Borealis Arts Mixes Framing with Bikes, Soccer and Art Installations

July 19, 2012

by Teya Vitu

The tiny, Borealis Arts frame shop in the Warehouse District in no way speaks to what Nathan Saxton’s business is all about.

For a bit over a year, since May 2011, Borealis has filled a nook in the warehouse at 119 E. Toole Ave. If the address sounds familiar, Saxton moved his frame shop into one corner while Dinnerware Artspace was the primary tenant. Since then Dinnerware has moved, but Borealis Arts has settled in.

You’d be forgiven if the Downtown Borealis shop gives you the impression of just being a 200-square frame shop, especially given the scant business hours of 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.

“Our space in the warehouse is admittedly very small. You can even say cramped,” a cheerful Saxton said. “Yet I found clients being very willing to deal with a hot warehouse in summer and a cold warehouse in winter.”

Beyond these cramped quarters, Saxton also stages innovative art exhibitions (“usually not in gallery spaces”), recently helped the University of Arizona Art Museum move its archives, and he installs art at many homes and businesses, including a new space at Miraval Life in Balance.

Downtown came into Saxton’s picture in early 2011 as he decided to move his Borealis frame shop and art gallery away from Tanque Verde Road, where he had established Borealis four years ago.

Saxton split Borealis in two. The Downtown shop takes framing orders and he stages pop-up art exhibitions in varied locals, such as the “520:365” exhibitions coming up Aug. 1-30 next door at Borderlands Brewing.

The Borealis headquarters is on the East Side at 150 S. Camino Seco. This is where he does the actual framing, and where he spends most his time.

Each operation has evolved since he left Tanque Verde.

“It’s been a busy, complicated year,” Saxton said.

Right now, Saxton is focused on his “520:365” exhibition, a contraction of our area code and the days in a year.

“I envision it as a celebration for all of us who survived another Tucson summer and you can have a cold beer and very affordable art,” Saxton said.

The feature artists, all working in Tucson, are Robin West, Joe Marshall, Mel Dominguez, William Dubin, Kare Williams, Deflective Collective and Cast Iron Design.

Borderlands shares Saxton’s penchant for quirky open hours. The exhibition and beer are available from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.

“It’s a curated show with a very specific focus of art work that is intensely Tucson and intensely summer,” Saxton said. He first staged a  “520:365” exhibition two years ago at Tanque Verde but was too busy last year after opening the two new shops. “It was the best attended show we did that whole year.”

Saxton started working in local framing shops in 1996 and struck out on his own with Borealis on Tanque Verde four years ago. The shop rental rate just didn’t pencil out for the long-term on Tanque Verde.

Instead of just moving the whole store somewhere else in Tucson, Saxton came up with the notion of setting up two different shops. Both locations are a bit off the path.

“It’s the idea of going to the people instead of waiting for people to come to us. I knew I had a lot of clients out east and I had quite a few artists and professional clients Downtown.

“Our Downtown shop serves Downtown people and people in Oro Valley who don’t want to go all the way to the East Side,” Saxton said. “These days those folks seem to be happier to come Downtown than they were five years ago. It’s been going unbelievably well, surprisingly well. For not having a strong retail store front and having weird hours, we’re staying busy.”

Borealis Arts has such limited Downtown hours because those are the only hours Saxton can find for himself to be at the Toole Avenue shop.

“If I could, I would move my full-time operation Downtown, believe me. That involves finding the right space and the right staff to allow me to be down there,” he said.

What’s the appeal of Downtown for Saxton?

“The energy is much stronger,” he said. “Literally, when I walk down the street, I see someone I’ve been meaning to call or visit. Between appointments, I walk to Sparkroot or visit clients and that’s when I run into people.”

Even though his 200 square feet Downtown don’t lend themselves to art shows, Saxton is not letting that stop him at all. In essence, he stages pop-up galleries in unique spaces, such as Borderlands Brewing, which will also host Saxton’s bicycle-themed “Velociprints,” which opens Nov. 10.

“This year we’re doing three shows,” he said. “Next year we have five shows percolating.”

One revolves around Major League Soccer’s return to Tucson for the second Desert Diamond Cup, a spring training for four MLS teams.

“You take 20 artists and have them come up with print designs inspired by soccer,” Saxton said. “The opening night event will probably be at a Downtown bar. Some of the MLS players will be there. Artists can display and sell art. It turns into a giant soccer art party.”