By Jamie Verwys
For years, the dark alleyway of Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch, known as the Broadway Stairs, had a reputation as a hot spot for drug use.
The recent addition of lighting brightened up the area, but it isn’t the only thing transforming the alley into a tourist destination. A pop-up art gallery of funky thrift store finds and dumpster dives is finding new life.
Kenny Stewart, a Bisbee magician and owner of The Seance Room, lives in the apartment halfway up the stairs. What began as an idea to make the space in front of his home more interesting has become a full-blown community project.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool if we had a bunch of thrift store stuff on the walls, donated stuff?’ … That was the vision behind it,” Stewart said.
The concept for the gallery is simple. Anyone can contribute a piece of art. The project began this month, and much of the wall of The Parlor, a local tattoo shop, is covered in everything from nearly matching sea captain portraits to a scene from The Sopranos, with the assumed artist drawn in. The collection has grown from 20 pieces to about 90 and counting.
“I posted it on Facebook, there was a video that was shot and people just keep donating,” Stewart said.
The gallery will eventually go all the way to the roof of the building and stretch the full length of the back fence.
Stewart turned to friend and neighbor Ed Smith for help with the gallery. Smith owns one of the buildings. He contributed several pieces, including a crowd favorite that the two refer to as the “Biker Last Supper.” The large painting depicts what looks like a claustrophobic version of the “Last Supper,” with swords on the table, broken goblets and possibly arrows in someone’s back. It’s been sitting in Smith’s building since the early 1980s, when he rescued it from a dumpster.
Kenny Stewart, known as Magic Kenny Bang Bang, hangs a newly donated piece of art on the wall. Jamie Verwys / Arizona Sonora News Service
Dispersed among the pieces are original works by Bisbee artists. The two are hopeful that showing a piece on the wall for free to the community will become a rite of passage for local artists.
“I think it’s going to be something that becomes, ‘Oh we aren’t going to be Bisbee-famous until we get on the wall,’ ” Stewart said.
Several visitors to the gallery have recognized pieces they hadn’t seen for years. One woman found the giraffe painting she made for her ex-boyfriend, never knowing it would end up in a thrift store. Smith said one of his friends, who just moved back from Los Angeles, found art that she gave away about 10 years ago.
So far, passersby enjoy the gallery and are curious, especially about how the work will remain protected.
The outdoor elements pose a potential risk of damage that the gallery hasn’t experienced yet, but they aren’t worried about it. To protect some of the pieces, they frame them. Each piece is screwed into the wall, though that hasn’t stopped some isolated incidents of theft.
“We have had a couple art heists, but we keep just getting donations,” said Stewart.
Smith said he thinks that as more artists contribute, they’ll understand that the value of this public gallery outweighs the risk of damaging the work.
“I’m hoping that instead of taking offense to the fact that your painting is outside, and going to get rained on, that maybe they will be like, ‘We don’t care,’ ” he said.
Bisbee resident Jon Sky helps hang up a piece of art he donated to the Broadway Stairs Art Gallery with Kenny Stewart. The majority of works hanging on the walls are contributed by locals. Jamie Verwys / Arizona Sonora News Service
Bisbee resident Tom Konopka sees the gallery as a perfect example of Bisbee’s creative spirit.
“This pop art gallery is something that everyone can contribute to and it’s all done in the right spirit of sharing,” Konopka said. “It’s free to all who chose to saunter up that path.”
David Russell, owner of the Bisbee Tour Company, has already begun to incorporate the gallery into some of his tours. He has brought two groups of visitors to the unconventional space, and says similar tour guides have been showing it as well.
Russell explained that their tours often feature public art in order to highlight the sense of community and local history.
“I’m not sure a gallery space like this would work in too many cities, but it fits right in here in Bisbee,” he said. “Plus, it’s a great way to get folks walking up all those steps.”
The wall today is more like a puzzle. Canvases have to be shifted to make room for new work, or to better package art together, such as a collection of several different flamingo paintings.
“It’s a real community thing, and as I think about the whole stigma of a gallery where it’s really pretentious, this is just not,” Stewart said. “It’s also just so Bisbee.”
The Broadway Stairs Art Gallery will host its grand opening April 1.
Jamie Verwys is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.