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Can fat guys be sexy? (Hell yeah)

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Men and body image will be just one of the topics discussed at the second annual Body Love Conference this weekend in Tucson, Arizona.  We asked Jesse Arenstein, self-professed “fat guy”, about his own journey to body confidence – and what happened when he found himself being a model for a day. By Jesse ArensteinPhotos by Rachel Miller and Liora K.

Photo by Rachel

Jesse Arenstein says fat guys are more culturally acceptable than fat women. But men get body shamed too, he argues. Photo by Rachel Miller

When body positive activist Jes Baker, a.k.a. The Militant Baker, asked me to participate in the second Lustworthy photo shoot – a shoot that was based on the premise that money/gold digging isn’t the only thing that can attract sexy women to fat guys – it stirred up a wealth of self-reflection.

I thought about my own tastes and ability to find beauty in, and sexual desire for,  women of all races, sizes, and cultural persuasions.  I felt like a part of a movement that emboldened and validated the part of me that loved both fat thighs and thigh gaps, that cherished, maybe even worshipped, the diversity of the female form.

I was flattered as fuck that this young woman – whom I watched grow from a snarky, savvy, sexy “bookworm” into an international cultural powerhouse changing the way the world perceives beauty –  thought of me first when she wanted to highlight a sexy fat guy in her latest Internet propaganda party. (Jes and photographer Liora K launched the Lustworthy photo series – a rip-off of perfume ads, but one that uses unconventional body pairings – in 2013.)


Jesse poses in the Lustworthy campaign. Photo by Liora K. Other model: Bella Romeo.

Jes, also the founder of this week’s Body Love Conference, has a charisma and a raw energy which I encourage all of you to encounter in person, and I was determined to honor our friendship by participating in this movement.

I had doubts that this idea I was to be the figurehead for in this particular shoot wasn’t anything special.  That fat guys get hot girls all the time.  That there really is a vicious double standard in the way that heavier women are perceived sexually as opposed to heavier guys.  I wrestled with all of the accepted cultural norms like being the “teddy bear”or the “funny fat guy”, the generations of comical fat guys in cartoons that wind up with skinny attractive wives – from Fred Flintstone to Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin. All this seemed to be working against me, in that the point we were making with the second Lustworthy was something the communal consciousness of the world already had accepted.

And, tellingly, these doubts seemed to be reflected pretty consistently in the comments left on Jes’s blog post after the photo shoot was published. Comments like this:



Photo by Liora K.

And when I got nervous about all of this and considered not doing the shoot, my wife Rebecca told me to suck it up, that this is important on a large cultural level, that I was sexy, and that participating would make a difference.  (She was also kind enough to give me the same pep talk when I whined about writing this article).  After the shoot, when one of Rebecca’s male co-workers came up to her and expressed that self-esteem issues based on weight were something he had struggled with for years, and that seeing me in The Huffington Post’s coverage of the shoot made him feel better about himself and his ability to attract women, we both knew she was right. She normally is.

Really though, when considering doing the Lustworthy shoot, I wound up facing my own personal binary relationship with self-esteem.  The heights of testosterone-fueled confidence and the lows of bullying-fueled self-hatred.  The incomparable effect that the confidence part can have on the outside world’s perception of me, and the fact that the source of that confidence also involved not caring about what that perception was.

I thought about the seemingly endless years of being made fun of for being fat throughout school.  And I thought about how beautiful that little kid was and how destructive to his ability to perceive his own beauty all of those taunts and insults were.  The main premise for this article and why I was asked to write it comes from this same source: conveying the idea to the followers, and those who oppose the body love movement,  that guys have body issues too.  No matter how subconsciously culturally acceptable the fat guy, and even the fat guy dating a conventionally hot woman is, the reality of it is this: men get body shamed too, and it hurts across gender lines just as bad.


I remember watching Revenge of the Nerds at a 6th grade birthday party in Breezy Point, NY and it occurring  to me that the war of jocks veresus nerds had been raging for a long time. I felt like the casualty of a conflict near its end but still lingering on enough to keep people wounded and damaged.  Later that year I wrote my first poem, went to my first middle school dance, played my first Dungeons and Dragons game, and my parents and I moved to Tucson.

At maybe the third or fourth middle school dance I had attended, I’d find myself finally fed up.  There had been years of bullying, name calling, belittling – constant reminders that I was not good enough, not skinny enough, to deserve the attention of girls, pretty or otherwise.  I was standing in the gym of my middle school, experiencing a puberty-fueled internal nuclear event.  Something just snapped inside.  I can’t remember if it was a particular insult, watching someone else get shamed, or if it was just all of the pretty girls and the Sinead O’Connor ballads.  But I was no longer capable of giving a fuck about what all these petty assholes thought of me or said to me.  I had been beaten up, publicly shamed, endlessly belittled both by classmates and family members about my size, but now the fat shaming was getting in the way of the one thing I could not, would not, be separated from: Girls.

Photo by Rachel Miller

For Jesse, fat shaming was getting in the way of one thing: girls. Photo by Rachel Miller

That moment wound up being pretty critical for me, and not just because I got to dance with a lot of pretty girls that night.  It had always occurred to me that the shaming and the insults people had thrown at me were their own problem, not mine, but I never had the ability to keep that from impacting my opinion of myself.  Now it occurs to me that the 12-year-old kid that I was in the pre-Internet era had the realization at that moment that the self that I would continue to be depended on me following a rule many bloggers, and especially Jes and Liora, follow rigidly. I honestly was not giving a fuck about “the comments”.

* Jes Baker will be a keynote speaker at The Body Love Conference, which takes place Saturday June 6th in Tucson. Tickets and more info here.

* Speakers on men and body issues at this year’s Body Love Conference include Steven Yanez Romo of Romo Tonight Live and Noel Trapp, owner of Noel’s Restoratives. You can read more about Noel in this 3 Story feature.


Vintage shopping: the experts spill

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You love vintage, and your wardrobe and living room are crying out for it. But how do you get started? We asked three experts for their tips on vintage shopping in Tucson. By Joan Calcagno. Cover photo courtesy of Francine Vacca Smith/Hot Cool Vintage

The three vintage mavens we spoke to have lots in common: they are hunter-gatherers; they love the thrill of the find; they shop at many types of places – thrift stores, second-hand stores, vintage specialty shops, Craigslist, rummage and yard sales. And they all consciously developed their eye for vintage.


The fashion stylist

syd leopard

Syd Ballesteros in a 1960’s satin jumpsuit from Desert Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Sydney Ballesteros is a vintage stylist, creative director, buyer, and consultant extraordinaire. This Tucson Modernism Week, you’ll see her styling an exhibit of 1950’s and ’60’s fashions at the opening reception at Chase Bank.

Syd has had “an appreciation for old things” since she was a girl; her stylish grandma and mother took her to yard sales foraging for clothes and other treasures. When she started shopping for herself in high school, she went for the cuts and styles that appealed to her from many eras. That was the start of building a wardrobe, jewelry and handbags included, which is now 90% vintage.

Mix it up. Wearing or displaying all vintage can be a bit much. Syd blends in contemporary, buying various “filler” pieces, like jeans or a good black turtleneck. And since it’s hard to find vintage shoes that fit, she likes to use modern shoes to add that “mix it up” element. She also mixes “high”  – expensive, designer, mint condition (finding a piece like that is “a really good day,” she says) – with “low” – inexpensive things she likes.

Syd in a brocade suit from Black Cat Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Syd in a brocade suit from Black Cat Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Invest in staple pieces. Buy a good vintage dress, possibly a little black dress (expect to pay $50 to $75) and a coat in good condition ($50 to $200, unless you come across a killer deal at a thrift store for $15), some jewelry and a handbag.

Go for what you love. Look through vintage magazines, read books, watch old movies and see what you like. “Everyone’s eye favors a certain aesthetic. Vintage just gives you the opportunity to be original with styling it. Wear what you love. Wear it with confidence. Express your individuality!”

Where she shops in Tucson: : Buffalo Exchange, How Sweet It Was, Desert Vintage, Razzle Dazzle, Black Cat Vintage, OZMA Atelier.

For more on Syd, read our feature, Golden Girl of the West. 

The blogger


Francine displays some of her spoils. Photo by Joan Calcagno

Francine Vacca Smith writes the blog Hot Cool Vintage in tandem with running her Etsy shop, which focuses on home accessories – “smalls”, as they are called in the biz. She grew up in a family of antique jewelry sellers and in a home with stylish pieces that sparked her aesthetic senses. Over time, her taste moved to Scandinavian/Danish-modern, partly because she grew up with it.

She is particularly fond of Catherineholm enamelware – those lovely pieces with the leaf-like design you see in the photo. Moving from New York to Tucson three years ago with “virtually nothing” and a spacious home to furnish, she looked to the second-hand market. Then it occurred to her, “Hey, I could be selling this stuff”, and her Etsy shop was born.


One of Francine’s finds: a like-new vintage snack set and Blenko bottle. Photo courtesy of Francine Vacca Smith/Hot Cool Vintage

Research it. See a particular piece you like? Root around on the web so you get to know designers’ styles and price ranges. If your research says an item might be worth its price,  but it’s outside your budget and you love it, you might ask if there is “any room” on the price. Sometimes a seller can do better and sometimes not. Sometimes a knock-off can be touted, and priced, as the real thing. So if you’re not sure, do research on the spot. Look for the telltale details, and use your smartphone to help.

Mix it up. Like Syd, Francine likes to add modern to her vintage collection. Her dining room chairs, for example, are from Target.

francine glassware

Some of Francine’s Scandinavian glassware. Photo by Joan Calcagno

It’s OK to make mistakes. Francine loves mid-mod Scandinavian glass, but it can be hard to find authentic pieces because they aren’t marked. Over time, she developed an eye for the subtle differences. For example, maybe you can see that the tall piece on the left in the photo is a bit thicker on the rim. It’s just less refined throughout, even though it is the same pattern. So it’s possibly not an Oiva Toikka Flora piece like the one on the right. If you are decorating for yourself, it doesn’t really matter, unless you are set on having designer pieces, says Francine. What does matter is that you don’t want to pay designer prices for a knock-off. Although “it happens. You just have to get out there, have fun and make mistakes, that’s how you learn”.

Where she shops in Tucson: She’s not telling! This lady is in business, after all, and doesn’t want to reveal her sources. But she did tell us she likes the Tanque Verde Antique Fair, at 11100 E. Tanque Verde Road, first Sunday of every month.

The B&B owner


Charlotte in the ‘Atomic Room’. Photo by Joan Calcagno

Charlotte Lowe-Bailey is the proprietor of Bailey House, an artist B&B/retreat near the Tucson Mountains. A year ago, when she moved from Patagonia back to a family home, planning to open the B&B, she was faced with furnishing five guest bedrooms, as well as common and outdoor spaces. The house was built in 1966 and has good mid-century bones: floor-to-ceiling windows, angular styling, floor tiling indicative of the era. So Charlotte chose mid-century décor as the focus. While she enjoys houses where people have absolutely everything of an era, she used a more pragmatic, practical approach – starting with some pieces she had and some which reflect the sentimentality of blending in family heirlooms.

Look for bargains, but don’t haggle Charlotte, like our other experts, usually doesn’t haggle if the price is reasonable. She will make an offer if things are overpriced or have been on display a long time. She also tracks various thrift stores that have percent-off days, like The Girls Estate Sale Shop. “They mark things down on an announced schedule, so you know what the opportunities and risks are,” she says.

Be on constant lookout. Hitting the thrifts and vintage shops is usually part of any travel itinerary for these gals. Charlotte checks bulletin boards whenever she’s in small towns, looking for rummage and estate sales. At home, she – like the others – integrates vintage shopping into her week by stopping at a thrift or secondhand store when running other errands.


The “Atomic Room” at Bailey House. Photo by Joan Calcagno

How she puts a room together. Charlotte’s “Atomic Room” (pictured) started with the blond console piece given to her by a family member. Then she found the atomic-patterned convertible chaise/bed on Then she started doing what she usually does – filling in. An authentic swag lamp (from Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables. $95); the marble coffee table (from The Girls Estate Sale shop. $85); the Flokati rug (she loves these wool shag rugs because they are iconic to the 60s, easy to clean and easy to find. This one’s from Craigslist, $75); two black side tables (one from a rummage sale, the other from St Vincent de Paul thrift, about $5 each. “They weren’t great, but I sprayed them black and they work”); a TV (from HabiStore, $3); rummage sale side chairs, and smaller accessories, like the ashtray (Goodwill, $5); and, of course, wall art – an Albert Kogel poster, an abstract painting, and vintage album covers she displays in cases from Target.

Where she shops in Tucson: Charlotte seems to have good luck at what she calls “junk shops” – places that have a lot of inventory scattered outside, like Gersons Used Building Materials or the back yard at St. Vincent DePaul thrift, 820 S. 6th Avenue. Some of her favorite places are thrifts where wealthy, stylish clientele provide the donations, like Assistance League Thrift Shop. “They have killer sales”. Other places include: The Girls Estate Sale Shop; HabiStore; Goodwill;  Savers; Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables, 5454 E. Pima Street. When she is reupholstering: SAS Fabrics and Baca Upholstery, 2100 South 4th Avenue.

And lastly…

* Let the experts’ advice inspire you. Watch some old movies. Check out some vintage magazines. Get out there. Before you know it, your foraging instincts will kick in and your reward center will light up when  you find something that is a good fit at a good price. And you’ll know: you are hooked.

* Speaking of movies… We see that Grace of Monaco, with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, is coming out around Christmas. Judging from the promo pics, it should be full of 1960s eye-candy.

francine egg cups

Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage/Francine Vacca Smith

* Vintage and mid-mod shopping in Tucson is easy when you know where to go. There are mid-mod booths at the  22nd Street Antique Mall and Copper Country Antiques (and don’t miss Fred’s Recycle Bin in the back). You can find mid-mod things at second hand stores like Betty Blue’s Junk Shop (Betty’s a bulldog. Say hi to her!), Kismet and Diamond Lil’s Vintage & Gifts, 2201 E. River Road, and in Trail Dust Town, 6541 E. Tanque Verde Road.

* And there are lots of thrifts where you might find a vintage bargain.  Try Miracle Center Thrift Store (great for glassware), 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, Humane Society of Southern Arizona Thrift and Speedway Outlet Thrift, 5421 E. Speedway.

* Retro Renovation and eBay. While our experts were not using eBay much, we note that Pam Kueber, the woman behind the Retro Renovation website, peruses eBay every day and creates curated lists of the mid-century vintage items she finds.

The Mid Century Marketplace and Expo at Tucson Modernism Week is a must. Visit it at the Murphy Building,  2959 East Broadway, Sunday October 6th from 8.30am to 4pm.

* There are always vintage delights to be had at Shop Your Girlfriend’s Closet. This Voices for Education benefit takes place October 25th, 26th and 27th, 3822 N. Oracle Road. We’re told Linda Ronstadt has donated a couple of purses, so make sure you get first dibs.  More here.

Me, My Clothes and I

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Style. It’s all around us – and especially on the streets. Adiba Nelson – fashionista, blogger, and self-confessed Nosey Nelly – goes in search for it. Photos by Adiba Nelson.


Adiba Nelson. Photo by Michelle Rooney Photography.

There is something magical about a person who is unabashedly comfortable in their own skin. When that person is a 6-year-old-girl, spinning and twirling like the world is hers, well, MIND. BLOWN. That is exactly what I happened upon as I scoured Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art last month, looking for my next style savior. There she was spinning and twirling and beng hoisted through the air, wearing a zebra print tutu skirt, pink leggings, a black tank top and princess heels. When I approached her to compliment her fashion choice, her boisterous ‘THANK YOU!’ hooked me, and I knew in that instant that I had found THE ONE.

Tucson, your sweet whirling dervish of the month is Miss Ellis Eshelman, Mermaid Princess daughter of Hilary and Andrew Eshelman. She is a sprite and a force du jour. That is the only way to describe her. Equal parts sass, sweet, and self-assuredness wrapped up in rainbow fairy wings, princess dresses, and red cowboy boots. I dictated the interview, she dictated the photo shoot, changing outfits approximately six times, as any young stylista would. I have no doubt that Ellis is going to take the world by storm, but for now, let her rock yours.




Describe your look. I don’t know how I would describe it! I just felt like wearing a dress that night. I was excited to see my Uncle Jim and so I wanted to wear it for him. He likes dresses.

Where do you shop? My mom does most of my shopping at Savers and Target, but it costs more at Target. But it IS my favorite place to shop – they have the coolest toys! I also shop in Omni’s closet. She’s my grandma – and she’s thrifty!

Fave piece of clothing – ever? My Elsa dress, and my mermaid skirt that I swim in. I love my mermaid skirt because I look like a real mermaid when I wear it! You could get a mermaid swimming skirt, but it would take a while to get to you. Mine took forever!

If you could dress anyone, who would it be? You! And Mommy and Daddy and THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD! I could go all around dressing everyone! I don’t know what I would have you all wear, but I would do it!

Ellis - Red Boots 2 What is your staple/go-to item of clothing? My red cowboy boots. They didn’t fit me for a really long time, but they finally do! And I love them!

Who is your style icon? YOU! (Me?) YES! FROM WHEN I SAW YOU AT THE PARTY!! (At this point I all but fell out and crowned Miss Ellis the Interview Queen.)


Can I have your mermaid fin? NO!! It’s too small, you’ll break it! But if it fit you, I’d let you borrow it. If you wanted to keep it, I’d have to keep one of your things. (Miss Ellis got a serious side-eye with this one.)

If the house is on fire, and you HAVE to get out – what do you save? Hooper! My cat!



* Read more from Adiba Nelson at her blog, The Full Nelson. You can also read her at The Huffington Post.

Love Ellis’ bold and girly style? Try these looks.

1. Custo Barcelona silk embroidered dress, $34 from OZMA Atelier

2. Rose leggings, $10.80 from Forever 21

3. Eliza J faux fur stole, $98 from Nordstrom

A life less processed

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What would it be like to eat only unprocessed food for a year? That’s just what Tucson author Megan Kimble wondered. So that’s what she did. And then wrote about it in her book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.  By Joan Calcagno. 

Step 3 grinding to flour

Author Megan Kimble turned her year of living less processed into a book. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble.

Early bird or night owl? “I‘m an early bird. Definitely these days with my puppy – she gets up at seven so we get up at seven. When I was in grad school I’d stay up later and write. But these days, I’m definitely an early bird. I like to get up, have breakfast right away and then get going.”

Favorite accessory? “Probably my water bottle. I drink an obscene amount of water. I go through lots of water bottles. I also tend to forget water bottle places, so I kind of acquire them. Whenever I go home – my parents live in Los Angeles – I steal one from them. And my sister gave me a really cool one – glass with a rubber coating around it. Durable is key for me. I’ve had a few water bottle floods in my purse so they have to have good ‘cap integrity’.”


Meagan Kimble (left). Photo by Steven Meckler. Right: her new book.

Favorite faux pas? “I have this backdrop of the same people I see – that’s one of my favorite things about Tucson. I love that faux pas of ‘meeting’ people and you don’t know if you’ve met them – that dance of when you officially meet someone. I’ll see people through Edible [Baja Arizona] and we’re in our professional context and then I’ll see them out in a social context and it’s funny to be like ‘I know you’re familiar’. And [in Edible] we publish these beautiful photographs of people in Tucson and they’re up on the wall for two months while we’re producing the issue, and they become part of my life, but I‘ve never met them. So I’ll see them out in Tucson and it will be ‘I feel like I know you, but I don’t know if I actually know you.’”

Who is your dream reader? “Someone who wants and likes to read. Someone who is similar to me – curious and wants to learn about the world, how things work and why they work the way they do, what makes people excited, inspired and engaged – because that is why I write. I feel that I have been successful as a writer if someone reads something I’ve written and they see the world in a different way and maybe they make a different choice. It can be super small. Maybe they make a different choice for their dinner, they cook something instead of buying a meal from McDonald’s. Those little daily decisions, if I can change someone’s mind and impact them, then that’s a success.”

wheat berries

Wheat berries ready to be ground into flour. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

If I weren’t the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and an author, I would… “I might be just travelling. I think I’d like to be doing something outside because so much of writing is inside. I’d love the opportunity to just go explore. But being a writer is so much a part of my identity – like being female. I cannot remember wanting to do anything different.”

If I could change one thing I would… “I would change our political process. I wish that it was more accountable and transparent and direct. There are so many opportunities to do good work and I don’t really understand why it’s so hard. And that’s partly why I write about what I write about – which is what we can do in our individual lives on a day-to-day level – because it bums me out to such a degree that the larger, broader conversation seems to be so stagnant.”

wheat berries in grinder

Wheat berries go into the grinder. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

ground flour

Wheat berries turn into ground flour. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

ground flour

The wheat berry flour is turned into dough. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

What or who sparked the idea to live for a year “unprocessed”? “I came across a blog about unprocessed eating. This was almost four years ago, before processed food was being talked about very much. And that word ‘unprocessed’ really stuck with me as a conceptual framework for understanding the food that I was eating and buying.  So I tried to eat only unprocessed food for two weeks and it was so hard, and it brought up so many issues. But it was such an interesting experience that I decided I wanted to investigate it further, thinking ‘What makes food “processed”?’   I was in the MFA program at the University of Arizona. I got my MFA in creative writing, non-fiction, and already writing about food. The idea of [eating unprocessed] for a year was ‘Oh, I could write about my experience.’ I didn’t know what form it would take, but I started out intending to write about it. So much of my learning process was interviewing people about things – like how do you grow mill wheat and how do you make cheese. I didn’t know and I wanted to go out in the world and find that out.”

arugula garden

Megan says she would do her ‘unprocessed’ year all over again. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

 As you got to the end of your year of eating unprocessed, what where you looking forward to eating on day 366? “There were definitely specific foods that I craved. Cheddar Chex Mix – inexplicably. I don’t know why! It just became this thing that stuck in my brain for a year. That and Diet Coke. I just wanted them. And I remember clearly, that first day, day 366, I went and had them and thought ‘Well, these are gross.’ My taste buds had totally changed. Diet Coke just tasted like chemicals to me and the Chex Mix didn’t even taste like cheese.”

What were your biggest challenges? “I lived alone and was single, and I decided to do this thing in my own kitchen. [Making things] was hard initially. But I figured things out. I made my own chocolate. That was like week one. I said ‘I’ve got to figure out how to unprocess chocolate or I’m not going to make it though a year!’ It took me a few tries to get the cocoa powder and cocoa butter to combine.

“The hardest part was just being able to eat out in the world – which is full of processed food. I really missed the social aspect of food – of being somewhere and eating something because that is what everyone else is doing, taking part in that spontaneous ‘Hey, let’s go get some pizza’ or having a Sonoran hotdog as we’re walking up Fourth Avenue. All my friends are meeting for pizza and ‘I’ll just come and hang out and I won’t eat anything’. So, definitely the social side. I was lucky to have a really great group of friends who just kind of rolled with it, but it was still challenging.”

CSA haul

Part of Megan’s CSA haul. Photo courtesy of Megan Kimble

Would you (could you) do it all again? “I could absolutely do it again. I still eat about ninety percent unprocessed. Ten percent is that social eating, mostly going out to eat. What I would want to do is take it a step further. Now that I’ve thought a lot about the food I’m eating, what about all the stuff I’m consuming, all the stuff that we buy?  That consumer spending side is something I think a lot about – getting people to put their money where their mouth is, saying they support local food, then you have to go buy it! That was a huge revelation of what I learned through my year: the money we spend on food matters. It shapes the food system.”

 *Find out more about Megan and her year eating unprocessed on her website.  You can purchase Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food here and in local bookstores.

* Read an excerpt from Megan’s book here.

Salon times two

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A new space in downtown Tucson is pushing the boundaries when it comes to design and function. It does double duty – as a salon in both senses of the word. By Gillian Drummond.

Photo by

Salon Salon is in the historic train depot in downtown Tucson in the space formerly occupied by Obsidian Gallery.  Photo by Erin McDaniel

The restaurants, bars, coffee shops and clubs are in place in the ever-burgeoning downtown Tucson. Now it’s time to add the next layer of business. So says Jessica Baylon, owner of the new Salon Salon on Toole Avenue.

“It seems like we’re doing a lot with entertainment but people need grocery stores and places to get their hair done,” she says. Salon Salon, which occupies the former Obsidian Gallery space in the historic train depot, lives up to its name: a hair and beauty salon that does double duty as an 18th century-style salon – that is, a gathering and meeting space for thinkers and artists.

Photo by Colleen Loomis

Jessica Baylon enjoying her new salon space. Photo by Colleen Loomis

“For me it was an amalgamation of all the things I love. I love learning and networking with people, introducing people to one another. And I love hairdressing,” says Jessica.

Already the space has hosted yoga classes and a talk by academic Meredith Hay on women, sex and estrogen. On June 3rd there will be an art lecture by husband and wife Fleurette and Marc Wallach.  Currently the events are free, although in the future there may be a cover charge. Jessica also plans to offer hairdressing education units here – classes for local hair stylists who can’t afford to travel to bigger cities for their training.

Photo by Erin McDaniel

Inside Salon Salon, where many of the fixtures were custom-made. Photo by Erin McDaniel

This is the eighth hair salon Jessica has opened in Tucson and the first she has owned outright. Formerly with Toni & Guy and latterly managing director and investor with Fringe Hair Studios, she was tipped off about the Historic Depot space by a client. Enter Kathy Hancox and Michael Kothke, the husband and wife architect team behind HK Associates. The couple had worked with Jessica on several salons in the past. But this was different.

As soon as they walked in, they felt the quiet of the building – despite the obvious noise of passing trains. It was historic and museum-like, says Michael. “It was just a calming and serene and well proportioned space.” Which was something he wanted to perpetuate. “Men are a little intimidated” by salons, he says. “There’s a lot of activity, there’s humming. I want to get in and get out. This is so calming, it doesn’t have that frenzy.”

Photo by Gillian Drummond

As well as commissioning furniture pieces, the architects designed 6-feet mirrors for the salon. Photo by Gillian Drummond

“Jessica didn’t want it to feel like a hair salon,” says Kathy. “We wanted to give her the function of a hair salon and yet have it be a cool place to hang out in.” Kathy and Michael’s aim was to use the fixtures and furniture as if they themselves were exhibits. “It became clear that the salon aspects needed to function more like art and objects,” says Michael.

Kathy and Michael took inspiration from American artist and architect Donald Judd, famous not only for his geometric and modular sculptures but for his theories on art exhibition. His studios and living quarters in Marfa, Texas are open to the public and demonstrate his support of permanent art exhibitions.

It helped that the building’s former occupant had been Obsidian Gallery, which closed last summer. It also helped that the 1907 building had been lovingly restored a little more than a decade ago by Tucson architecture firm Poster Frost Mirto.

Concrete floors were re-grouted, walls were re-painted and the exposed ceiling was painted black. But the basics of what they needed to set up their hair-salon-with-a-difference were there. Jessica and staff use the rooms that functioned as the Obsidian (and before that an office) to their advantage; rather than having one open space as is often found in a hair salon, there is a separate room for cutting and styling, another  for washing and another that functions as a nail and makeup room. The further back in the building you go the quieter it gets, says Jessica. And that’s deliberate. “I wanted it to be quieter, more restful, calming. A lot of the spaces I’ve had in the past they have been these big open spaces. I like the idea of having intimacy and one-on-one.”

Photo by Erin McDaniel

The owner and architects wanted to maintain the building’s calm, museum-like feel. Photo by Erin McDaniel

Photo by Erin McDaniel

Washing takes place in a separate room. Photo by Erin McDaniel

She adds: “Our lives are so busy. But services like [hairdressing] are not being taken over by our iPads yet. I want to create an atmosphere where people have a chance to take a moment and be where they’re at.”

That said, Salon Salon also caters to the customer whose moments of quiet are deliberately few. For those who like to stay in work mode or online, the main entry space features a high-top table/work station on wheels, which means it can be moved for an event. There is wi-fi and retractable cables with outlets that hang from the ceiling.

The work station. Photo by Colleen Loomis

The work station on wheels. Photo by Colleen Loomis

Also in the main space, Tucson jeweler Sofie Albertsen Gelb has her jewelry displayed in cases. Jessica says she plans to introduce more retail and feature additional local artists.

Jessica eschewed pre-fabricated furniture and fixtures that might be seen the world over. “I hate the idea for hairdressers that there’s one formula you can choose from,” she says. Instead, HK Associates turned to long-time collaborator and Tucson furniture maker Ben Schmitt, owner of Davinci Designs and one half of the new furniture and art gallery Wood and Pulp. Ben made most of the fixtures out of hardwood core plywood sourced in Mexico (it is sturdier, more damage-resistant and good for stronger structures). Among them is a floor-to-ceiling pair of plywood panels that holds hundreds of air plants. The ‘living wall’ was done in collaboration with Tucson florist Colleen LaFleur (also in the Historic Depot but about to move to a bigger space.)

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Sofie Albertsen Gelb’s jewelry is on display. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Air wall. Photo by Colleen Loomis

A wall of air plants provided by Atelier deLaFleur. Photo by Colleen Loomis

There’s a third “level of occupancy” to Salon Salon, says Michael. Thanks to the communal work station and hanging electrical outlets, customers can bring their own lunch (the salon is a few steps from Maynards Market), charge their phones or just hang out. “I think that’s where Jes has great instincts about providing this other community space downtown that’s not just retail and not just a salon.”

* Find Salon Salon at 410 N. Toole Avenue, Tucson or visit its website.

* Look out for our feature on Ben Schmitt’s new venture Wood & Pulp coming soon in 3 Story.

Why millennials are driving retailers nuts

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Generation Y-ers are famously flighty and difficult to please. And that means they’re behind some of the most exciting retail innovations yet. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Rebecca Minkoff.

NY Store Opening_AnnaSophia Robb

When retailers gathered for the Global Retailing Conference in Tucson last week, there were no “turn off your cell phone” pleas. That’s because cells and mobile technology were at the heart of just about every presentation.

Stalwarts like Macy’s and Starbucks were joined by newer stores like to discuss the future of retailing. But for most of them the issue was more specific: millennials and what (or should we say wtf) to do with them.

Grabbing hold of Gen Y-ers’ attention, loyalty and spending power – all $200bn a year of it – is like trying to hold onto a slippery fish. They’re “scrappy”, “savvy” and “unconventional”, says’s Clay Cowan. They’re glued to their smart phones but not to their possessions (the latter they’re happy to share or give away). They loathe, and reject, traditional forms of advertising. They also don’t like personal interaction too much. Many of them have gigs in addition to their regular jobs, like D.J.-ing or blogging or designing. They love to shop (and they dictate the country’s fashion and food trends) but not to spend too much money. In other words, they’re hard work.

“They’re very hard to succeed with,” admits Clay, Chief Marketing Officer at and one of the speakers at the conference. “They research, research, research, research and then they buy. They’re very very savvy and they’re hard to make money on because they’re doing that.” And these words from a site that prides itself on constantly changing, offering online flash sales of luxury goods and brands.

Because of the millennial generation’s new ways of buying, retailers are having to create a whole new shopping environment, and technology that’s just as smart (well, almost) as the flighty young customers using it. When we were invited to sit in on the conference, put on every year by the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, we couldn’t resist. Here, speakers literally talk shop – pulling apart buying habits, sharing their experiments and plans, and poring over solutions. So what are they cooking up in order to hold onto the next generation of shoppers? You’d be surprised.

1. It’s a storefront, Jim, but not as we know it


The Kate Spade Saturday digital storefront was a 24-hour pop-up in New York. Photo courtesy of Kate Spade.

Companies are experimenting with digital storefronts, either where they are about to open a store and the space is still vacant, or as pop-up shop experiences. A retail experiment two summers ago in Manhattan saw 24-hour pop-up shops from Kate Spade Saturday, which also had brick-and-mortar stores. The pop-ups lasted for one month and allowed customers to tap on a life-sized computer screen, place an order, and get delivery to their door within an hour. (Kate Spade has since closed its Kate Spade Saturday stores and brand.)

Toms shoe brand, Sony and fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff (see below) have also experimented with digital storefronts and touch-screen technology, all in collaboration with eBay.

2. Welcome to the ‘digical’ world

“Stores are the new black,” quipped Terry Lundgren, chairman, CEO and President of Macy’s and a graduate of the University of Arizona as he opened the conference. Much as millennials love digital shopping, they also enjoy the physical retail experience, he said. Which is why one of retail’s hot new marketing terms is ‘digical’, a mash-up of the words digital and physical.

Digical is a world in which shoppers browse online first, then go to the store,  smartphone in hand, to buy. Macy’s is experimenting with a mobile phone app that will allow shoppers to take a photo of something they like – from a passer-by even – and then try and match the image with a similar product in its online catalog. Having her Macy’s app open in the store will also mean the shopper can be tracked around the store and sent relevant content as she shops.


The Macy’s Go experiment. Photo courtesy of Hointer.

“Stores haven’t changed in 100 years but customers are changing rapidly and they have devices in their pocket that are extremely powerful,” says Healey Cypher, a retail technologist, former head of retail innovation at eBay and the guy at the helm of eBay’s collaborations with Kate Spade and Rebecca Minkoff. He adds: “Technology should not be dehumanizing the [retail] experience, it should be re-humanizing it.”

Tellingly, – a company that has built itself exclusively online –  is going the other way and bringing humans into the mix. An experiment called The Vault, which gives customers a personal shopping experience at a location in Brooklyn, New York, is set to be tested some more, says Clay Cowan.

3. Changing changing rooms

NY Store Opening_Katrina Bowden

Rebecca Minkoff’s Connected store in New York use touch-screen and mobile technology. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Minkoff.

When fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff and eBay teamed up last year to open two new stores in New York and San Francisco, they changed the face of the changing room experience. Customers check into the store via a touch-screen glass wall that resembles a computer screen, where they can browse products. A text message tells them when a fitting room is ready. In the changing room, intelligent bar codes on the clothes she has chosen are magically ‘read’ by a touch screen mirror, and she can use the screen to request different sizes or additional items and browse the online catalog.

Macy’s is testing an app called Macy’s Go that lets customers check whether sizes are in stock then sends the product to them via a chute in the fitting room. If they need another size, they tap a screen to request it. Hointer, the Seattle-based company that developed the technology for Macy’s Go, goes a step further with its store and even eliminates the need for staff (see below).

4. Help me/don’t help me

sephoracontour class

Sephora’s custom face contouring app.

When beauty chain Sephora started up its Beauty Studio to shoppers, including makeover and beauty classes, they were a hit. Then when it tried a nail studio, it failed. “She didn’t want to be told what to put on her nails,” says Calvin McDonald, President & CEO of Sephora, of the fickle millennial consumer.

Lately the chain tried to help customers digitally, with the mobile-only Pocket Contour Class. This personalized tutorial gives contouring tips individualized to a person’s face shape. Also in the works at Sephora is a Nail Studio. Will it or won’t it fly? With our Gen Y shoppers, all bets are off. Perhaps that’s why Calvin says there’s a “never-stop culture” and “Fight Club” mentality at Sephora. “We never stop innovating. We’re constantly balancing between what are we evolving and what are we going to revolutionize?”

5. Look, no clothes (and no people)


Inside the Hointer store in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Hointer.

Hointer, which developed Macy’s Go, has its own brick-and-mortar clothing store in Seattle that’s stripped back to barely any items at all. Customers use Hointer’s app, scan a single display item, the clothes appear via chutes in the fitting room, customers swipe their card on a tablet to pay, and walk out.


Products arrive via a chute in a fitting room in Hointer’s store in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Hointer.

“After years of building Amazon’s experience and after three years of working in my own brick-and-mortar stores, I’m convinced it’s the way of the future,” says Nadia Shouraboura, Hointer founder and CEO. “When customers know exactly what they want to buy, it’s hard to beat the online experience of ‘click and you are done’. But when  it comes to products you want to touch and try on, a re-invented in-store experience will make online shopping feel hollow and pathetic in comparison.”

She says she is “experimenting” with her single brick-and-mortar store, and in the meantime she’s licensing her technology to other retailers.

* To find out more about the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing and the Global Retailing Conference, visit


AZ film fest must-sees

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The 24th annual Arizona International Film Festival runs April 9 to 26 and this year’s lineup includes 33 features and 76 shorts from 20 different countries. We’ve picked out a few gems that should not be missed. By Herb Stratford


1. Many Bones, One Heart

Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

Many Bones, One Heart takes a look behind the All Souls Procession. Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

Tucson’s signature cultural event is the subject of an excellent documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes to see how the annual All Souls Procession is created.

Who’s behind it: Director and UA alum Leslie Ann Epperson, who spent several years documenting both the procession and the year-long lead up to the big event, created the film. Supported in part by a crowd funding campaign, the film is a compelling watch.

Why you should see it: Even if you’ve been to the All Souls Procession in the past, this in-depth look is unique and will make it even more special when you experience it yourself.

Did you know: The entire procession is funded by donations. The organizing group, Many Mouths One Stomach, is a non-profit with no employees. It is all volunteer run, and it costs approximately $100,000 every year to stage the procession.

2. Wildlike

Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

Wildlike stars newcomer Ella Purnell (right). Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

A young girl wrestles with tragedy and family trust issues in this film that delivers nuanced and profound performances from its leads, as they negotiate a budding friendship.

Who’s behind it: Director Frank Hall Green manages to capture a star-making performance from newcomer Ella Purnell and veteran actor Bruce Greenwood.

Why you should see it:  Set in the gorgeous Denali National Park in Alaska, it’s the perfect escape from the climbing temperatures outside, and portrays a touching believable relationship that has not been seen on screen in ages.

Did you know: Bruce Greenwood may be most familiar for his recent role as Captain Pike in the rebooted Star Trek films, but he also was the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the animated 2010 film.

3. East Side Sushi

Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

East Side Sushi has been tearing up the festival circuit. Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

When single mother Juana decides she wants to abandon the family fruit cart business for a career as a sushi chef, she encounters a number of obstacles.

Who’s behind it: Director Anthony Lucero delivers a nuanced debut feature film that expertly captures the clash of cultures and a wide range of emotions as lead Diana Elizabeth Torres chases her dream.

Why you should see it: It’s about sushi, it has a female lead protagonist, and it’s a great character study that resonates on several levels about a struggle that’s rarely seen on screen.

Did you know: The film has been tearing up the festival circuit, winning awards for “best screenplay” and “audience favorite” since debuting late last fall.


  1. Birds of Neptune

    Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

    Birds of Neptune is written, directed and produced by Steven Richter. Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

A pair of slightly odd sisters, Mona and Rachel, struggle to find their way following an unusual upbringing and a horrible family accident.

Who’s behind it: Writer/director and producer Steven Richter has assembled a mesmerizing cast that includes Britt Harris and Molly Elizabeth Parker, who are both destined for bigger roles.

Why you should see it: It’s slightly edgy, dark at times and also a beautiful portrait of siblings finding their way despite the odds against them. It also has a character in the film named Thor – seriously.

Did you know: Birds debuted at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City this past January and its screening at the 2015 AZIFF is only the second festival screening.

But wait, there’s more, much more…

Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

Dropkick is by Tucson writer/director Robert Loomis. Photo courtesy of Arizona International Film Festival

Another film to watch out for is Dropkickfrom Tucson writer/director Robert Loomis, which follows a group of women rugby players as they fulfill a deceased teammates final wishes. There are also lots of great shorts in the festival this year, like Bis Gleich from Germany that depicts a unique and touching relationship between two neighbors.

* For the full film schedule and individual film descriptions visit

* Herb Stratford is a Tucson-based film critic and writer.

Me, My Clothes & I

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Style. It’s all around us – and especially on the streets. Adiba Nelson – fashionista, blogger, and self-confessed Nosey Nelly – goes in search for it.


Adiba Nelson. Photo by Michelle Rooney Photography.

So, a girl walks into a bar wearing metallic gold ballet flats that masquerade as heels. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Yes Tucson, yes. Just when I thought I had seen all the beautiful shoes this town had to show me, in walk these bad boys – just taunting the hell out of me. And into Reilly Craft Pizza’s basement jubilee The Tough Luck Club, no less. It was just that – my tough luck – because these shoes were not in my closet. Neither was the adorable vintage velvet, cropped teal blazer this little style maven had on! Who was this girl? Where did she shop? And could I have her shoes? In the words of my 8th grade Spanish class text book – AY DE MI! Tucson, I had to know! So what did I do? What I do best of course. Accosted her and her equally adorable friends and boyfriend as they left the bar, and asked my favorite 7 questions. What? You didn’t think I’d really let metallic gold pumps get away, did you?

Tucson, meet Robin Richards, med student by day, adorable fashionista by night.

Photo by Adiba Nelson

Robin Richards. Photo by Adiba Nelson

Describe your look. Hmmm I’ll go with simple, with a dash of spunk. Unless its a particularly fancy or festive occasion, I often opt for outfits with a solid color base (black, grey, white, etc), and then throw on accessories to spice it up – jackets, scarves, leggings, fun shoes, jewelry, etc. I’ve been a student forever, and so this is an inexpensive but fun way for me to express myself! I stock up on the staples – pants, shirts, skirts, LBD’s (little black dresses) etc. Over the years I’ve been collecting the accessories. Many are gifts from wonderful (and stylish) friends, or things I found at cool little boutiques from different places I visit.

Where do you shop? EVERYWHERE! Nordstrom Rack, little boutiques wherever I go, Buffalo Exchange, CrossRoads, thrift shops, NW 23rd   in Portland, OR, Nordstrom and Banana Republic sales, H&M, T.J. Maxx, outlet malls, etc. I’m a bargain shopper for life!

Photo by

Photos courtesy of Robin Richards.

Fave piece of clothing – ever? Right now, I have to go with my Doc Marten boots. They make me feel funky, alternative and strong. I grew up in Portland in the 90s and all my friends rocked them, so they also give me some happy nostalgia and I always half-joke that they “connect me back to my roots.”

If you could dress anyone, who would it be? My cats! I wish I could get them in little outfits but they hate it when I try. For example I have dragon wings for them– but alas, they refuse such gimmicks!

What is your staple/go-to item of clothing? Right now I have to say my black skinny jeans. They fit perfectly and are perfectly slimming. I got them from H&M and wear them all the time! I can make all sorts of outfits with them.

Photo by

Photos courtesy of Robin Richards.

Who is your style icon? My Portland bestie Maki! She is the most fashionable person I know, with an amazing knack for colors, layers, and great accessories. She incorporates fresh styles with old classics and knows how to find great deals. She inspires me and keeps me hip.

Can I have those adorable gold pumps? No way! These babies and I go way back. They were gifted to me by friends in Vegas when I was 21- I have worn them for many of my life’s greatest (READ: FANCY) moments. I have so many memories wearing them– I’m keeping them forever!

If the house is on fire, and you HAVE to get out – what do you save? OK, clothing-wise I think it would be my Tylie Malibu purse. I love that thing. The jeweled strap dresses up any simple outfit; and I get so many compliments on it. And, I’d put my cats in it, obviously.

* Read more from Adiba Nelson at her blog, The Full Nelson. You can also read her new blog on The Huffington Post.

Love Robin’s shoes? Try these ballerina pumps with a difference

1. Women’s perforated scrunch ballet flats, $22.94 from Old Navy

2. Yosi Samra camo flats with removable strap, $96 from

3. Lotus wedge heeled ballet shoes, $29.99 from T.K. Maxx


Growdown lowdown

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In the annual Growdown! competition, landscape designers compete to create a new space in 24 hours. Our gardening columnist Darbi Davis meets the finalists and finds out what’s new this year. (Scroll to the bottom for the winners.) Cover photo courtesy of Scott Calhoun

Tucson Botanical Gardens Growdown! Zona Gardens finished space

The finished space of a previous Growdown! winner, Zona Gardens. Photo courtesy of Scott Calhoun.

Growdown!, the 3rd annual 24-hour garden design competition, breaks ground at the Tucson Botanical Gardens bright and early March 18th, where three design groups – this year, all women – will wrangle for best in show. They have 24 hours over the course of three days to transform a 15’ x 20’ naked plot into a fashionable pocket garden.

Darbi Davis. Photo by Jen Long Photography

Darbi Davis. Photo by Jen Long Photography

“We’re very excited about this year’s competition. Construction of our new visitor center forced us to relocate the event, which turned out to be a great change,” says Melissa D’Auria, TBG’s director of marketing. The designers will build their gardens in a shady ramada area called the “Sycamore Lot” – an added bonus for spectators viewing Growdown! construction and behind-the-scenes production at the gardens.

Growdown! 2015 is marked with change. Not only will it cultivate inspiration for your own outdoor space and offer some great designs, but there will also be garden art, water harvesting and mini-sessions where the finalists demonstrate techniques and DIY tips to take away. This not-to-be-missed forum begins promptly at 11 am each day (see details at below). We suggest arriving around 10:30 am to beat the crowds. Friday around 2pm marks the last hour of installation, when the air will be tense as they race to finish.

And finally, while the professionals are trenching the caliche, be sure to peruse the next generation of landscape architects in the student competition, also new this year. The dueling rivals  –  University of Arizona and Arizona State University –  have put their differences aside in honor of design in the desert. The top ten submissions will be represented in Growdown! and their final designs will be displayed for your viewing pleasure – right alongside the professionals.

Meet the Designers

This year’s competition is a battle of a seasoned suite of talented women who are used to transforming our Southern Arizona topography, from the High Desert Dragoon Mountains to the Sonoran Santa Cruz River.

Sonya Becker, Residential Landscape Design Supervisor at Northwest Landscaping, is a Tucson native who has been practicing landscape design for 16 years. Her favorite outdoors place to frequent is the Tucson Mountains. She hikes while studying natural desert forms, which are then reflected in her landscape designs.

Dara Widner, landscape designer and Beverly Wilson, landscape architect,  met while earning their Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Arizona. They have been friends ever since. Independently, they own design firms – Widner owns Stellaria in Green Valley and Wilson owns Mountain Oak Design in Cochise County.  They teamed up for Growdown! to demonstrate high desert design right here in the heart of Tucson (modified for our low desert canvas). Ask them their favorite outdoor designs and they both go for old favorites. Beverly has a heart for the Garrett Eckbo-designed space around the Tucson Convention Center while Dara enjoys our local designated arboretum, the University of Arizona Campus.

Margaret Joplin is a landscape architect, public art consultant and principal of Design Collaborations, where she mixes standard materials and simple form with desert flora and her signature handmade glass accents. Margaret is reluctant to say what her own favorite outdoors place is. She says she finds it hard to choose one, there are so many!


Growdown! 2015 is at the Tucson Botanical Gardens at 2150 N. Alvernon Way Wednesday, March 18th through Friday, March 20th from 7am – 3pm. Judging, awards and designer/student forum will be held Saturday, March 21st. The designs will be up through April 2015.

* Each of the three landscape designers competing for the 2015 Growdown! title will give a 30-minute presentation on one of the techniques they are using in their design. Wednesday, March 18 at 11 a.m: Sonya Becker shares some creative methods for designing interesting and beautiful passive water harvesting elements for your home garden; Thursday, March 19 at 11 a.m: Dara Widner demonstrates using pebble mosaic; Friday, March 20 at 11 a.m: Margaret Joplin reveals techniques for creating imaginative garden art from found items and industrial materials.

* Find out more about Darbi Davis at


Added March 25th:

And the winners are…

1st Place and People’s Choice for Best Water Harvesting Feature: Sonya Becker, Northwest Landscaping

Photo by Jon D'Auria

Photo by Jon D’Auria

People’s Choice for Best Garden Art: Beverly Wilson, RLA & Dara Widner

Photo by Jon D'Auria

Photo by Jon D’Auria

Best Student Submission: Leslie Minervini and Sophia Essian (no photo available.)

There’s medicine in your yard

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Think twice before you dig up that old scrubby shrub, says our gardening columnist Darbi Davis. Did you know your desert plants can be good for your health?

Photo by Gillian Grummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Darbi Davis. Photo by Jen Long Photography

Darbi Davis. Photo by Jen Long Photography

A quick jaunt through the garden on a crisp winter morning will notably elevate your mood – and may even set the tone for the entire day. The proven benefits of nature on mental and physical health are common, and medicinal benefits of botanical remedies date prior to recorded history.

Historically, our Native cultures near and far used various levels of plant parts – leaves, bark, roots, flowers, seeds, and sap – as a curative. Western medicine continues to employ the chemicals extracted from plants to formulate modern medicine – from alleviating symptoms of the common cold to cancer cures.

Here, we share six of our favorite everyday desert plants that harbor medicinal values.

Breathe easy

Photo by Stan Shebs

Photo by Stan Shebs

Asclepias species, commonly known as Milkweed, are valuable hosts to butterflies and other pollinators, and their roots are a chemical haven for battling bronchitis and asthmatic symptoms in humans. The root is carefully harvested, dehydrated, and tinctured to extract the medicinal chemicals.  Once prepared, the proper liquid dosage can be ingested several times a day.

Chilopsis linearis, our native Desert Willow, contains properties that benefit or ease illness related to the throat and lungs, at the fungal level.  According to Tucson-based medical botanist Charles Kane, author of Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, parts of this tree are shown to have significant implications in treating Valley Fever, in addition to its historical contribution fighting fungal infections of the skin and nails.  Both leaves and bark can be infused in a tea for internal or external use.

Calm down

Glandularia species or Verbena (Gooddingii verbena is a favorite!) has sedative properties and successfully assists with anxiety and intestinal issues due to stress. It grows wildly in local gardens, and usually has lavender to darker purple flowers and leaves that range from deep green to gray green.  The leaves are the chemical keepers and can be dried and infused in a tea.  It readily reseeds, mirroring its effect on the nervous system – calming yet persistent. And it looks stunning in just about any garden style.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Scuttellaria potosina, or native skullcap, is considered a generalist for the nervous system.  It acts as a muscle relaxant, as well as a sedative that calms without causing lethargy allowing effective daytime use.  The leaves can be harvested and dried for tea or taken in capsule form as it is often found in immune support formulas in Chinese Medicine. “There is a long history of people who consider Scuttellaria a safe nervous system tonic,” says Jim Verrier of Desert Survivors nursery and community organization in Tucson. The plant is short and mounding with lavender flowers and looks great in the foreground of a garden.  It also withstands quite a lot of abuse and neglect, proving its power to endure gracefully.

Gastrointestinal, autoimmune and cancer

Photo by Darbi Davis

Photo by Darbi Davis

Artemisia ludoviciana or Western mugwort is a lovely silver, gray-green, lush plant historically used for an array of gastrointestinal issues, from inflammation to parasites.  It aids the liver, calms the intestines and soothes stomach ulcers.  The medicinal qualities are found in the leaves, which are highly aromatic and reminiscent of sage when crushed.  They should be dried and then infused in tea or oil for topical use.  In the garden it requires a winter sheering which gives rise to those long, upright leafy stems.


Photo by Darbi Davis

Photo by Darbi Davis

Larrea tridentata or Creosote Bush is somewhat controversial.  On the one hand it is thought to possibly fight cancer, while on the other hand using it might result in kidney or liver damage.  Most of the controversy stems from a lack of long-term studies across the board.  According to Charles W. Kane, what’s not controversial is its ability to treat one specific skin cancer, Actinic keratosis. Chemicals found in the leaves have anti-inflammatory properties, which are helpful with arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. Infuse it for tea or ointment for external use.  Mix it with Artemisia and a topical application can soothe and remedy viral skin ulcers.  Combine this large, scrubby, shiny-green leafed plant with a summer monsoon and the desert fills with an unforgettable aroma, which becomes instant after crushing a few leaves between fingers any other time of year.

There are no doctors here at 3 Story Magazine, so it’s always a good rule of thumb to consult a health professional before rummaging through your yard for medical relief.  We are by no means encouraging this, but rather highlighting some of the amazing traits inherent within some of the lovely, low-water-use native plants living among us.  Sometimes, knowing new facts can cultivate new-found respect for something that otherwise maybe pulled or disregarded.

* For a list of desert medicinal plants visit 

* Find landscape designer Darbi Davis at Red Bark Design.