 million to fit 30 apartments.
Aaron Cooper is the current executive director of ISDA.
“The Curley School in particular was a really important initiative because the built environment in this community is imbued with memory and history in a way that’s not true everywhere,” Cooper said.
"Could we use bringing artists to Ajo as a way to kind of jump-start a new economy here?"
— Tracy Taft, former ISDA director
A Built Environment Imbued With History
The Curley School was designed in 1919 by Leslie Mahoney of Arizona architecture firm Lescher and Mahoney. At the time, it was called Lescher and Kibbey, but fans of historical buildings in Arizona would know these prolific building designs even if they didn’t know, by name, who designed it.
Lescher and Mahoney would go on to design the Orpheum Theatre, city hall, original public library and state Capitol in downtown Phoenix, as well as the Brophy College Prep Chapel and the Phoenix Title and Trust Building.
The original Curley School was financed almost entirely by bonds bought by the mining company and cost about $2.5 million in today’s money to build. The building features a tall bell tower, two wings and a doorway set about 10 feet above the street level. It’s Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture design elements include archways, smooth beige exterior, red tile roofs and tiling around the tower.
In historical texts, it was considered a monument of pride for the entire community.
Cooper says the design of the building is worth saving both for the aesthetics and history, and as a future economic driver.
“Just having affordable housing in and of itself is a great thing, but it doesn’t feed into the bigger economic reactivation picture as much as bringing a critical mass of creatives together,” Cooper said. “Creatives happen to be extremely entrepreneurial as well.”
Cooper says over the last 10 years, more people have moved to Ajo, and while many are retirees, younger people are finding the charms of the small desert town near the Mexico border appealing.
The artists living there now range from writers to paper makers, musicians and jewelers.
“It’s akin to cooking,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to have the meat that’s already there, but you want some spices. There are some amazing resources and assets already here, but we definitely want to attract people from outside to see what they can bring to the blend, that doesn’t lose that character that’s already here.”
ISDA is also turning the former elementary school behind the high school into a conference center and inn. It’s a revenue generating effort for the group that helps perpetuate its cause. Plus, all three buildings spell A-J-O from above.
The center is also where the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center invites two resident artists to stay and live in Ajo for up to four weeks.
Cooper takes me to visit the artists who have almost finished their stay.
First up is painter Karma Henry from Southern California.
“I did four paintings, ideas for some new ones, and really appreciated the environment here,” she said.
She’s been here nearly two weeks and her work studio still has large chalkboards. Those classroom remnants have a handwritten welcome note to Henry.
Henry is a tribe member of the Fort Independence Community of Paiute Indians in California. She has exhibited work at the Heard Museum.
She shows me a layered abstract painting rich with color. There’s a background of gradient gray to cobalt blue in the middle, then back to gray, like stripes. Through the gradient are intersected, stacked triangles that act like windows to ribbons of purple and gold, the color of mountains right before the sun dips below the horizon.
The triangles show peeks of approximate mountains on the top, green mounds at the bottom, and swathes of muted golds and yellows.
“This is an architectural feature here in town. It’s on the plaza, on the roofline of the hospital, and so I used it as part of a pattern here,” Henry said about the inspiration for the painting. “And this is a loose landscape of the open mine.”
Her neighbor artist-in-residence is Te Atiwei Ririnui, a native Māori weaver from New Zealand.
“Coming here was about bringing my skillset and knowledge of basket weaving and sharing that with the indigenous community here,” he said. “I felt that I could fit in that way, by bringing indigeneity from where I come from.”
Ririnui heard about the artists-in-residency program through social media.
The Tohono O’odham are renowned basket weavers, with meaning baked into the designs and color of each handmade material.
“It’s quite funny, there are similar ways in which we practice things back home which are very similar to here,” he said.
He uses muka, a native flax from his home to build the baskets he makes.
Ririnui gifted the Curley School a basket with a step pattern of alternating black and white weaves going diagonally up the bag.
“So, this pattern is called ‘poutama’ in Maori, and that means the stairway to heaven,” he said. “It symbolizes your journey through intellectual, physical and spiritual development.”
Ririnui hopes to come back to Ajo for a longer residency because he found the living environment to be a welcoming place.
Artists Populate Rural Town To Help Economy Grow
While the program hopes to keep wooing young artists like Ririnui, one demographic is the retiree living on a fixed income.
Like Arnold Alexander, a world-traveling Army veteran from Los Angeles.
“My friends thought I was never going to do it, but I pulled up a U-Haul and said, ‘See ya later, fellas,’” Alexander said.
His apartment is behind the main Curley School building, in the old one-story elementary school. It’s sparsely decorated, with the only light piercing the stale smoke in the air from his cigarettes coming from the windows.
There are several large prints of nature scenes, one of a bear eating salmon on the walls.
He lives here with his small rescue Pomeranian mutt, Marley
He holds Marley like a duffel bag slung over his shoulders. The dog seems to enjoy the elevated perspective.
The nature photography on the walls is his own.
“Soon as I saw a flower through the lens, I was hooked and that was it and never looked back,” Alexander said.
He hitchhiked around the world. He’s seen 20 different countries and soon he’ll be kayaking to take pictures of orca whales on the water.
Now he makes delicate paper too, and rues the fact he didn’t get to study while living in the paper-making mecca of the world.
“I lived in Japan for like seven years, and I never, ever got into papermaking at all. I didn’t get into papermaking until like 1998,” he said.
His paper sits in a pile near the door, stacks and stacks of delicate sheets. Some sheets have flowers or butterflies on them.
“I call it like therapy, because everything’s kinda cool when I’m making paper,” he said.
When asked about the artist camaraderie, he doesn’t think much of it.
“Turns out, it’s basically a 31-unit apartment building,” Alexander said. “Except we are all creative people and live in a really cool place.”
After his mother died, he found the Curley school on Craigslist nine years ago.
“I think I’m pretty lucky to have this place,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I had to leave where I was.”
Alexander thinks he’ll spend the rest of his time here, with Marley, and his paper.
Ajo is home for Alexander now, and it’s also the birthplace of Vicki Tapp, the Curley School manager.
She went to school here at Curley and and remembers going on parades in the open area right in front of what’s now Alexander’s apartment.
“I remember walking across, and these were playgrounds,” she said, pointing outside of the auditorium toward the courtyards. “We would walk across with our little toy drums and piccolos and come over here to perform.”
"I think I’m pretty lucky to have this place. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I had to leave where I was."
— Arnold Alexander
It makes sense her memories are about music because now she’s a local musician who lived in Los Angeles.
She’s also leading me on a tour of the artist’s apartments.
We stop by abstract painter Charlie Andrijanoff first.
We walk in to an even sparser apartment than Alexander’s. The only furniture that’s not built in to the room is an old office chair, several folding tables and a large easel with a painting in-progress.
“I don’t have any possessions that are so dear to me that I would say they’re prized,” he said on a tour of his studio. “Material things are there to be used and that’s it.”
While we take a look at some of his latest paintings, Vicki has to jet off. Before she goes, she sings a snippet of a song.
Charlie laughs as she leaves.
“You made my day!” he said.
Andrijanoff comes from Santa Fe. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his family moved to after he was born in post-World War II Germany refugee camp.
It’s there his artistic expression was formed.
“There were a lot of mural artists at the time, very influenced by that because most of the Latinos were Puerto Ricans,” he said. “They were influenced by Mexican Surrealists, so I had a strong influence in that regard.”
He studied under Ronald N. Sherr, the artist who did portraits of President George H.W. Bush for the National Portrait Gallery.
Andrijanoff practiced his studies of the human form with the most affordable models he could find, sometimes a homeless man.
That portrait still hangs, unframed, in his Curley School apartment.
“He was a very distressed person,” Andrijanoff said.
The man’s piercing eyes radiate out of the portrait through his masterful strokes.
Now, he paints mostly abstract. And the paintings go for thousands of dollars.
“I get bored doing the same thing over and over. I need a feeling of progression, progression within yourself.”
He uses house paint because it’s cheap and he isn’t actively selling most of his paintings.
The paintings look as if you took a high power microscope to a piece of granite, or a spot of lichen.
”Nothing in nature is simply one color. A rock, granite, you find a multiplicity of colors,” he said.
One painting features layered dots of dove gray over a cream background.
There are four rows of what look like wheels, connected by pulsating black lines. Andranjinoff describes it as a sentient stone.
“Kind of like stones that have consciousness. That’s the significance of the stone wheel shapes. The waves are like weakening conscious awareness,” he said. “There’s awareness beyond consciousness. If you’ve ever had an out-of-body experience, you’d know what I mean.”
The painting he’s describing is one of the only ones he’s done inspired by his Mongolian heritage. He’s able to connect with Ajo in this spiritual way.
“I feel more at home here because most of the people in this town are people who have suffered a lot of history. Suffered from the results of being exploited, suffered from their land being exploited,” he said. “As an immigrant myself, I identity very much with their situation today.”
While this may not be Charlie’s original home, the desert is home to his neighbor and fellow artist, Wendy Allen.
We sit together at a giant solid wooden table that used to be her bed.
“I used to live in New York and sleep on this [big wood table]. I lived on the second floor, above a ceramics studio, and I wasn’t supposed to live there,” she said, laughter peppering each sentence.
Allen was born and raised in Phoenix with a mother who played viola professionally. Those artistic roots led to her creating textiles, prints, sculptures and pottery.
Allen often sells pieces at the central plaza at the local market but there’s a piece in her crowded apartment that feels intensely personal. It’s a handmade miniature crypt made to hold her mother’s ashes.
“We lived in Arizona for so long, and she always wanted a house with a flagstone porch. So, I made one for her,” she said.
It’s a small brick home with a tiny table, pots, cactus and windows.
She was covering up the hundreds of tiny handmade and set bricks with more mud, when her sister-in-law told her to stop so people would appreciate the handiwork
“You can see the brick, still,” she said. “I troweled [over] it, and was troweling away inside, outside, and she came and said, 'STOP! You won’t be able to see each brick!’”
Allen’s entire apartment is covered in decorations, from the hand-printed Indian batik couch cover to her many sculptures on the wall.
Her sculptures toe the line between abstract and symbolic. She listens to the radio when she draws or conceives ideas
“It’s hard because the stuff that comes out of my head, I don’t know what it is,” Allen said about labeling her art. “Maybe abstract surrealism, I don’t know any term for it.”
While her art has evolved over the years with each move, Allen says living in the Curley School now feels like she’s back in her native habitat.
“So, it’s sorta like coming home,” she said.
"A character of resilience is the singular most defining characteristic in this community."
— Aaron Cooper, ISDA director
Taking Back A Town Abandoned By Industry Through Art
The Curley School for artists is home for dozens of people looking for inspiration in the desert.
It’s also a way of preserving Ajo’s colorful, and complicated, past. ISDA Director Aaron Cooper says the success of this preservation project is more indicative of the place it’s always been a part of.
“A character of resilience is the singular most defining characteristic in this community,” he said.
Tracy Taft, who helped spearhead the project, said she’s seen the returns just by who is living in Ajo now.
“Homeowners have started to fix up their properties, values are starting to go up,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a risk of gentrification. But there are jobs, job programs, social programs. And there are more younger people moving to Ajo and some of that began with the Curley school.”
Taft speaks about the town as a collection of groups and places coming together with a singular purpose — to keep Ajo alive.
Loraine Marquez Eiler, O’odham native, speaks about Ajo as a place with deep roots through its people.
“There are still stories that need to be told, but they will come,” she said. “In time.”
Meanwhile, she sees the success of the Curley School in the people who are coming back out to the plaza and out around town.
"It was just an empty space. Now it's thriving, there's all kinds of activities," she said. "It's just alive."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center.