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Beauty and the feast: These Tucson restaurants and bars promote local artists

Sadhna Kelly and John Kelly look over the menu under the work of local artist Donovan White at The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road. The Parish features artworks from local artists.

Some restaurant and bar owners around Tucson believe that the local flavor on the walls of their eateries is just as important as the flavors found in their signature dishes.

Across the city, brilliant, brightly colored paintings and other works created by Tucson artists are prompting people to think, gaze and smile while noshing on their chimichangas, shrimp and grits and pollo bolognaise.

Each restaurant has its own taste when choosing works.

Here are some local spots to get you started.

The Parish

6453 N. Oracle Road;

For the last 10 years, The Parish has been all about tasty Southern fusion cuisine and good vibes, whether you are hitting the North Oracle restaurant on Mardi Gras or on a typical Friday night for dinner.

Local art has always been part of that, according to co-owner and chef Travis Peters.

“It was a very conscious decision to include local art in the space,” Peters said. “If you know anything about me, nearly everything I do is to celebrate Tucson, to promote the city. My mom’s family has been here since 1875. Tucson is very much in our blood. It has been very good to me.”

The first art hanging at The Parish were pieces created by students at Arts for All, a nonprofit organization that offers programs to children with and without disabilities.

“A lot of these kids might not have access to the arts otherwise,” Peters said. “It was a big honor for us.”

Peters said while they have had curators for the art over the years, there has never been a set time frame when pieces go up or come down. These days, you can find a wall of funky, mustachioed men and other works by artist Donovan White, and several surrealist oil and mixed media pieces by David M. Ehlen.

“We know a lot of local artists,” Peters said. “We will reach out to people if we really love their stuff.”

Peters said while the paintings at The Parish are for sale, the works at his other restaurant, The Delta, 135 S. Sixth Ave., downtown, were commissioned specifically for that space.

Among the pieces you will find there: velvet paintings of the owners’ moms by Diane Bombshelter; a graffiti collage in the back hallway, courtesy of Monty Ses Esposito; an entire wall curated by Pop-Cycle on North Fourth Avenue; and a Warhol-esque, pop art series of gramophones by Thomas Gardner.

Paintings by Kyle Zuehlke hang inside Cafe Maggie, 745 N. Fourth Ave. The owner, Chander Vemulapalli, says he has informal agreements with artists. Artists can hang their art for free to help decorate the walls, and the cafe does not take a commission when a piece sells.

Cafe Maggie

745 N. Fourth Ave.;

Cafe Maggie owner Chander Vemulapalli is carrying on a tradition when he allows artists to hang their works in his place of business.

Vemulapalli has owned the cafe, formerly the long-lived Epic Café at the corner of North Fourth Avenue and East University Boulevard only for about a year, but “the art is something that goes back decades,” he said.

The cafe’s large ceilings allow for large works, abstract paintings by Kyle Zuehlke, surrealist pieces by J.M.G. Clark and a landscape on canvas by Leanne C. Miller.

Vemulapalli said he doesn’t accept any liability if works are damaged by customers.

“If I have someone fighting with their spouse and a painting gets in the middle of it, that is not my problem,” he said.

By the same token, he does not take any commission if a painting sells.

Vemulapalli said that there is no specific theme to the works that are hung at Cafe Maggie. He has veto power, but has yet to say “no” to anything.

The art brings more life to his cafe, he said, and offers a place where artists can promote their pieces.

Vemulapalli said Cafe Maggie recently started a monthly after-hours arts night in which it stays open after closing time and allows local artists who aren’t on the walls to showcase their works in a gallery format.

“The synergy of helping an artist get a little more exposure and helping the café get a little more exposure is a win-win as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Bartender Steve Rodriguez takes down stools in front of a wall lined with artwork by local artist Donovan White at Mr. Head’s Gallery and Bar, 513 N. Fourth Ave.

Mr. Head’s Gallery & Bar

513 N. Fourth Ave.;

While Cafe Maggie caters more to Fourth Avenue’s day crowd, offering quiche and cookies with a side of surrealism, Mr. Head’s Gallery and Bar a few blocks south is more for the craft beer and whiskey shot crowd.

But, like Cafe Maggie, Mr. Head’s is all about the local art.

The works at Mr. Head’s can be striking. Black and white cutout characters by Donovan White line the exposed-brick walls. A large mural portraying a skeleton with saguaros coming out of the skull by local graffiti artist Rock “CYFI” Martinez greets customers on the bar's back patio.

An exhibition of works from local artist Sean Terry, the artist who painted the giant cassette tape in the karaoke lounge at the recently relocated Bumsted’s at Wonderwall, recently ended but was popular.

Terry’s paintings range from an anthropomorphic white rabbit a la “Alice in Wonderland” with a Salvador Dali melting clock in his paw, to javelinas with long legs, like the robots in “War of the Worlds,” towering over Mission San Xavier del Bac.

“We were selling one of his pieces a week,” said bar manager Ben Sattler. “He does some really cool stuff. His style hits home with Tucsonans.”

A mural painted by Rock “CYFI” Martinez is featured along a wall at Mr. Head’s Gallery and Bar, 513 N. Fourth Ave.

Sattler said owner Micah Blatt, a glass artist, started the bar more than a decade ago in part to showcase his work and the work of his friends.

“It is 100% commission-free,” Sattler said. “We want to make it a good experience for everybody involved.”

Gusto Osteria

7153 E. Tanque Verde Road;

Over the years, Glenn “Gus” Gerson has made his Italian restaurant Gusto Osteria a place where east-side art aficionados are offered a feast for the eyes in addition to the feast on their tables.

Gerson started decorating his restaurant with works by Jos Villabrille, whose large-scale murals can be found in shopping centers and restaurants all over town.

“He would have big pieces that would give us nice cover,” Gerson said. “He is such an amazing artist.”

Gerson relies these days on about five different local creators, led by watercolor artists Tracy Lynn Ross and Susan Meyer, to make his dining room look like a bonafide gallery.

Come in for Gerson’s eggplant Parmesan and pork ricotta, both house specialties, and you’ll find paintings of dogs, birds, scenic views and Southwestern themes.

Pieces can be found on every wall. Works rotate seasonally.

“These are the best artists I have had here,” Gerson said, “If we sell one of their pieces, they are usually ready with another. They put everything together nicely.”

The only problem, Gerson says, is when a piece he loves goes to a customer. You can find several paintings that have hung in his restaurant now hanging in his home.

“My wife and I always say we are lucky to have these artists,” Gerson said. “They take good care of us.”

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