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Leading Ladies

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: May, 2015, Page 38
 Photography by Garrett Cook


An intimate chat with 11 women who are influencing the valley’s design, food, art and fashion industries

More than a century ago, intrepid pioneers traveled to the Southwest, hoping to forge new lives for themselves and their families in the unforgiving landscape of the Sonoran Desert. Strong and determined women were an integral part of these early migrations. Some followed family members who had made earlier treks; others came seeking jobs and opportunities not available back East. Whatever the reason, they all had one thing in common: Here, amongst the saguaros, they were able to reinvent themselves and flourish.

Today, a new group of Phoenix-area women are blazing trails of a different sort. These innovative ladies aren’t content to just reside and work here. Instead, they’re changing the very face of the Valley —and the world around it—by influencing the way we see, taste and live.

We recently sat down with 11 women who are forging fresh paths in design—Nikal M. Conti, Cathy Hayes, Janet Brooks and Dana Lyon—in food—Silvana Salcito Esparza, Paola Embry, Kim Haasarud—in art—Amada Cruz, Beth Ames Swartz, Nancy McIntosh—and in fashion—Marie Bliss. A few are household names: Esparza, for example, is the award-winning chef and owner of local landmark Barrio Cafe and its latest offshoot, Barrio Urbano. Others, such as Amada Cruz, the new director of the Phoenix Art Museum, and Marie Bliss, vice president and general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Biltmore Fashion Square, have been in the Valley for only a short time. Their stories are as unique as the women themselves, but they’re connected by common themes of family, home and finding their true calling in the desert.

Friends and family
Artist Beth Ames Swartz, whose thought-provoking acrylic and mixed-media paintings examine philosophic and religious concepts, moved from New York City to her modest Paradise Valley, Ariz., home in 1959, when the town’s roads were still unpaved and its large multimillion-dollar homes of today weren’t even a consideration. “Although I have my roots in the East, I’ve matured here as a human being, and I’ve developed here. The earth has inspired me. I’ve bonded with it,” she says.

And like all of our women, she also bonded with the folks who surround her. She recalls an early effort to bring the scattered community together.

“About 17 years ago, I realized that nobody knew each other,” she says. She hand-distributed 100 invitations to a gathering she dubbed CAN—Cooperation Among Neighbors. Now a regular event, it has grown into a potluck dinner that’s hosted at a different home each year. “I love it when I see that people in the community now know and care about each other,” Swartz adds.

Sommelier Paola Embry, whose family escaped the military rule of Chile’s brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet when she was just a girl, came to Phoenix as a young adult to work as a nurse. A chance meeting with top chef Christopher Gross, to whom she was married for 10 years, led her to a career in wine. “Christopher gave me great opportunities to travel, to meet exciting people and to share my passion,” she says.

Kim Haasarud credits her husband for helping her carve out her niche as a consultant in the Valley’s beverage industry. “Kevin really influenced my career,” she says. “He was always there to discuss ideas with, and he really pushed me toward turning my creativity into my job.”

Dana Lyon, interior designer, and Nikal M. Conti, founder and principal of PHX Architecture, both ended up in Phoenix because of their husbands’ jobs. At the time of their moves, Lyon worked in publishing, while Conti was in retail management. And prior to her move to the Valley nine years ago, Nancy McIntosh helped run a kitchen stationery product company in Connecticut. Today, she wields a blowtorch, creating decorative home and garden items out of stained glass and steel.

The Southwest spirit

“The Valley is like the Wild West,” says Conti. “It’s full of opportunity, and the people who come here do so because they’re drawn to that sense of opportunity. People can create things here. They can create opportunities.”

Cathy Hayes, architect and owner of Hayes Inc. Architecture/Interiors, agrees. “Arizona’s been a great city to grow in architecture, in any kind of design business, because the sky’s the limit. There are so many people and so many influences, not just regionally but from around the world, that it allows for an amazing amount of creativity. It’s an interesting little melting pot of opportunity,” she says.

For interior designer Janet Brooks, the desert offers not just options but inspiration. “There was something about the desert that really grabbed me. The smells and the textures and the soft colors; I fell in love with it,” she says. “Phoenix is a wonderful place to be because we have a very casual lifestyle. People can be who they are without pretense when they’re here.”

Like the mythical namesake of the city in which they live and work, the women of Phoenix are not only reinventing the landscape but also themselves. Perhaps Esparza says it best when describing her decision to move to the area 20 years ago.

“I was told that I was going to a place where I wouldn’t start a new chapter, but where I would start a new book. I was told that here I would be a phoenix,” she says. “And I promise you, I didn’t just write a new chapter. I did start a new book. I am a phoenix. And no matter how many times I burn in those ashes, I will ascend as long as I have breath. I am true to this city.”
 
Amada Cruz took over as director just four months ago. Her goal: to make the museum an enjoyable place for everyone in the Valley.
Art takes you out of your day-to-day concerns, whether they are good or bad, and really puts you in a different place. A great piece of art forces you to look at the world differently. It opens your mind to a variety of possibilities. 

My dream home would be a Mid-Century Modern home with lots of glass or a penthouse apartment with lots of glass. The problem is that [my husband and I] have a small art collection, so we need walls. You can’t hang an art collection on glass walls. I’m getting to know about the local architects—Al Beadle, Ralph Haver, etc.—which is making it even more difficult to choose a place. All of their stuff is wonderful.
—Amada Cruz, Director
Phoenix Art Museum


President of the Phoenix Chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild, Kim Haasarud co-founded Arizona Cocktail Week, which has helped elevate the craft of the cocktail.



A lot of people think the term “southwest living” means chili peppers and cowboys, but it’s not always about that. It’s about being in touch with the flavors that are indigenous to this area. While that does include things like prickly pears and chilies, it also means working with local farmers, chefs and artisans and using their products and incorporating their flavors into your cuisine or drinks.

The first thing I do after a long day at work depends on the time of day. If I come home at night, I love to go into my children’s bedrooms and smell them. It’s just a thing I do. I love the way they smell. If it’s during the day, like mid-afternoon, I’ll crack open a bottle of champagne and just sit and catch-up with my husband.
—Kim Haasarud, Mixologist
Owner, Liquid ArchiTecture


“Wines should be fun,” exclaims Paola Embry, who’s at her happiest when she’s discovering new wines. She over-sees a wine cellar featuring more than 8,000 bottles.
Drinking champagne from a wine glass allows the aroma of the champagne to shine through. Traditional champagne flutes that are often filled to the top leave you without any room to enjoy the nose of the champagne. If you have to use a flute, fill it only half full so that you can enjoy the lovely aromas.

I’ve always been passionate about food. When I was a little girl in Chile, my grandmother had a tiny restaurant. She did all the cooking, and my grandfather handled the front of house. I helped out by talking with guests and trying to charm them into buying me extra treats and desserts. After meeting Christopher [Gross, chef and co-owner of  Christopher’s & Crush Lounge], I started traveling and working with a lot of master sommeliers. I caught the wine bug. I used to be a nurse, and it always felt like I was working. Food and wine doesn’t feel like work. It’s true when they say that if you pick something you love to do, you will never have to work for the rest of your life.
—Paola Embry, Sommelier; CEO, Wrigley Mansion;
Wine Director and Co-Owner, Christopher’s & Crush Lounge

Cathy Hayes (with her dog, Henry) says being a woman in a formerly male-dominated industry has only strengthened her work and her vision. “It’s a wonderful thing, and I hope I’ve set a good example,” she adds.
I grew up in Chicago, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio was two blocks from my house. I would ride my bike through the neighborhood looking at everything. One day I asked my dad why [Wright’s] house looked so different from everyone else’s, and he said “because an architect designed it.” So at 10 years of age, I was sure of what I wanted to do.

This business we call design is a visceral business based in emotions and affecting people. It’s a responsibility to take seriously because you can alter people’s daily lives by creating joy and happiness and feelings of security. And not just with houses. With restaurants and retail, you’re creating communities. I was recently at La Grande Orange Grocery [a small cafe/retail grocery that Hayes designed], and I was watching a little kid at the counter looking at the cookies. I have memories as a child of standing in front of the counter at a beautiful little pastry shop near my house, all dreamy eyed, staring at the big cupcakes. I want people to have those kinds of memories. 
    —Cathy Hayes, Principal, Hayes Inc. Architecture/interiors

Incorporating the desert landscape and giving her clients that “indoor/outdoor Arizona experience” is important to Janet Brooks, seen above in a North Scottsdale home she designed
My mom lived with me from the time my son was a year old until he was 10, and during those nine years, she and I were really close. After she died, my aunt gave me a picture of her from when she was in her teens that I had never seen before. It was so cool. I never knew it existed, but it was just like the essence of my mother. It was the best gift I ever received.

I’m most inspired by nature, by being outdoors and by looking at the tiniest details. Recently, I was hiking, and I saw some flowers that were about a quarter of an inch in diameter. If you could have looked at them through a macro lens, you would have seen that they were just beautiful, but most people probably didn’t even notice them. It’s also about light. I love to watch the light as the day progresses and see the way the shadows get longer, the way it hits things and changes their colors, the way the mountains turn purple at dusk. It’s a show that goes on all day, every day.
—Janet Brooks, interior Designer
Owner, Janet Brooks Design

Nominated for four James Beard Awards, Silvana Salcido Esparza has helped change Arizonians’ perception of Mexican food and culture. She now hopes to do the same throughout the country. “With great success comes great responsibility,” she says. “I should put that on a tattoo because I really believe in it.”
At Barrio Cafe, part of the magic is not what I bring to it, but the people who work there. We’re a family. We all help each other. When my dishwasher had a stroke, we all kicked in. We kicked in financially, we kicked in morally, and we did his job. La familia. We’re Mexican. That’s what we do.

My house is my most private, important place. It’s my sanctuary. So if I allow people into my space, that’s very personal. It’s very modest, but it’s where I’m at, and it’s where my family is at, so the things that happen in that house are what inspire me. It’s the same thing with my house in Mexico. There are memories. It started as just an empty lot, and then we added a trailer, and then the trailer turned into a room. We laugh about when we all had to go up a ladder to get upstairs or when we got rained on because the roof wasn’t right. Those are the memories, the magic, and I think that’s very important. My home is the center of my universe.
—Silvana Salcido Esparza, Chef and Restaurateur
Owner, Barrio Cafe and Barrio Urbano


Retail is a “creative environment” for Marie Bliss, who is inspired by her store’s associates and the Valley’s “amazing community.”
My father was my No. 1 mentor. He was the one who taught me to look at life as a lot of opportunities. He made me look at the world like anything is possible. He taught me to grab life and never worry about being judged. And then I worked for a Canadian company, and the owner took me on my first trip to New York City. While we were on Fifth Avenue, he said “Marie, what do you want?” I was standing in front of Saks Fifth Avenue and the other big retailers, and I said “I want one of these.” He told me to just stay focused, and I will have it.

Our apartment has a sitting area that looks out to a beautiful view of palm trees. There’s no TV; it’s just a sitting area. I love looking out at the big sky and the stars. My husband and I like to sit there and catch up and have a glass of wine at the end of the day.
—Marie Bliss, vice president and general manager Saks Fifth Avenue

The Valley’s relaxed and friendly attitudes are the result of its open spaces and warm weather, says Nancy McIntosh. “That’s why we all live here. We live here to be outdoors.”

When I do a show, I like to dress in skirts and dresses. You know, fun clothes. As such, I don’t look like someone who would be out welding. So I think a lot of people are like “Wow, she can do that? Maybe I can, too.” I kind of take the mystery out of creating something. Maybe I can open up an opportunity for them. I certainly would like to inspire women who want to create.

My work is inspired by my surroundings, by the Valley, by the desert and the colors of the desert. We have such great light out here and big skies and beautiful plants. There’s always something blooming, which is wonderful. Personally, I like a modern, contemporary style, so that also reflects in what I create. We’re so fortunate here to have a strong Mid-Century Modern movement with some really great architects.
—Nancy McIntosh Artist-Welder

The current growth and expansion in Phoenix excites Nikal M. Conti, who says she feels “lucky” to be a part of the city’s creative community.
Never let the name of a room limit its use. I never let an environment control the opportunity. We’ve done parties in the living room with whole sit-down dinners. When you do things like that, people have unique experiences. Anybody can have a dinner party in a dining room, but if you have your party on a cool outdoor patio—and here in the desert you can definitely take advantage of things like that—or in a garden, it creates those special moments that people remember.

I love contemporary art. It’s breaking the rules and creating something that’s new and different. When a client wants to do something modern, we have the opportunity to design something that’s truly unique, that’s never been done before, or use a material that’s never been used. It’s really the leading edge of creativity.
—Nikal M. Conti, Principal PHX Architecture


Whether it’s international cities or the way the views of Camelback Mountain change with the weather, Dana Lyon finds inspiration in everything she sees.
I had a fantastic boss when I was in advertising who taught me how to treat people and to be kind to people. That has really stayed with me over the years.

My dream home would have a very large kitchen that’s open to the dining room and sitting area, and it should be light and airy and spacious. It would also have a large dining table. I would need that as a base. My bedroom could be small. Everything else could be really simple. But the kitchen is extremely important.
Dana Lyon, Interior Designer
Owner, Palm Design Group

Beth Ames Swartz, who has exhibited her work across the world, considers herself a global artist who loves Arizona.
My life has always been about what kind of human being I want to be and what values I want to live by. There’s the idea of tikkun olam, which means by healing ourselves we can also help to heal the world. There’s also an expression called mitzvah. It’s the idea of doing good deeds. It’s the way I was brought up. My father always did good deeds. Plus, it just feels really good.

I went down the Colorado River on a raft for the first time in 1970, and my whole life changed. I fell in love with Arizona. That started a 45-year saga of trying to translate with my art what I had experienced emotionally.
—Beth Ames Swartz, Painter.
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