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Tucson lawmaker: Career as artist provides flexibility and perspective for work at Capitol

TUCSON – “Life’s too short for beige,” Steve Farley said, standing in his backyard looking at the color palette he’s painted his home: sandy peach, Easter-egg turquoise and a rich purple.

But what stands out the most also happens to be what Farley does for a living: hundreds of painted ceramic tiles on the back of his house together form a two-story saguaro cactus in shades of green and gray.

Farley, a photographer, graphic designer and public artist, said a benefit of his work is it gives him the income and flexible schedule needed to support his other career: serving as a state representative.

Without it, Farley said, he wouldn’t have been able to run for the Legislature in 2006.

“This year we’ve been in session basically all year long,” said Farley, a Democrat. “What you get when you only pay people in the Legislature $24,000 a year is people who are independently wealthy, they’re self-employed with odd hours like me, they’re retired or their spouse is supporting them. And you don’t get people from quote-unquote normal jobs. And that’s unfortunate.”

For Farley, the road to becoming a representative was similar to when he first started in public art 12 years ago.

The city of Tucson was looking for an artist to create a public piece, and Farley had some old postcards of people walking around downtown Tucson from the 1930s to the 1960s he knew he wanted to do something with.

He’d never done public art before, but through experimenting invented a way to convert the postcard images to a set of glazed ceramic tiles. He called the process tilograph; Tucson called it the winning submission. The result was 14 larger-than-life images on four major walls around downtown.

“Creating public art is very much like the political process every step of the way,” Farley said. “There’s competition and it’s very hard to get selected. Then you need to follow through and carry out what you said you were going to do. You have to give the public what they want.”

Former Rep. Jackie Thrasher, a Glendale Democrat and elementary school music teacher who served with Farley on the House Transportation Committee, said having variety in career backgrounds benefits the Legislature.

“If you just have retired business people in the Legislature, you may not get all the support for all the other pieces of the puzzle,” Thrasher said.

“I don’t think we’d have as good as decisions without having arts-background people at the table,” she added.

As a public artist, Farley has created a number of tile murals around the country, including several more in Arizona, including works at the Phoenix Convention Center and a Metro light-rail stop. Often they represent something about the people or culture of the area the artwork is located in.

“The neatest thing about public art is that people don’t look at the stuff on the wall and think, ‘Oh, this guy did this thing on the wall.’ They look at that and think, ‘That’s our mural.’”

Arizona Citizen Action for the Arts recently named Farley a 2009 Arts Hero. Steve Carr, a spokesman for the group, said Farley’s work as both legislator and artist is important.

“Arts have a tremendous impact on our quality of life,” Carr said. “Arizona is a state where people come to experience the arts and culture, and that directly impacts our employment, taxes and revenues. Farley having that background and experience provides an appropriate value and critical understanding of it.”

Farley agreed that arts help grow Arizona’s economy.

“An artist is not simply a troubled person sitting in a studio,” Farley said. “They’re an entrepreneurial business person.”

To keep himself immersed in fine arts, Farley also teaches a drawing class and helps students find their inner artist.

“Everyone has creativity in them,” he said. “You just have to help them realize that.”

Looking around his backyard, which includes a hammock and lots of plants and shade, Farley said he’s proud of the artsy oasis he’s been able to build for his family even though the lot isn’t terribly large.

Comparing that process to crafting legislation, he said the common denominator is an artistic approach.

“Some traditional solutions don’t work anymore,” Farley said. “So we’ve got to collaborate and work creatively.”

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