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Buckley: Dixon also painted portraits with words

Poet Richard Tavenner.

Poet Richard Tavenner.

If you’ve lived in Tucson long enough, you’ve no doubt heard the name of celebrated western painter Maynard Dixon.

You may have run across his paintings at Tucson’s Medicine Man Gallery, 7000 E. Tanque Verde Road, No. 16, where a permanent exhibition of his work is on display, or at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave., where a show of his work titled “A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon’s Arizona” hangs through Feb. 15.

But most of us never knew that he was also a poet of voluminous and high-quality output – a man who bared his soul in words as well as paint. Last week Tucson poet Richard Tavenner set the record straight with an hour-plus reading of selected Dixon poems.

Born in 1875, Dixon settled in Tucson in the late 1930s and died here in 1946. He lived in a mud-hewn house built off Prince Road and Tucson Boulevard, on a piece of land owned by Linda Ronstadt’s father, Gilbert. Ronstadt at times traded paintings for rent while the Dixons lived there, and often talked painting with him.

Dixon’s poetry-writing days appear to have stopped before the move to Tucson.

The setting for the poetry reading was an apt one – behind the train station and in front of the tracks, just behind Maynard’s Market. Dixon had been commissioned in 1907 to create murals for Tucson’s train station. The originals are part of the display at TMA. The trains also at times find their way into Dixon’s poetry, so having them intermittently pass behind Tavenner as he read seemed somehow fitting.

Tavenner was the right man for the job. A lanky cowboy-looking guy who has been a poet for 40 years, a board member of the Tucson Poetry Festival and founding member of that organization’s 13-year high school poetry competition, Tavenner had both the look and the sound to bring Dixon’s words to life. By his own admission Tavenner knew little about Dixon beyond his painting when he heard about the poetry and agreed to do the reading a while back. But it was clear from his performance that he’d found a kindred spirit in the painter. Along the way Tavenner offered historical notes of what was going on in Dixon’s life and where he was when each poem was composed.

The poems start when Dixon was 21 and end in the 1930s.

In introducing Dixon’s poem Tavenner noted, “He turned to writing for many reasons. He fought many battles in his poems, made artistic statements and wondered with awe about the land and religion. He recorded and lamented the passing of the western frontier without romanticizing it. He wrote of the Mojave, Hopi and Navajo, the pioneers and the cowboys, and explored the heights and depths of love and sex.”

How important the West was to Dixon was shared by Tavenner in one of his stories. Evidently a fire broke out at his home while Dixon was living in New York. He ran into the burning building, not to save his paintings but to rescue his Indian rugs.

You can go online to see video of Tavenner reading some of Dixon’s poetry, attached to this column. But to tease you toward that end, let me excerpt a 1913 Dixon poem.

“There comes a time when every man, in all that he may do, must be a man. To let the day’s work slip away undone, to mock a woman or slight a friend were untold shame. To strike the going center of each day, flash out the sparks of action and hammer out hard rock results, were a man’s glory.

“There comes a time when an invading stillness of the air bids him take respite and warns him to review the unbelievable procession of mankind moving across his eyes, distinct and small, merely a border pattern upon space, to note the slanted shadow of a rock, the quiet drift of ceremonial smoke, the last wild flare of autumn leafage, the inevitable downward course of sun were satisfaction. When contemplation so becomes a prayer, that simply to have known beauty were in itself a glory.”

– Maynard Dixon

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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