Leaverites as Art—The Retaining Walls of Jerome AZ

Fifteen hundred retaining walls and fifteen hundred feet of elevation separate the house known as the Eagle’s Nest at the entrance into Jerome AZ from Prescott to its lowest residences—a couple of twisty miles as you follow the highway through town. They are Jerome’s most impressive, and sadly, most overlooked, architectural treasures. Many are works of art.

Artist Paul Nonnast's studio and foundry in Jerome AZ

Built into the hillside, artist Paul Nonnast sometimes described his home as a ‘perforated cave’—a compact L-shaped building of three rooms, entirely by hand. The interior rooms open onto a stone terrace with round, cold pool and serve as an extension of the home’s internal spaces. Inside and out, graceful sweeping curves, flat planes, numerous levels, angles, delicate patterning and tight joints identify Nonnast as a master stonemason. A new home was built in the nineties and the entire property is for sale and is being presented by Denise Lerette of Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty, Sedona. (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

Retaining walls knit the town together and keep it from pitching down the steep mountain. They edge highways and driveways. In some parts of town, retaining walls keep homes from toppling into those of their neighbors.

Cobblestone streets still exist in Jerome AZ

A few cobblestone and limestone block streets still exist in Jerome. I call them horizontal walls.

Many foundations and building walls are made of native rock, such as the pillars of the old Bartlett Hotel, the only ruin remaining on Main Street.

Woven into these walls are the hearts of the people who built and repaired them, binding them to one another, bridging generations and ethnicities.

“I became a wall builder out of necessity,” said Jerome resident Jane Moore.  “The day I signed the papers from the woman who sold me the house was the day I was underneath the house cleaning some of her stuff out and the rock wall under there completely fell over! There were SO many old walls all over this property in various states of disrepair, that it seems it’s a never ending project! But never mind… it’s a job I enjoy, as long as my back holds out!”

Jane builds hand-stacked retaining walls on her property in Jerome AZ

The walls in the corral barn are ones I did by myself when Chuck was in Nevada mining turquoise. Photo by Jane Moore

Many generations of residents can echo Jane’s words.

Many retaining walls are hand-stacked, one stone over two, much like those built by the ancient Anasazi. Most have no mortar between them. Properly built, the walls “weep” and act as natural drains. They have an elasticity that enables them to gracefully shift and settle.

Retaining wall, Jerome AZ

The retaining wall on the highway going into Jerome have settled and withstood a few rumbles). It’s large graceful wave forms show the wall’s natural capacity to withstand earth movements and the rumbling of highway vehicles. The wall was built in the nineteen thirties as a WPA project. Photo by Bob Swanson (SwansonImages.com

In 1976, a small earthquake shook glasses in Paul and Jerry’s Saloon. Another small one occurred in 1984, just five miles outside of town. I was standing outside my old Verde Street house looking at the first wall we repaired. The earthquake sounded like an underground train ambling through the town’s underbelly. A few rocks tumbled, but the large walls held.

The stone for Jerome’s walls can be found within a seven-mile radius of town, many from the same colorful formations that are dominant in the Grand Canyon—1.8 billion-year old copper colored schist (Cleopatra formation), maroon Tapeats sandstone, grey Martin dolomite (A type of limestone), cherry-streaked Redwall sandstone, ruby-colored Supai sandstone and black lava basalt. The rocks tell of the ancient seas that once covered the area and the tumult of ancient volcanoes and earthquakes.

Jerome park walls facing Main Street.

So many people sit on these limestone block walls facing Main Street and seldom notice how beautifully built and richly textured they are. Above the park is the old Episcopal Church now owned by the Jerome Historical Society and used for offices and archives. Photo by Bob Swanson (SwansonImages.com)

Then there are walls built of coarse caliche (the white cement like calcium carbonate), which are found on the Dundee hogback and make digging there a nightmare.

Not all Jerome’s walls are made of rock. Concrete walls flank the old Mingus High School and a large highway wall flanking the road that does up to The Surgeon’s House Bed and Breakfast and the Grand Hotel. Parts of the large wall on Holly Street is built of giant steel sheets that were used to form up the shaft that goes 4200 feet into the mountain. Other walls are built with railroad ties and old telephone poles.

Mixed media retaining wall Jerome AZ

The retaining walls Holly Street. Sandstone, railroad ties and steel sheets. Photo by Bob Swanson (SwansonImages.com)

Some of my favorites use bedsprings and old car engine blocks, woodstove doors, corrugated tin, pipes, 25-gallon laundry buckets, and discarded refrigerators filled with stones and discarded tires. Old timers knew the term recycling long before it became fashionable.

Laundry bucket walls of Jerome AZ

I love all the quirky walls, though many have been replaced with ones built with sandstone and limestone. Here’s one built with tires and laundry buckets. Photo by Bob Swanson (SwansonImages.com)

Virtually all Jerome’s residents have put their hands to fixing and uilding walls. These walls have a lot to say about the resourcefulness, stubbornness, tenacity, aesthetics and even quirky natures of their builders. My hats off to them—the great leaverite artists of Jerome AZ.

Hull Canyon retaining wall, JeromeAZ

Very near the mining road that led to the entrance of the old Hull Mine, a quarter mile from town, is this spectacular inverted hand-stacked wall made up of small rocks from the canyon schists that are 1.8 billion years old, almost a third the age of the planet earth.




Art: The Soul of Jerome, Arizona

The major reason Jerome is an unusual art mecca is because its resident artists are deeply entwined in the collective identity of the town. Artists are the heart of the town’s quirky, and sometimes contentious, soulfulness.

Since 1970, the annual ratio of artists to residents has averaged 25%—at least 100 out of 400 or so of its permanent residents. Few other art towns/cities can claim that high a percentage. Artists nourish and encourage each other, giving rise to a feedback loop that challenges them to improve and flourish.

Artists in Jerome Arizona are Business People

Many artists own successful shops and galleries. They help disprove clichés that artists should starve for the sake of their art and aren’t cut out to be business people. The oldest of the uptown galleries is Made in Jerome, co-founded in 1972 by potter David Hall and two students from Prescott College who were eventually bought out by Hall. Others artist-owned galleries and shops in the main part of town include Nellie Bly II (painter Diane Geoghegan) www.dianegeoghegan.com, Aurum Jewelry (co-owner artist Sharon Watson) www.aurumjewelry.com, Raku Gallery (glass blower and potter Tracy Weisel www.Rakugallery.com, Designs on You (owned by Leigh Hay Martin, a gifted quilter) www.designsonyoujeromeaz.com, and Caduceus Cellars (owned by noted vintner and rock star Maynard Keenan) www.caduceus.org. Artists own and operate all the studio businesses in the high school complex.

Made i Jerome Pottery, Jerome, AZ

Jane Moore’s paintings on pottery, available at Made in Jerome, are famous and very lovely. (www.madeinjerome.com)

Jerome Arizona Artists Participate in Politics

Even more unusual is that many Jerome artists participate in politics. In a town that has at least 110 volunteer positions, artists quickly learned that if they wanted a say in the safety, restoration and future of the town, they needed to actively involve themselves. Artists helped draft Jerome’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning and Design Review ordinances. Artist have been elected to the Jerome Town Council and appointed to serve on Planning and Zoning and Design Review; voted by members of the Jerome Historical Society to serve as board members; and served on the Jerome Fire Department and fire auxiliary. Their contributions help counter the oft-spoken opinions that the hippies that moved to Jerome were spaced out, stoned-out good for nothings and that artists shouldn’t meddle in politics.

Painter Anne Bassett who has served multiple time  on the Jerome Town Council said, “People who don’t protect their liberty, lose it. I’ve tried to protect against the developers and further the respect for Jerome’s historic elements. From the beginning of when hippies moved in and became the majority, we have been working against the mainstream. Our high appreciation for diversity is a unifying strength. I’m still a hippie and proud of it.”

DeCamp House

The DeCamp house on Company Hill in Jerome AZ. It sits on the edge of Paradise Lane. Illustration by Anne Bassett (www.jeromeartistannebassett.com/

 Jerome Arizona Artists Donate Generously to Benefits

Musicians and artists have raised tens of thousands of dollars in the last few decades by donating services and art for benefiting Jeromans who are sick and needy or to organizations like the library, humane society and fire department. They also donate generously to the Children’s Christmas party every year to ensure there are gifts for every child in Jerome. Thank you artists!

Organization of the Community of Jerome Artists

Just after big mining abandoned Jerome in 1953, the first artists that moved in organized to support each other and draw attention to Jerome art. Roger Holt who had exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery, and Carnegie Institute moved to Jerome in 1954 and lived there until the mid-1960s. Shan Holt, his wife, started a group called The Verde Valley Artists. Shan found a patron and friend in portrait artist, Lilli Brant, who became president of the group. As the town struggled to survive, Lilli’s husband, the renowned geophysicist Arthur Brant, predicted that someday Jerome would become an art destination.

In 1975, The Verde Valley Artist group morphed into a formal nonprofit called the Verde Valley Artists Association (VVAA), which started featuring non-Jerome artists for major Jerome exhibitions. One featured Paolo Soleri, the Italian architect who built the futuristic desert city Arcosanti, which was based on the fusion of architecture and ecology, which Soleri termed arcology. Another show featured Lew Davis, dean of Arizona artists, who grew up in Jerome during its mining days.

"Morning at the Little Daisy" by Lew Davis

“Morning at the Little Daisy,” by Lew Davis, owned by the Phoenix Art Museum. Davis grew up in Jerome, not wanting to admit to wanting to be an artist in a community of miners. After he moved out of Jerome, Davis painted a series of paintings depicting life in Jerome.

The VVAA began a student art show that toured the state and sponsored studio tours. Many artists reported they sold their first pieces of art to people attending those tours.

These activities garnered support from many Verde Valley businesses, which had been standoffish and suspicious of Jerome’s hippies and helped place Jerome on the map as an art destination.

Support of Arts by the Jerome Community

From 1953 forward, the community of Jerome has actively supported the artists. The Jerome Historical Society donated the space to the Verde Valley Artists and rented space to other artists at very low costs; and voted some of their income to buy art, as did the town of Jerome. Both the society and the town have extensive and valuable art collections, as do many of its residents and businesses.

Paul Handverger, a board member of Verde Exploration Ltd. (Verde Ex), helped persuade them to purchase Mingus Union High School in 1972 for $25,000 and target artists as renters. The first renter was fine arts painter Jim Rome, who had a gallery uptown and a large following. Clothing designer Ava Guitterez was second and she eventually opened a shop on Main Street. Artists Margo Mandette and Robin Anderson turned one of the buildings into a showpiece gallery and studio. Don Bassett, an artist who made humorous assemblages from iron scrap and bedsprings, was given a small apartment and free rent in exchange for being caretaker.

Art studios abound in the old Mingus Union High School

What used to be a high school is now an art focal point in Jerome AZ. Photo by Bob Swanson (Swansonimages.com)

Last but not least, the town’s aesthetics draw artists to it like bees to honey, just as they were drawn to other towns with exceptional aesthetics, such as Sedona, Taos, New Mexico and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Few other art towns, however, command the spectacular 180-mile panorama view that Jerome has from its steep mountain perch.

Note: My book, Home Sweet Jerome, is about how artists and hippies transformed the town from being an economically depressed ghost town into the art mecca that it is.  This blog is just a summary of some of the highlight themes. The book is availabe from Amazon at an incredible discount right now (https://www.amazon.com/Home-Sweet-Jerome-Rebirth-Arizonas/dp/1555664547/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1469982014&sr=8-1&keywords=home+Sweet+jerome

Late afternoon in Jerome AZ

Views from Jerome, AZ are often subjects of photographers and painters, only one of the reasons it is the most photographed and painted town in America. Photo by Ron Chilston (www.ron-chilstonartistwebsites.com)