Michael Anderson’s Massive Steel Sculptures are Fixtures in the Valley—and Beyond
Sculptor Michael Anderson’s legacy can be found around the world and at his North Scottsdale property.
By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Michael Woodall
In the shadow of Troon Mountain, sculptor Michael Anderson’s desert property is lush with creosote, jojoba and brittlebush, all tucked between massive granite boulders. Walking the 3-acre site with his wife and business partner, Jill, Anderson points out his work and the tools of his trade. There’s the modernist, 1,000-square-foot house, which he built himself; an experimental tiny house (also Anderson’s design) that now serves as his studio; an area for welding outside of a storage space that holds maquettes of his monumental steel sculptures; and, finally, the sculptures themselves—ranging from his interpretations of Christmas ornaments to undulating plates of corten steel that are reminiscent of delicate pieces of windblown paper.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” says the soft-spoken Anderson. “I loved the work of Henry Moore and Alexander Calder, but my biggest mentors here in town were artist Gary Slater and one of my neighbors, who was a pipe fitter and taught me how to weld.”
Anderson’s origin story is somewhat Kerouacian. Born in Omaha, he hitchhiked across the country after high school, working in a shipyard in Texas, learning construction and eventually settling into carpentry. He pulled into Phoenix in 1964, where he caught the eye of Jill, a Phoenix native. They married in 1969, had two children and moved to a property near 13th Street and Camelback. There, Anderson built a shop behind the home and began teaching himself sculpture, starting with smaller, tabletop-sized abstracts crafted of wood, metal and stone. “I knew I didn’t want to be a carpenter for the rest of my life,” the self-taught artist explains. With Jill’s help and encouragement, Anderson traded his hammer and saw for welding tools and pieces of steel, becoming a full-time artist in 1988.
“My role was to find the commissions and calls for artists,” recalls Jill of their professional partnership. “He did the art; I worked on the submissions.” Their first big project was a 1989 commission for public art in Palm Desert, Calif. A series of spheres and massive arcs, the painted steel “Desert Dessert” still graces a grassy park in the city.
From there, the work came at a steady pace, with Anderson’s steel sculptures being placed at sites such as Sky Harbor’s Terminal 3, the Casa Grande Public Library, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Four Seasons Hotel in Edmonton, Canada; a hotel in Abu Dhabi and the 3M Company’s San Francisco location. Galleries and museums included his work in shows. He also had a stint as Grand Canyon University’s artist in residence.
There were numerous private commissions as well, and his large-scale pieces often graced office buildings, many designed by Cornoyer Hedrick, the commercial architecture firm where Anderson met Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Brent Kendle, who was employed there at the time. “What I loved about Michael’s work is that it elevated a simple, humble material—such as heavy steel plate—into extraordinary works of art, challenging our perception that steel should be flat and rigid,” says Kendle. “When it came time to find someone to do a dining room table that I designed for my family home, I went to Michael. We still appreciate it every day. He designed a table for one of my clients, as well.”
In addition to Kendle, Anderson created pieces for other architects and designers, such as Elizabeth Rosensteel, and, for several years, fabricated works for other sculptors, including the “Gateway Arch,” which spans McDowell Road at 16th Street in Phoenix. “After a while, I stopped doing other artists’ work,” Anderson explains. “I didn’t want to be known as just a fabricator.”
“Michael was always prolific,” Jill says, “and he had no fear working with those huge pieces. I couldn’t watch some of his installations because they were so dangerous.” Often working in a series, Anderson usually needed some help with fabricating the work and employed many apprentices, who went on to their own art careers. “The apprentices still come by to see if Michael needs help,” Jill says.
After living and working in Central Phoenix for years, the couple bought the desert land in 1995. “That day lighting struck and started the Rio Fire,” recalls Jill. “Our land burned.” Nine years after the fire—and once the vegetation had returned— Anderson built their house, finishing it in 2005. The property gave him more room to work on his sculpture and put the two of them in the midst of incredible views, brilliant sunsets and visits from javelinas, deer and coyotes.
Now 76 and largely retired, Anderson welcomes visits from collectors, who come to peruse his “inventory” of sculptures that dot the couple’s desert site, which range in price from about $11,000 to $30,000. “To do a piece used to take me three months or more,” he says. “If I did one piece, I usually did several variations, which I now have on my land.” But even if visitors don’t hoist off an artwork via crane and flatbed, a trek there is to witness the arc of an artist’s career. “It’s so special to visit Michael and Jill in their magical wonderland of Michael’s creations,” says Kendle, who has become a friend. “It’s a privilege to get a personal tour of his life’s work and to see the sparkle in his eye as he points out pieces from 30 or 40 years ago that are still treasures to him.”
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