Art Works Blog

Winessing Ajos Rebirth

The Curley School in Ajo, Arizona, after being renovated by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. Photo by Ron McCoy

Built in the early 20th century, the Curley School was once the architectural jewel of Ajo, Arizona, a former copper mining town just 40 miles north of Mexico. But once the area’s main mine closed in 1985, the school---like much of Ajo---was abandoned and left to decay. This deterioration continued largely unchecked until the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) stepped in and began to rehabilitate the town building by building, festival by festival, and public art project by public art project. In 2007, the restored Curley School re-opened as 30 live/work artist apartments, while other buildings on the campus were converted into galleries, workshops, and business resources for creative professionals. To recognize its efforts, ISDA received an inaugural FY 2011 Our Town grant to continue adaptive re-use projects in Ajo. We spoke with artist and Curley School resident Mari Kaestle about her career, what it’s like to live in this creative development, and how the Curley School could serve as a model for other communities. Below is her story in her own words.

Finding Ajo

I have a fine arts education but I worked as a designer professionally for 35 years. I was a puppet designer, an exhibit designer with Muppets, and then I designed dolls and doll clothes for Mattel. Then I lived in California where I taught school and designed costumes for school plays. Then I moved to Arizona.

I’d always planned when I was young that when I was older, I would be a fine artist. Quite frankly, I didn’t have the courage when I was really young, and then the other thing was I really didn’t feel like I had anything to say. Coming to Ajo has been a time for me to figure out if I have a voice, and if I have a voice as a fine artist, what it is.

I made a trip out a couple of days after my 61st birthday… I realized “Yeah, I could live here.” That was January of 2007, and I moved in the beginning of June. This is the beginning of my fifth year here. I love it here.

The Curley School Model

[The Curley School] would be a model that other communities could really benefit from looking at, or following in their own way. These gigantic old schools that in many places have fallen into ruin, they make beautiful living spaces. I’m sitting in a room with windows that are four by eight feet and looking out at this incredible blue sky, and the palm trees and the lovely old colonial architecture. And on top of that, these apartments are for people with low-income. I lived in New York City, and to have an apt like this in New York, it would cost, $10,000 a month. I have 1,500 square feet. Here I am with a very affordable rent, built-in friends, a community which is diverse and welcoming and has a great deal to offer, and an art gallery with new shows every month. It’s just fabulous.

The first year was tough for everybody, then it started to kind of even out and flow. I’ve learned so much from some of the other artists here. We share, we mentor, and yet we have this incredible the privacy that we have is just wonderful. Yet I’m very active in the community as well. It’s been a perfect balance.

ISDA is like a plant. It has roots and these roots are deep and the branches are spread out. It’s just not about the Curley School. [ISDA is] really incredibly committed to economic development in the community, and cultural development as well. One of the things that’s nice about it is that the Curley School is part of something that is much larger. Every project benefits everybody in some way. It benefits the community and it benefits us as artists.

The Magic of the Desert

The summers are like the winters back East---you stay inside most of the time. It’s a time to go inside yourself and see what the next big thing is. For instance, I have a lot of old journals that I kept over the years, and now I’ve finally started going through them and started pulling out the best of the ideas.

Something about being isolated might [make this] a little different from artist residence areas in other parts of the United States. Being so isolated out here we have to be supportive with each other. The people here now are here for the long haul.

As you get older, you kind of just want to make sure that you haven’t let yourself down. You don’t want to age with a lot of regrets. Coming out here was a fulfillment of a major chapter in my life.

Please visit our recent issue of NEA Arts for more about ISDA's initiative to revitalize Ajo.

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