Tucson artist Joan Davidson doesn’t need paint or marble to create a masterpiece.

Fruit stickers are her medium of choice.

Each piece is an intricate mosaic made of hundreds of meticulously placed stickers that have been peeled off all kinds of fruit. From more than a few feet away, each work looks like a colorful and vibrant collage with perfect symmetry and geometry. But a closer look reveals the true intricacies. Each sticker has been carefully chosen and placed. She includes hidden surprises and games in her art.

Her work is on display at the Tucson International Airport through Aug. 11.

One piece has a clown fish so that kids can find Nemo hidden among the hundreds of stickers. Another is a maze that challenges viewers to trace a looping sequence of blue stickers from start to finish without repeating the same sticker twice.

Stickers as a medium makes sense to Davidson, who is a dedicated recycler.

“I compost everything here,” she said standing in her northwest side backyard. “I have very little garbage.”

Davidson said fruit stickers are a source of waste that are hard to avoid. So one day she decided to reuse stickers and junk mail to make greeting cards.

“I started doing this for friends about 20 years ago,” she said. “Pretty soon I had stickers coming in from all around the world.”

Friends, family and strangers from around the world put the stickers from their fruit on a piece of wax paper and send them to her.

Each week, she sits at a table in her home studio and organizes the latest batch. She separates them by fruit, each in its own storage bin. If a sticker is new to her, it goes into a reference book — she’s been doing this since she started, and each fruit has its own reference book.

In her studio she has dozens of books from science to history. She stores her bins, each the size of a cabinet file drawer, underneath her workstation that faces the glass door to her back yard.

With such attention to organization, it’s no surprise that this 80-year-old Tucsonan started her career as a scientist. She earned her graduate degree in geochemistry from Columbia University and worked on the cutting edge of mass spectronomy.

Davidson has faced her share of adversity in her career. As a scientist in the ’60s it was hard for her to be taken seriously.

“I wrote letters to 14 oil companies,” she said. “Every one of them said ‘we don’t take women.’ ”

Davidson and a fellow scientist eventually did their own independent research and were able to develop a universal standard mineral that would help identify and date geological sites.

Her art might not break scientific ground, but it doesn’t stray far from science. Take her piece “Fruitoplankton,” which she said was inspired by her cousin’s research into phytoplankton. Or another piece, “Fruitopia,” inspired by the late scientist Carl Sagan that features stickers arranged in a galactic spiral with not one but two small blue stickers that she said was an ode to her ideas on the multiverse theory.

“I’m too literal as a scientist,” she is quick to note, but her artwork allows her to put a creative twist on her academic interests.

Her piece, “An Apple a Day,” which won the 2008 Recycle Santa Fe contest, resembles a mandala but is actually a 2008 calendar with an apple sticker representing each day of year. But, as with most of Davidson’s pieces, it takes a closer look to get the full picture.

Each piece can take a week or more to create, said Davidson, adding that the bulk of the time is spent collecting and organizing the right stickers for each piece. Most are made up entirely of stickers from a single kind of fruit.

There’s likely more than 10,000 stickers in total at her exhibit for the Tucson airport, she said.

Viki Matthews, community relations administrator for the airport, said artists usually apply online to be featured in the gallery. They are reviewed and voted on by a panel of administrators before they are put on display. Davidson was an exception.

“She’s old-school,” Matthews said. “She sent her application through the mail, and when I saw her work, I thought this is just too good to be true.”

Matthews said that visitors to the gallery have been amazed with her work.

“People will tell me, ‘I didn’t even realize what this was until I walked right up close,’ ” Matthews said.

Aside from her exhibit, Davidson shares her work at local retirement communities, educating people about making use of their trash in creative fashion.

Chandler Donald is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Star.