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This Artist Memorializes Local Architecture with Colorful Pop Art

Aaron Stouffer pays homage to the iconic midcentury buildings of Phoenix’s post-war heyday.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Paul Markow

Many Folks who grew up in Phoenix have fond recollections of Ciné Capri. It was where they experienced a first date or where they stood in line for hours to see such blockbuster films as “Alien,” “The Godfather” and “Titanic.”

In 1998, the cinema was demolished, but the memories remain. “A lot of what we remember is centered around architecture, whether we realize it or not,” says artist Aaron Stouffer. It’s that nostalgia for the Valley’s iconic buildings—some long gone, some remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable, and others restored to the glory of their heydays—that shapes his work.

Stouffer is reintroducing the public to Phoenix’s history through stylized graphic prints of midcentury landmarks, ranging from commercial structures past and present to private homes. An architect by trade—he received his master’s degree from Kent State University in Ohio—the Pennsylvania native became enamored with the desert’s post-war designs after moving here in 2011.

“Midcentury architecture is one of Phoenix’s claims to fame. The 1950s and ’60s were when the city really boomed,” he explains. “A lot of people have ties to these buildings. I thought it would be fun to illustrate them because many have been torn down or there’s very little imagery that exists.”

Artist and architect Aaron Stouffer relaxes in front of a collection of his colorful works that recall the Valley’s lost and threatened midcentury buildings.

Mesa’s Starlite Motel is known for its neon diving lady sign. Stouffer reimagined it in retro shades of teal, orange and red. Plant life here and in all his drawings is portrayed in a simplistic manner, allowing the buildings to remain the focus of the work.

Stouffer first began creating prints of friends’ Ralph Haver-designed houses. As demand for his work grew, he approached Shawn Silberblatt and Chad Campbell, owners of Phoenix home goods store For the People, about creating two series of works: “Lost,” which highlights buildings that have been razed, and “Found,” which focuses on properties that have been repurposed into something else.

“I didn’t realize how much of an emotional connection people have to these places,” says Silberblatt. “Customers will come into the store and talk about watching ‘Star Wars’ at Ciné Capri or of flying into Terminal One and getting off the tarmac when it’s 110 degrees. All those memories come flooding back and put smiles on their faces.

“The pieces also create a conversation about certain buildings that don’t exist anymore,” he adds.

Rendered in retro shades of peach and teal is the Camelview 5 theater, complete with the instantly recognizable trio of fluted mushroom-shaped shade canopies. It was demolished in 2016. Orange palm trees front Stuart Motor Co., the Valley’s sole Studebaker dealership. Leveled in 2016, the only remaining reminders of its previous incarnation are its circular display window and iconic tower. The Polynesian-themed Trader Vic’s is brought back to life in vibrant aqua, lime and red. “It is one of my favorite drawings,” says Stouffer. “The eatery was our first and only tiki bar. Now it’s part of the ‘Found’ series because the building is still there, but it’s been stuccoed over.

Stouffer likes his works to be as vibrant as possible. “I think people gravitate toward the colors and what the building is,” he says. Terminal One and Stewart Motor Co. are part of his “Lost” series, which highlights buildings that have been destroyed. The “Found” series focuses on properties, such as Trader Vic’s, which have been given new life and oftentimes new looks.

“Old marketing materials or photographs drive my color palette,” explains the artist. “The red and orange of the Starlite Motel are actually trim colors that are still on the building.” Known for it’s neon diving lady signage, the Starlite, along with the Hotel Valley Ho, comprise Stouffer’s new “Holiday” series, which spotlights popular accommodations.

The colorful prints add a playful touch to any interior, but Stouffer hopes they’ll also make collectors think about the city’s history and realize the value of its at-risk architecture.

“There’s a nostalgic quality to the art that everyone can relate to,” he says. “Hopefully, it will get people interested in preservation so that we don’t keep tearing down these treasures.”

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