Citizen Staff Writer
Maynard Dixon was the cowboy artist who had to travel east to find the West. That’s because he was born relatively close to the Pacific Ocean in Fresno, Calif., in 1875. To reach the land of cattle drives and campfires, the vast places out beyond the trammeled spaces, Dixon had to ride into the sunrise.
“He was the very first great Western artist to be born in the West, who didn’t travel to Europe for training. In fact, he was completely self-taught,” says cellist and playwright Harry Clark. “There is a tremendous interest in Maynard Dixon right now.”
To celebrate the Western paintings of this spirited personality, as well as the Tucson Museum of Art’s current exhibit “A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon’s Arizona,” Clark has created “Go Ask the Little Horned Toad.” This play about Dixon’s life combines elements of theater, music and big screen visuals to capture his robust energy.
Film and television personality Conrad John Schuck will play Dixon. The actor is best known for creating popular characters in the long-running television series “McMillan and Wife,” “Law & Order” and several permutations of “Star Trek.”
“The museum approached me about doing the piece,” Clark says. “I wanted to do it, but at first I wasn’t sure how much there would be to work with. Maynard Dixon didn’t talk about his feelings very much.
“But then I discovered he wrote poems all his life. I knew I could include several of those poems in the script. In fact, the title is take from a line in his poem ‘At Last.’ He writes ‘If you want to know about me after I’m gone, go ask the little horned toad’.”
Clark is best known for writing biographical pieces about the families of Europe’s greatest composers. These are featured in concert performances by Chamber Music PLUS Southwest, founded by Clark and pianist Sanda Schuldmann. In these productions, the two play classical duets that augment the prose segments Clark writes.
For this debut collaboration with the TMA, Clark has substituted guitar for piano. Joining him is composer and guitarist Brad Richter, with video visual effects created by Daniel Foster.
“Brad (Richter) composed and plays all of his music,” Clark continues. “The compositions are more evocative of moods, rather than being historically accurate. I just asked Brad to get the feel of the script.
“The actual music isn’t so much cowboy music, as we think of that. There are also influences of Mexican and Native American culture in there, too.”
For this world premiere performance to explore Dixon’s life and work, Clark is also adding the projected video component prepared by Daniel Foster.
“The visuals will be about 25 percent of the show,” Clark says. “One of the visuals is a photo of a poem in Dixon’s own handwriting.”
Foster’s work has been praised by theater groups in both New York and Los Angeles, including the latter city’s opera company.
Pulling the full production together as director is Troy Hollar, a veteran stage director and producer from New York who is now dividing his time between homes in Tucson and Brooklyn.
Clark calls the TMA show one of the biggest to be mounted in years. Adding the performance, which will be staged outdoors on the museum’s Plaza of Pioneers, makes the evening a total multi-media event in the truest sense of the word.
Oddly enough, Dixon might have considered such carrying on as too much fuss. The West he loved was full of open space untouched by human hands. The only art was nature’s own creations.
Yet he knew that filling his canvases with big skies and rugged vistas would not stop the westward migration of easterners who had little interest in art. So now his paintings have become a powerful reminder to newcomers that this land will always be bigger than the people.
IF YOU GO
What: Chamber Music PLUS Southwest presents “Go Ask the Little Horned Toad” by Harry Clark
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Plaza of the Pioneers at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.
Price: $35 general admission, $15 for youths under age 15 and students with valid ID
Info: 400-5439, www.cmpsouthwest.org