Under the Arizona sun, scorching or soothing depending on the season, there exists a town largely known to the outside world as a place of golf and skinny retirees with fat Roth IRAs. There are some, particularly in Scottsdale itself, who would prefer that the world continue to view it in that way, and not just those who run golf courses and communities—gated, xeriscaped—where a half-mil is the minimum buy-in for a three-bedroom on Sonoran sand. But there are many others who have a different sort of reverence for the place, who take a different view of the Arizona sun—what it allows, what it forbids—and who as a result reside in a different, infinitely more interesting spot. Indeed, the genius of Scottsdale lies in the myriad ways in which a single celestial orb has captivated the imagination of an entire citizenry.
Among the things for which the sun is responsible, of course, is a climate and landscape that sometimes seem harsh in the extreme, at least to outsiders. Long before the rest of us had even heard of such things as global warming and climate change, much less believed in them, Arizonans had a unique fear, humility, and respect for the natural world. For thousands of years, from the earliest days of the Hohokam to the present, their lives have been defined by heat and light, rock hard clay and landscapes deadly spare. And for almost 200 years, those same elements have been drawing artists to this town 12 miles northeast of Phoenix.
To see what those elements have wrought, you have only to visit Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s four-year-old Museum of the West, a beautiful structure in Old Town. “It’s not an Arizona museum and it’s not a Scottsdale museum,” clarified our tour guide. “It’s everything from Texas to North Dakota, and all the way west to Alaska and Hawaii, and over time the museum will come to represent this whole area.” There among a vast collection of spurs and holsters, saddles and such, are works by artists like Remington and some terrific early western photography. For a different take on western spirit, you might visit Cattle Track Arts, a community of artists on the outskirts of town, where ceramicists and blacksmiths, painters and metal sculptors produce sui generis works in an idyllic, compound-like setting.
Just as it’s difficult to imagine such works being created anywhere else, it’s difficult to imagine a resort like Mountain Shadows existing anywhere else. Just over a year old, the handsome and sprawling property sits, as the name implies, at the base of Camelback Mountain, which rises a steep 2,700 feet from the Sonoran Desert and is visible from most everywhere in Scottsdale. Mountain Shadows offers a swank ’50s vibe and a long, handsome swimming pool flanked by cabana-like rooms. As such, it is a perennial first choice for weddings, with multiple nuptials often taking place on the same day.
Just over the mountain, and just minutes from downtown Scottsdale, sits McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a sprawling 30,000-plus-acre maze of spectacularly well-maintained hiking and mountain bike trails that wind their way past saguaro cacti and into the hills overlooking town. These stately cacti, some of them two centuries old, are found nowhere else on earth, and indeed the Sonoran is like no other desert—greener and wetter than the Sahara, but also hotter. There are trails for every sort of hiking ability, all of which lead past ancient ironwood trees, creosote and palo verde, Arizona’s state tree.
McDowell Preserve is best enjoyed at sunrise, when the temperatures are cool and the light exquisite, although the area’s winter weather (60s and 70s in the daytime) often makes for an enjoyable hike all day long. The sun travels in the greatest of arcs across Arizona’s cloudless skies, bathing the landscape in a light that has mesmerized visual artists since at least the 19th century, and architects since at least 1937, the year that Frank Lloyd Wright decided to build Taliesin West on a barren hillside that was once far from town. These days, even as suburban sprawl has crept perilously close to Wright’s masterpiece, the structure still stands out, as experimental and zany as the day it was a built. Taliesin was a laboratory of sorts for Wright and his acolytes, and its novel use of sunlight and underground cooling features continues to amaze.
From its terrace bar to a large pool area surrounded by impossibly tall Mexican fan palms, the Andaz Scottsdale, which opened in 2017, is hell-bent on taking in every UV ray. The gorgeous and sprawling property is dotted with 185 bungalows and suites, many of them cozy white casitas with private porches, kicky design touches (courtesy Alexander Girard), and unique local art, some of it by Cattle Track craftsmen. Speaking of which, there are few things more wonderful than watching the sun set over a diamondback fizz cocktail while listening to the Dusty Ramblers, a band headed by the man who just happens to run Cattle Track.
Otherwise, Cattle Track remains a mystery to most residents, which is just the way Cattle Track likes it. Artists and craftsmen have been living and working on the compound since the 1930s, and a trip through the studios, all open to the public, is one of the best ways to meet saucy locals (and pick up top-drawer souvenirs). Of special note are the Who Pots of ceramicist Mary Van Dusen—we’ll let her tell you the story of the name—but exceptional work can be found all over the compound.
Another not-to-be-missed venue for new and interesting works is downtown’s Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Housed in a cleverly repurposed old movie theater, the museum celebrates its 20th year in 2019 with a program of, what else, video installations. And among the highlights of its permanent collection is, what else, a James Turrell light sculpture, yet another meditation on the heavenly body to which Scottsdale owes its life.
“Paolo used to say that most of his fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin was spent in the kitchen, cutting vegetables and waiting on tables. But he fell in love with the desert and made it the home for the rest of his life.”
That’s Roger Tomalty, who runs Cosanti, yet another architect’s laboratory, this one created by Paolo Soleri, a former disciple of Wright’s who broke with the master over his suburban aesthetic and love of car culture. Soleri, who died in 2013, had a passion for urban living and sustainability that was much ahead of its time, and while Arcosanti, Soleri’s elaborate prototypical city sits 60 miles further north, Cosanti makes for a grand introduction to a truly innovative architect. His concrete drafting studios, ingeniously constructed out of earthen molds, are wondrous, and his famous bronze wind chimes, still being cast by acolytes, may be purchased in all price ranges. Cosanti, like Wright and thousands of other artists of the eye, was an accidental Arizonan, drawn to its endless landscapes and the countless opportunities for experimentation on offer.
Indeed, sometimes it seems like the sun has inspired everyone in Scottsdale, and everyone in different ways. Gorgeous weather for nine months a year (sound familiar?) has inspired a deep love of nature, as well as a reverence for fertile lands—just about anything can be grown year-round in Arizona—and a love of great food. It’s not for nothing that True Food Kitchen, Andrew Weil’s franchise-friendly organic eatery, started life up the road in Phoenix, although from where I sat, it seemed almost impossible to have a boring meal, much less a bad one, in Scottsdale. The chopped salad at Citizen Public House in downtown Scottsdale is so famous it has its own Facebook page, and chef Bernie Kantak’s heirloom popcorn popped in bacon fat and short ribs fired with a coffee rub are nearly as distinctive. House-made mozzarella elevates the pizzas at Craft 64 to the divine, as does the exhaustive selection of Arizona craft beers, while the burgers and bloody mary bar at ZuZu are equally special.
This last is just off the lobby of the Hotel Valley Ho, a remarkably well-restored 1956 hotel not far from Old Town. “It’s been said that it’s the best-preserved instance of mid-century hotel architecture in America,” local expert Ace Bailey told me, later admitting that it was she herself who had said as much. Still, the renovation is so spectacular—everything from the bar’s club chairs to the meticulous details and overall motor lodge whimsy of the place is rendered perfectly—Bailey may well be right. Among the 194 rooms flanking the pool and staring down at it from a newly-added 7-story tower are several studio suites, each with funky kitchens, cool living areas and enormous porches with unobstructed views of the valley everywhere you look.
The quiet and breathtaking solitude of the surrounding landscape might seem tailor-made for loners. If not for its close-knit communities bound against the elements, however, Arizona might have forever remained uninhabitable. And true to its heritage, there’s no clearer demonstration of community than in the wealth of public art. Dozens of works are on display at any one time (this in a town of just 250,000) and there’s even a festival devoted to public art. Canal Convergence it’s called (named for the waterway that cuts through downtown), and though in existence for just 7 years, crowds grow with each passing iteration. Now held in November, the 10-day festival showcases large-scale, popular works from around the country and beyond, and is worth visiting Scottsdale all on its own. Last year’s Convergence featured a gigantic ribbon of crocheted rope that extended for hundreds of yards along the canal, a fire show on the water timed to music, and audience participation installations that drew crowds of all ages by the thousands.
“Arizona wine is coming into its own,” says Curt Dunham, who owns and operates LDV Winery in southern Arizona, as well as a wine bar/tasting room on East Stetson Drive not far from the canal. He is that final kind of Arizonan created by the sun, the one who seeks to remake himself after a lifetime of doing something else. Like Frank Lloyd Wright and many others before and since, the Arizona sun brought out a new aspect in the long-time strategic planner, filling Dunham with a life-changing sense of possibility. Like all good residents of the state, he saw not a bare and forbidding landscape but a tabula rasa, a place for starting over without penalty, a new life made from the old.
Such lives are the human equivalents of a fascinating exhibit on view through May 12 at the Desert Botanical Garden, home to 50,000 specimens of flora from the desert and beyond. Called “Electric Desert,” it’s a nighttime exhibition created by video artist Ricardo Rivera and his group Klip Collective which uses projection mapping to precisely target cacti in the collection, casting them with an unearthly glow from all ends of the color spectrum. An entire mountain in the garden is lit up to a precisely timed soundtrack, and the effect is stunning. It is yet one more jaw-dropping example of the desert as possibility, a place for humans to magically transform sun and sand, even as they themselves are transformed by both.