Tempe artist, landlord hopes to complete vision

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Artist, landlord and landscaper Bill Tonnesen is a man with a head for business. 

He is a well known figure in Tempe having recently refurbished the property around the Hayden Flour Mill.  But not everyone calls his work art, or appreciates the look of his properties.

“Everything I do seems to come back to art history,” said Tonnesen inside his studio behind his Tempe home. “Because it's a preoccupation.”

Tonnesen creates sculptures, photos and anything that pops into his head.

“Now, it's figurative art,” he said standing among the life-size statues. “So figures, people.”

He uses models and molds to manufacture the sculptures.  Some are partial nudes, another has a working light bulb in its mouth.  But not everyone understands the joke, the message or even appreciates what he has made.

“I want the pieces we do to be a little confusing," said Tonnesen.

Sometimes the confusion spreads to his Tempe properties, where you can see a sculpture of a man perched on a rusty air conditioning unit, old ovens lining the sidewalk, and behind that, a community garden in the courtyard.

Tonnesen owns more than a dozen properties.  He adds pieces of art and interesting architectural touches to all of them.

“Look around,” he said standing on the sidewalk. “That over there is the same basic property, masonry, but ahh!” as he puts his finger in his throat feigning an effort to vomit.

Tonnesen believes unique homes attract better tenants. And under his breath, he said he would like to renovate the whole street.

“Well, I think everything comes down to pride of ownership,” he remarked when asked if he would like other property owners to find their inner artist

There is a side of Tonnesen that can't just add new paint or a privacy fence. 

On Rural Road, he placed a large nude sculpture of a woman sitting on a wall, which brought questions from neighbors and the city.  And now, he said he received a notice about an impromptu light fixture on the fence.

“Go through all this baloney and submittals and the city said you can't do it,” he said as he talked about ongoing struggles with bureaucracy. ”Wait a minute.  Where do we live?  Is this North Korea?  Why do I even have to ask if the statue can go there?”

Tonnesen admits he doesn't always like waiting for permission. And that tendency to keep moving forward caught up with him at the Hayden Flour Mill at the corner of Rio Salado and Mill in Tempe.

“If you look at that scene, it's a mess,” he said. “What I mean by a mess is it's a pizza. It's a visual pizza.”

The Rio Salado foundation hired his company to renovate the grounds and the lower portion of the building, and create a grand entrance to the city.

“I took off all the graffiti and old junk,” he said while showing us a picture. 

To Tonnesen, that meant constructing a cube on the southwest corner, and a wall across the street that would hold sculptures.  He even created another sculpture that would climb the silo, pointing out the temperature.

But the Tempe city council hadn't authorized the art, and while the construction is complete, his art sits in his studio.  It is difficult for a man who prides himself in completing his vision, even if he loses money.
“It bothers me,” he admits. “That we've kind of gone half way. Because I would really like to see thermometer man tracking the temperature.”

Tempe art staff is coming up with a plan for the flour mill right now to present to the city council.  They may ask Tonnesen to provide his sculptures or he may have to apply along with other artists.