Artist Don Coen speaks before the opening of his "Migrant Series," Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

Artist Don Coen speaks before the opening of his “Migrant Series,” Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

An impressive show has launched at the Phoenix Art Museum that forces viewers to take a closer look at people and products they may take for granted. “The Migrant Series” by Don Coen is composed of arresting portraits of the migrant workers who bring much of the food to American tables. It opened on October 18 and runs through February 1, 2015.

Just a few days ago, I recommended an art-related event. I hadn’t planned to offer another so soon, but last night’s address by President Obama explaining his sweeping move to overhaul the nation’s immigration system got me thinking that this Change of Venue Friday should also head down the migrant path.

Understand, Don Coen’s remarkable artwork is not about undocumented workers or illegal immigration—though its appearance at the museum was affected by both of those things. Instead, his pieces are about the people themselves, most often workers who are here legally.

A media preview of the show on October 17 gave the opportunity to hear from the Colorado artist and some museum officials.

Ten years’ work went into the show, Coen said. And it was our relationship with our dining-room table that drove him.

“At Whole Foods, we pick up food, but we usually have no idea where it comes from,” Coen told attendees.

Perhaps best known for his previous work called the Lamar Series, Coen hopes viewers focus on the workers who bring that food to most Americans.

“I don’t think anyone will walk into the show and leave without knowing these people.”

Aiding in that result will be the near-photo-realism of the works, their close-up nature, and their massive scale.

Coen was accompanied at the media tour by his two grown sons. Shane Coen said, “Don saw the workers as friends, humans. He wanted to tell the human stories, show their faces.

Museum Director Jim Ballinger said how impressed he is by Coen’s work, including how its “luminosity is built up through layers of paint”—60 to 120 layers of paint per painting.

“This shows the back-of-the-house of the agricultural economy,” Ballinger told me. “America is so urban that we don’t see the agricultural life.”

That is the show’s most important layer, Ballinger said. When pressed, though, he did discuss the show in relation to the immigration debate.

He said that the museum delayed the show for a few years to avoid getting swept up in the debate over SB1070. “Don Coen’s first interest was not immigration,” Ballinger said. After all, most if not all of the people in the paintings are either citizens or have green cards.

Cover card Don Coen show

But the topic cannot be entirely avoided, Ballinger acknowledged, and in the context of SB1070, there may be great value in helping people understand more about the individuals who work in the fields.

“It may change people’s minds about how we get the food that we get.”

Dr. Jerry Smith, curator of American and Western American Art at the museum, agreed.

“We didn’t want the heated debate of a few years ago to overwhelm the story” of Coen’s work, he said. “There are 1.3 million citizens who are migrant farmers; when those people can see themselves be self-represented, that’s good.”

Smith spoke with me about the paintings’ scale, “which is very important because it makes the point that you are looking at people who should not be ignored.”

“The takeaway is that you really don’t have to be a head of state to get a portrait.”

Son Shane Coen told me that the family originally wasn’t sure the project was a great idea—or how it would be received.

“In the beginning, we asked him, ‘What are you painting?’”

Don Coen, Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

Don Coen, Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

Ultimately, though, he saw that his father was able to “bring the workers’ voices to light.”

“Hopefully, it will bring more compassion.”

Cord Coen saw the show’s importance in its ability to reveal “a world that is often invisible to us.”

More photos can be found on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

(In case you wondered (as I did), Cord explained how Don Coen worked with such massive canvases: Not (as I had guessed) via scaffold, but by having the pieces raised and lowered into a gap in the floor. That allows Coen to stand on the floor and have the piece ride up and down on a track.)

Don Coen, Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

Don Coen, Phoenix Art Museum, Oct. 17, 2014.

Here is some more background from the Phoenix Art Museum:

Don Coen: The Migrant Series was organized by Phoenix Art Museum and opens there on October 18, 2014. The exhibition is comprised of a series of 15 large-scale, realistic portrait paintings of migrant farm laborers by the Colorado artist. The paintings are inspired by photographs of individuals that Coen took on farms across the U.S. over a decade. During the hundreds of hours he spent in the fields studying and taking photos of these farmers, Coen got to know each person’s story and it shows in these paintings. Over the past decade, he painted these works measuring almost 10 by 7 feet using dozens of layers of paint applied with a spray gun—then added the finishing details by hand with pencil. In these portrait paintings, the artist’s non-traditional approach of using airbrush is apparent.

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Hon Michael D Ryan portrait

A new portrait of Hon. Michael D. Ryan, dedicated on April 25, 2014.

On Friday, April 25, a terrific lawyer and judge was honored with the dedication of an oil painting depicting him. The jurist recognized was Justice Michael D. Ryan.

You can read Justice Ryan’s obituary here. I wrote about him in Arizona Attorney Magazine here.

Today, I share a great story about the event written by the staff of the Superior Court for Maricopa County. I was very sorry to have to miss the event, but I am pleased that Mike Ryan’s friendly visage has become a permanent part of the courthouse.

Here’s the story:

On April 25, Superior Court celebrated the distinguished career of The Honorable Michael D. Ryan with a portrait dedication ceremony.

Justices, judges, former judges, court staff, friends and family attended the ceremony at the Old Courthouse in Phoenix to pay their respect to a brilliant legal mind who dedicated 24 years to working in the Judiciary. Justice Ryan served as a Superior Court Judge, a Court of Appeals Judge and an Arizona Supreme Court Justice.

During the ceremony, Justice Ryan’s wife, Karen, and son, Kevin, unveiled the portrait and Presiding Judge Norman Davis, Commissioner R. Jeffrey Woodburn and Retired Judge Ron Reinstein spoke on behalf of their friend and former colleague.

Justice Ryan was known as a fair and thoughtful jurist who managed his courtroom in a firm but respectful manner. He was respected by all who appeared before him as well as those who served beside him.

As a Superior Court Judge, he presided over high profile cases such as AzScam, the Phoenix Suns drug case and the criminal trial of Governor Evan Mecham. Prior to joining the Bench, he served as a Maricopa County prosecutor.

Justice Ryan received his Juris Doctorate from Arizona State University. He also was the recipient of two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for his service as a United States Marine Corps platoon commander in the Vietnam War.

"Jumpin' off the page," by Deborah Wolfe

“Jumpin’ off the page,” by Deborah Wolfe

Earlier this week, I encouraged attorneys to submit their art to our 2014 Creative Arts Competition. So this month I was doubly pleased to hear from a former winner, lawyer Deborah Wolfe.

Deborah is an Arizona and California lawyer, and her great paintings wowed the Editorial Board this past year. We published three related pieces of hers in our May 2013 issue, when she took first place in our painting category. Here is one of those works:

Equality + Liberty = Justice (3), by Deborah Wolfe.

Equality + Liberty = Justice (3), by Deborah Wolfe.

When she contacted me this month, she offered an update on her work (which I’m pleased that the magazine encouraged!). I am always happy to hear from our former winners, who often go on to do even more amazing things.

Before I get to Deborah’s own words, let me point you to some possible gift-giving for attorneys that involves lawyer art. Recently, a great website suggested some gifts, and in the options was art by Deborah Wolfe and Kirk Adams, another Arizona attorney whose artwork has been featured in Arizona Attorney.

Here’s how Attorney at Work opens its gift guide blog post:

“The lawyer in your life need not be an art collector to enjoy new art for the office. Artwork can brighten the office of any lawyer, and nothing is quite so unique as a work of art created by, well, another lawyer. Lawyer-turned-artist to be exact. Sometimes the artwork of a lawyer-artist reflects the law, such as the work of Deborah Wolfe, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the law, such as the paintings of Kirk Hayes.”

Lawyer-artist Deborah Wolfe

Lawyer-artist Deborah Wolfe

Read their whole post here.

And now, here’s Deborah. You can take her words as encouragement to send your own work to our annual competition:

“I am attaching one of my latest paintings that I call ‘Jumpin’ off the page.’ I have branched away from painting mostly legal themes to musical ones. In fact, I am doing an entire series on local musicians, painted on oxidized aluminum roofing tiles. Several of the musicians have said they want to use them for their next CD covers! Maybe I can even quit my day job someday…”

Of course, I quickly asked her, “Oxidized aluminum roofing tiles?” Here’s what she said:

“I guess you know that you are really an artist when looking at an oxidized roofing tile that you were using in your garden to keep the weeds down and the critters from burrowing, you decide that it is a good surface to paint on! I had thought about using the tiles as a painting surface when I first found them in my potting shed, where they’d been left by the previous owners. They were the right size, and were ‘free,’ but then I couldn’t figure out how paint would adhere to the slick surface. So I dismissed the idea and used them in the garden instead.”

“When the garden was finished for the season, and I removed and washed-off the tiles, I saw that they had a texture where the water residue/oxidation had taken place, and they were all unique. So I decided to experiment, and coated three tiles with red acrylic paint and three with royal blue. They looked like velvet when they dried. Then I used oil pastels to paint the musicians and background, and the texture had a ‘grainy’ effect that made the portraits unique—kind of ethereal, especially the lighted part of the background. I told the musicians that I was actually trying to capture their postures in holding their instruments, and the ‘feel’ of the music, rather than making the facial features too detailed.”

“I am very excited about them. The venue where I had taken the photos from which the paintings were derived now wants me to make more, representing all of the musicians who play there. The musicians want me to bring them to their next performance on December 7th, and to figure out a price so I can sell them.”

Lawyer-artist Kirk Adams

Lawyer-artist Kirk Adams

Here’s the last part, which Deborah did not have to add, but I am very appreciative that she did:

“It is all very exciting. And I have to thank you and the board, because by giving me the honor of first place in the arts competition this year, you gave me the confidence to have a show and to sell my work.”

Deborah tells me she has been showing her work at the former Naval Training Center in the Point Loma area of San Diego. Her first show was called “Layers,” where she exhibited 26 paintings.

Even better, she has been commissioned by two court reporting firms and a lawyer friend to do three more paintings. Here, she describes the court-reporting commission:

“It is starting with a collage of a made-up deposition page that is kind of an ad for their company, and I’m using those old-fashioned shorthand tapes from the steno machine (with the printed symbols on it) to form the basis of an over-painting of the building their office is in. The viewer will be able to see the tapes through the building’s windows.”

She adds, “The new Superior Court building in San Diego is breaking ground in December, and I’m hoping to get some of my art installed in it.”

As she adds happily, “I could actually turn this idea into a business!”

The newest image she sent me (Jumpin’ off the page) is at the top of this post. To see more of Deborah’s work, go here. Or, of course, head over to San Diego sometime!