A Southwest Original
Artist Diana Madaras paints the subtle beauty of life and landscape in the Sonoran Desert.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades
Some people get lucky and are born knowing what they want to do, whether it’s being a teacher, a nurse or a dancer. Others, such as former New Jersey native Diana Madaras, find their passion later in life—often by chance.
It was during a trip to the Bahamas in the early ’90s that Madaras, who owned a successful sports marketing firm in Tucson, felt the urge to pick up a paintbrush. Although she had taken a few art classes in high school, it was never a field she studied in college or even dreamed about as a career. “I saw these artist-made note cards in a souvenir shop, and I thought, ‘I really need to paint again,’” she recalls. “I was missing that creative balance in my life.”
After returning to Arizona, she purchased some watercolors and began practicing, first by copying works by the masters and later by replicating scenes from her island adventures. While planning an event for the LPGA, she struck up a conversation with a University of Arizona professor who was on the volunteer committee—and who also happened to be a painter. “He said, ‘I take a group to Greece for a month each summer to paint, and you’re coming with me.’ He talked me into it,” Madaras remembers. “I really hadn’t felt that kind of euphoria before. I didn’t have to worry about myself, my business, my cats or anyone else. I could just focus on art.”
Moment of Truth
A turning point in her career came during a visit to a small gallery in Mykonos. “It was right by the sea, and the artist was sitting there by an open window. Having that life became a dream at that moment,” Madaras says. One year after returning from Greece, the artist opened her first gallery, Marathon Art Gallery, named after her marketing firm, through which she represented 25 artists from five states. But the pressures of running a side business while having a full-time career—and trying to find time to squeeze in some painting—quickly became too much, so she sold the gallery. It wasn’t long, however, before the lure of becoming a professional artist became too enticing and, in 1999, Madaras opened up her eponymous gallery on Broadway.
Tucson resident Jim Knox purchased his first Madaras painting in 2005, after seeing an advertisement for the artist’s work while waiting for his luggage at Tucson International Airport. Today, he is one of her biggest collectors.
“My first and favorite piece is called ‘Teal Cactus.’ You’ve probably never seen it because she’s never reproduced it,” he says. “Diana’s ability to use color, both when it’s natural and when it’s not expected, just works for me. She’s truly a master.”
For the Love of Animals
While a young Madaras may not have known where her career path would take her, she was, however, certain that she did not want to be a veterinarian like her father. Growing up in the family’s vet clinic had exposed her to the horrors and heartbreak that can come with the job. But her love of animals has always played an important role in her life—and her art.
With the opening of her gallery, Madaras founded Art for Animals, a nonprofit organization that funds various animal-related causes. For the past five years, the charity has focused its assistance on the Tucson Wildlife Center. “There used to be 12 wildlife rescues in Southern Arizona. Now there’s just one,” Madaras says. “They take care of more than 6,000 animals annually.” Last year, the organization raised enough funds that the center could hire a full-time veterinarian. The artist also has supported TROT (Therapeutic Riding of Tucson) and the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. “I’m kind of carrying on my dad’s legacy in my own way,” she says.
Painting the Town
In 2016, Madaras moved her gallery to its current location on North Swan Road. The spacious freestanding building, which once housed an interior design firm, features high ceilings, dramatic niches fit for displaying artworks and a number of intimate rooms that are ideal for themed exhibits. In the wintertime, guests are greeted by the warmth of a roaring fire in the entry’s grand fireplace. A large front room showcases works by more than 20 artists, including vibrant original acrylics by the late influential contemporary painter John Nieto; delicate gouache scenes of wildlife by renowned Tubac-based artist Nicholas Wilson; bronze urns by Jammey Huggins of Lubbock, Texas; and expressive steel figures by Tucson resident Al Glann.
Madaras’ colorful works line the butter-hued plaster walls from floor to ceiling. The majority are giclees, although one small room is dedicated to her originals.
There are the glorious Sonoran scenes for which she is best known. Some are in bright candy colors; others in rich jewel tones indicative of Arizona sunsets. “I see light and shadow on a cactus, and I get excited,” the artist notes. “I love the desert, so it’s only natural that I would paint it. But I also like to experiment. I have to have variety to keep me interested.” Complementing the bold landscapes are depictions of cowboys; Native Americans and their sturdy steeds; abstract takes on regional flora; tableaux from her travels to exotic destinations, such as South Africa; and, of course, animals.
Soft, impressionist-style watercolor works of birds share wall space with whimsical fauvist-influenced portraits of farm animals and lifelike images of dogs and horses. “Animals have always been a part of my soul,” Madaras comments. “I can feel that moment when they come to life, and it’s when I’m painting their eyes.”
Wendy Swager of Tucson commissioned Madaras to paint portraits of two of her dogs. She added them to her growing collection of more than 20 originals and 30-plus giclees. “Diana’s paintings have a magic that dances across the canvas and touches your soul,” she says. “In my favorite, ‘Out Standing,’ the cattle are bathed in light; an expression of the visual sensation painted in such a way that it creates a vibrancy, in which, for a moment I am immersed.”
In the back room of Madaras’ gallery, an entire wall is dedicated to another series of animals that draws the viewer in for a closer look. Inspired by Nieto’s work, these are part of the artist’s “Spirit Animals” series. The art nouveau-style renderings of wildlife both local and exotic, such as eagles, bobcats, javelinas, tigers and horned lizards, appear almost celestial when set against dark black backgrounds. “John put unusual color on ordinary subjects. He had all these wonderful vivid wolves and coyotes, and I loved that,” Madaras remarks. “I had always wanted to paint my own spirit animal, so I depicted a coyote on a black background with a moon and stars. I painted it on yupo paper, which is very slick and difficult to work on, but it gives you some unique effects.”
To celebrate the gallery’s 20th anniversary, Madaras decided to create 20 spirit animal images; she ended up with 35. Each includes a tattoo of the word “one,” because she “feels like I’m one with the animals and hence the universe.” The collection became her first true series.
Whether capturing the beauty of the desert, the sunlit snow blanketing burnt adobe walls in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or the flowing manes of the free-roaming horses along the Salt River, Madaras’ distinctive brushstrokes and fearless use of color have made her one of Arizona’s more well-known and influential artists.
“Having a lot of creative energy and not knowing what to do with it is not fun,” she says, looking back on her career. “You never feel like you’ve found your right place in the world. But once I did find it, it was like flying versus walking. This is what I am supposed to do and where I am supposed to be.”
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