Colorado native works to sustain desert’s livelihood and implement art initiatives


Greg Esser embraced art before he could talk. Now he works as associate director for the Desert Initiatives, an organization that attempts to bring awareness to Arizona issues through art. (Madeline Pado/DD)

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Greg Esser embraced art before he could talk. It started with drawing, and drawing traced into painting. Painting bled into molding. Molding morphed into wood crafting. Wood crafting carved into sculpting. Sculpting etched a relentless obsession to discover new ways to connect with the world — and that obsession has not ebbed one bit.

Esser’s artistic journey began in his birthplace of Denver, Colo. Throughout his childhood, Esser grew and cultivated his passion for art. He won multiple awards for his work in high school art competitions, and he moved on to earn a degree in art and social change at Oberlin College. He pursued his passion and eventually became Denver’s director of public art.

But Denver’s art scene was too small — its canvas couldn’t fit Esser’s limitless aspirations, so Phoenix became his new canvas, and with it, a proposition arose that altered his course to Los Angeles County, Calif.

Esser now sailed in the waters of civic art. Community planning, public monuments and architecture projects for the most populous state’s most populous county now fell under Esser’s jurisdiction. But not long after settling into the City of Angels, an opportunity presented itself to Esser; an opportunity enticing enough to pull him back to the sands of Arizona –- the Desert Initiative.

Operating out of Arizona State University’s Art Museum, the Desert Initiative acts as a cautionary mouthpiece warning those of the many financial and ecological dangers threatening Arizona’s deserts. Artists spanning across the Valley and beyond craft art pieces depicting these issues in an attempt to create a bridge of public awareness. They act as the Desert Initiative’s vocal cords, and as associate director, Esser knows what they need to say.

Esser hopes the Desert Initiative highlights some the issues deserts face, such as energy scarcity, drought and climate change. He’s concerned that without the proper measures in place, Arizona’s rate of energy consumption will exceed its rate of production.

“Balancing a growing population with the scarce resources that aren’t normally available in a desert environment are really critically pressing design challenges,” Esser said. “(We need to) prepare for and plan proactive solutions to address some of those issues today that will be even more critical as we move into the future.”

ASU Art Museum Director Gordon Knox said the Desert Initiative developed out of a project the museum originally funded to examine art.

“The ASU Art Museum sees art as a way of knowing, a form of knowledge, creation, exploring and investigating the world, ourselves and society,” Knoxx said. “The ASUAM’s mission is directly advanced through our partnership with the Desert Initiative.”

But the Desert Initiative isn’t the only ravenous project that consumes Esser’s time. He also serves on the board of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corp., a non-profit created to cultivate a culture of art and expression in downtown Phoenix. Most of the real estate on Roosevelt Row is owned by passionate artists looking to add a human element to the brick and mortar. They want to give the city a soul by sharing theirs.

“The Phoenix community in general is very supportive and is collaborative in nature rather than more competitive in nature the way it might be in some other larger urban areas,” Esser said. “People are very willing to help each other, and everyone’s success benefits everyone else.”

Esser has a personal stake in Roosevelt Row, as well. He co-manages a boutique with his wife, Cindy Dach, whom he met more than twenty years ago in a darkroom. The art boutique, known as “MADE,” displays work from local artists looking to make a name for themselves.

Dach said she never knew a time when Esser wasn’t infatuated with changing others’ perceptions of art.

“As long as I’ve known him — and I’ve known him for twenty years — he has (been involved with art),” Dach said.

Esser just doesn’t want things to be boring. If something is performing well — if all a program needs is basic maintenance — he moves on to something else. He seeks a new project that will challenge him in unfamiliar ways. That is how he grows. That is how he lives. And Esser has a lot more living to do.

Clarification: March 8, 2013

A previous version of this article described MADE as a photo boutique when it’s actually an art boutique.

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