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Artist Tammi Lynch-Forrest’s Desert Mountain Mosaic is an Ode to Sonoran Wildlife

At Desert Mountain, artist Tammi Lynch-Forrest interprets the fauna and flora of the Sonoran Desert one tile at a time.

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Chris Loomis

On a recent balmy fall night, several hundred people mingled in the far reaches of Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain, gathering to dedicate a new plaza at The Ranch, the community’s private trailhead and stables. As the sun slipped behind the mountains of the surrounding Tonto National Forest and darkness enveloped the looping hiking trails, a low-key woman with long blond hair stood next to a 100-foot-long, curving mosaic wall—the centerpiece of the new plaza—and chatted up admirers of her project.

After nearly three years, 368 trips to the site and 26,000 miles put on her car, Tammi Lynch-Forrest’s extraordinary mosaic tile paean to the fauna and flora of the Sonoran Desert was officially unveiled. Made of up some 68,000 individual pieces, the mosaic wall pays homage to desert life as she found it there, in the desert foothills, from tiny wildflower blossoms and fairy bees to mule deer and paloverde trees.

The recognition and schmoozing are new to Lynch-Forrest. A self-described homemaker with a penchant for the creative process, the Indiana native dabbled in various art forms until she found her passion. “When I found mosaic art, that was the one,” she explains. “I fell in love.”

But Lynch-Forrest and her art flew under the radar until Phoenix art maven Beatrice Moore asked her to do some mosaic planters along Grand Avenue, where Lynch-Forrest used to have a studio. The planters, in turn, brought her to the attention of a Desert Mountain committee, looking for some art as a focal point for the trailhead’s plaza, which was planned as an outdoor space for private and community events. “I showed up at the site for an interview in a dress and high heels,” the artist recalls with a laugh. “Wrong! They also asked me to submit a rendering of my proposal for the wall. I told them that I couldn’t do that, because I tend to work organically, day by day.”

Nonetheless, Lynch-Forrest got the commission for what was originally a privately funded 50-foot wall. Soon, though, the mosaic grew to be 100 feet long, 8 feet in height and years in the making. The process? For Lynch-Forrest, both joyful and physically grueling. “I asked myself, what could one woman do?” she says, “Then, I set myself a challenge.”

With a theme of day into night in the desert, she began hanging out at the site from sunrise until the moon came up, “auditioning” creatures who would be immortalized in the wall. “A deer kept watching me as I worked,” Lynch-Forrest recalls. “She made it into the wall. I saw bobcats, coyotes, javelinas, jack rabbits, snakes and tortoises, lots of birds and plenty of insects. “ 

According to the artist, a Gila monster sashayed past the wall many times, and he made it in. Some 200 separate species are represented in the wall, meaning mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. While the animals are realistic and to scale, the plants are a bit more stylized. “The paloverde in bloom and the mesquite tree are my versions of what I see,” she says of the flora, which include verbenas, poppies and other wildflowers. Prickly pear paddles bear the names of individual donors who funded the wall.

As Lynch-Forrest worked, she researched each creature, coming up with factoids that would impress a field biologist. “Did you know that Harris hawks stack two or three high as a hunting technique?” she asks. “A scorpion mouse howls at the moon and is immune to scorpion stings, and the wolf spider carries her babies.”

1. A section of the mosaic wall features an owl, a coyote, some snakes and other assorted Sonoran desert denizens that artist Tammi Lynch-Forrest observed while creating the artwork. The darker blue “sky” on the right is meant to indicate evening and frame nocturnal creatures. 2. The artwork seems to grow out of the desert, thanks to stones gathered on site that were used as the mosaic’s base. 3. A small detail to one side of the plaza wall features the artist’s interpretation of hummingbirds and wildflowers.

Months stretched into years because each creature, each plant was hand made. Binge-watching Netflix at home, Lynch-Forest sketched out the pieces, then carved them out of clay, letting them dry before firing the tiles in her kiln. Painting came next, before a second firing. “Each tile took two to three weeks to make,” she explains. “Then I would go up to the site and install each piece on the wall—I didn’t put them on panels. I used an old sofa pillow to sit or lie on when I had to work the bottom of the wall.”

While she was a one-woman show when it came to the wall’s concept and installation, her husband, Ernie Forrest, was steadfast in his support, accompanying her on the hourlong drive from their Phoenix home, holding a patio umbrella over her for shade and making sure she stayed hydrated and ate during the hours she spent working. He also gathered the flat rocks that underscore the mosaics on the wall. “Ernie had just retired, so this all worked out,” Lynch-Forrest explains. “The hours we spent driving back and forth were great for long conversations.”

The 100-foot curving wall serves as a backdrop for a plaza at the Desert Mountain trailhead and stables, and will be used for concerts, private parties and community events.

But creating the piece was no walk in the park. Lynch-Forrest endured temperatures from the low 30s to 118 degrees and experienced monsoon winds, rain and even snow. “We also saw a brushfire nearby,” she remembers. To try to take advantage of early mornings and moonlit nights, Lynch-Forrest spent a few nights camping in the stables and in one of the trailhead’s glamping tents. “I discovered what came out at night and gave that up pretty quickly,” she says. There were also physical tolls—she was attacked by wasps, stung by a 7-inch centipede (both species made it onto the wall) and, nearing completion, fell off a ledge by the wall, dumping sky-blue paint everywhere and bruising her back.

Nonetheless, she persisted and was the star attraction at the wall and plaza’s dedication. “It’s not totally done-done,” she notes. “I still have to do the grout, but I’m going to wait until spring when the temperatures are more even during the day and night for the grout to set properly.”

But Lynch-Forrest’s remarkable wall is already a talking point in the community, and future plans include concerts, parties and even weddings against the backdrop of the colorful clay creatures. As for the artist, she has a few future projects up her sleeve, including taking a stab at writing. “I think I should write a book about this wall. I have so many stories.”

For more information, see Sources.


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