Arizona has been called lot of things—the Wild West, retirement haven, desert oasis, sweltering inferno—but “cultural hotbed” is not one of them. Oh, how wrong reputations can be. Even among the air-conditioned locals who frequent malls and big-box stores chains, the state’s rich artistic tradition seems hidden, if not forgotten. The truth is, Arizona’s rich cultural tradition reaches back thousands of years, beginning with the state’s original inhabitants, Native Americans. Some of the 20th century’s greatest artists produced work here, from Ansel Adams and Max Ernst to Frank Lloyd Wright, having been inspired by the dramatic Sonoran Desert landscape.
Arizona’s arts and crafts trace their origins back to the earliest Native American residents, who decorated rocks and everyday objects with graceful patterns and anthropomorphic images. Today, artisans continue the tradition, creating work that is firmly rooted in their tribal customs. That wasn’t always the case, though. Following the postwar tourism boom, some Native American artisans began producing work that sightseers wanted Indian art to look like, such as spearheads, teepees, and mass-produced baskets. Fortunately, many artists have abandoned this practice and are once again creating artwork in styles unique to their individual tribes. Some contemporary artists are even moving beyond traditional imagery, which they dismiss as kitsch, and are pushing the definitions of Native American art by imagining innovative, contemporary pieces.
Buyers shopping for authentic Native American arts and crafts should keep a few things in mind. First, when possible, buy directly from the designer. There are markets and festivals throughout the year that feature Native American artists, such as the Heard Museum ’s annual Indian Fair and Market. Also, ask about the materials and how pieces were made, and be sure to get a certificate of authenticity. Quintessential arts and crafts include hand-woven baskets, turquoise jewelry, pottery, Navajo rugs and sand paintings, and Hopi kachina dolls, which have become more elaborate in recent years due to their popularity.
Arizona, and Phoenix  in particular, suffered for years from a dearth of quality, geographically relevant architecture. Beginning with the Victorian buildings constructed in the original 1870s Phoenix townsite, architects have tried to impose misappropriated styles onto the Sonoran Desert. It took one of the greats, Frank Lloyd Wright, to break them of the habit—or at least introduce them to relevant ways of designing for the desert. Wright took his cues from the architecture of ancient Native Americans, building with materials from the desert and designing buildings around the sun’s orientation.
Phoenix grew big, quickly, and developers responded to demand by building large, faceless ranch houses in many of parts of the Valley. By the 1990s, though, architects—inspired by Wright and a group of midcentury Modernist designers like Al Beadle and Bennie Gonzales—pioneered a new style, Desert Modernism, which respected Phoenix’s harsh summer climate. These minimalist buildings blend indoor/outdoor spaces, use innovative materials, and embrace the desert’s hallmark light and space. The best-known example, the Will Bruder-designed Burton Barr Central Library , features a rectangular, rusted-steel facade that resembles a red-hued mesa. On the equinox, the sun shines directly through overhead skylights in the fifth-floor reading room, “lighting” its graceful, white columns.
Interior designers are also employing many of Wright’s design techniques, banishing the howling coyotes, flute-playing Kokopelli icons, and pastel colors that had come to define “Southwestern” design in the 1980s. Instead, many of Valley’s best designers are now employing a more subtle style that incorporates light as a central element. Large glass windows, natural stone and wood elements, and polished concrete floors that remain cool in the summer are turning posh restaurants and resorts into showplaces for chic desert style.
The myth of the West has proven to be a fertile source of literary inspiration. For generations, stories were often related orally, heightening their romance and intimacy. Native Americans would pass their histories and folklore from one generation to the next, while cowboys shared stories over campfires or whiskies. Novelist Zane Grey may not have been the first to put these tales to paper, but he was certainly one of the most prolific, having produced 60 books, from which 110 films were made. Many of them were set in Arizona, and later filmed in Sedona , like Call of the Canyon. Grey’s popular stories portrayed an idealized version of the Old West, with big heroes and bigger landscapes.
Author and environmental essayist Edward Abbey, the “Thoreau of the American West,” extolled the virtues of the Southwest and the occasionally radical means one might take to protect it in his works, The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire. These days, a new breed of Arizona writer is building on Grey’s frontier legacy, with equally adventurous stories, albeit not in very different settings; examples include adventure writer Clive Cussler and Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight vampire series.