Hardened by the Desert, Mesquite Wood Leaves an Indelible Mark on Southwestern Art
By: Angela D. Wagner
Like people, wood comes in varieties: Soft, hard, jagged, and smooth. The mesquite tree, common in the American Southwest, is incredibly dualistic in its spirit. The difficult life of this tough, sometimes ugly tree is exactly what enables it to achieve absolute exquisiteness as functional art. Regardless of the dichotomy of the mesquite’s reputation, artisans have learned to tap its inner beauty.
The use of mesquite has become a central component of many artistic pieces sold in galleries throughout the artist’s colony of Tubac, Arizona. From tables and cabinet doors impregnated with local copper to lamps and cutting boards, mesquite has become the wood calling card of the southwest.
Meet the Mesquite
A deciduous tree, the mesquite is native to arid and semi-arid regions of the United States. It belongs to Prosopis genus. Mesquites grow as a single or multiple-stemmed shrubs or trees achieving heights from two to 50 feet. Three types of mesquite grow in the region near Tubac: The honey mesquite, the screwbean mesquite, and the velvet mesquite.
Drought tolerant, mesquites have taproots that extend up to 200 feet below ground. Laterally, roots may spread as far as 50 feet beyond the crown of the tree in search of water. This makes them an excellent choice for xeriscaping in dry, arid regions. Additionally, the mesquite has developed small leaves coated with a waxy substance that diminishes the evaporation of water and prevents the unnecessary loss of water. When conditions get too dry, the tree sheds its leaves to reduce water loss.
The mesquite produces clusters of yellow blossoms full of pollen. This attracts bees, ladybugs, and butterflies. After pollination, the mesquite bursts with seed pods, each holding 5 to 20 beans. These pods are capable of lying dormant for several years.
Another great aspect of the mesquite is its ability to restore nitrogen to the soil. The nectar bees collect from mesquite trees is also known to produce high-quality honey. Wildlife uses the mesquite for shade while seed pods and beans are a source of sustenance for a variety of birds and animals as well as people.
“Devil Trees” & “The Tree of Life”
Due to their invasive nature, mesquites have been referred to as “Devil trees” by ranchers where it grows extensively. They are often blamed for absorbing water, thereby lowering the water table and causing other trees to wither away due to lack of water. Ranchers also often believe the mesquite utilizes water that could be better directed to crops and livestock.
On the flip side, the mesquite was of great importance to Native Americans. Calling it “The Tree of Life,” they used various parts of it in their daily life. Mesquite thorns, which grow up to three inches long, were used as needles. The inner bark was used for fabrics while the wood was formed into bows and arrows ideal for hunting. The mesquite also made great firewood as it burns very slowly and is also a durable building material.
“The mesquite tree has played a role for the indigenous people of the southwest for centuries,” said Steve Vis, a longtime employee at Tubac Territory, a gallery in Tubac carrying mesquite art. “Not only did they use it for wood to craft things and for heat, but the beans were ground into flour.”
Native Americans even used the pods for medicinal purposes. For example, they made a therapeutic tea to treat headaches by crushing the leaves and mixing them with water. The mesquite was also used to treat other ailments such as diarrhea. The roots, bark, leaves, and gum all served as naturopathic medications. An herbal infusion was made with a mixture of mesquite gum and water which treated everything from eye infections to sore throats and gastrointestinal issues.
Color, Grain, & Modern Uses
Today, wood from mesquite is used for carvings, panels, furniture, and parquet floors. Its color, which runs from a light honey gold to dark brown and even red, make it exceptional for wood furnishings. The whirling grain patterns add to its perfection for crafting furniture with rustic appeal.
“Variations in color range from very light to red,” said Cheryl Fangman, an employee of Z Forrest, another gallery in Tubac featuring handcrafted mesquite wood furnishings and goods. “There’s a variation of colors and grains. It’s very durable and sturdy.”
As a result, its bark is ideal for roofing in some regions and the wood itself is even used in construction. Mesquite is also used for cooking as it offers a strong, earthy flavor ideal for an assortment of meats.
Valerie Lavender, who has owned the Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill with her husband, Art Flores, since 2002, said there are two things that really make mesquite a special wood to use in art: The wood’s imperfections and its rich colors.
“Those imperfections and defects turn out to be these beautiful designs in the wood that you don’t find in pine, cedar, or other wood,” Lavender said. “The other thing is the color. It has some really deep colors and those colors darken with exposure to light. It’s called a patina process. Mesquite has a natural patina and the wood continues to darken and enrich over time.”
Mesquite as a Hardwood
Due to the conditions in which it grows, mesquite is one of the hardest woods in the Sonoran Desert. The hardness of wood is measured by the Janka hardness test. This test measures the force required to embed a .444 inch diameter steel ball halfway into a given sample of wood. This determines its ability to withstand denting and wear. Mesquite has a Janka hardness of 2,345 pounds of force. This makes it one of the most durable woods of the Southwest which also means it is difficult to work with.
Gary Rennert, a mesquite artist who winters in Green Valley, sells his pieces in Tubac’s K Newby Gallery owned by Kim Roseman. Rennert enjoys the solitude of working the wood and unveiling its inner glory.
“Mesquite is a very hard wood and it releases its beauty slowly,” he said. “You sort of end up with a prince out of a rough looking wood. The fact that nature grew it in such a hot, difficult environment; it’s really amazing how it is such a beautiful wood. It’s like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Turning the Tables
Tables are a common art crafted from mesquite. Pieces range from coffee and dining to occasion tables. Roseman said Rennert is a master artisan who crafts “live-edge” tables. Roseman said he removes the bark from a tree and cuts a horizontal slab to capture the unique shape of the tree’s exterior as well as the interior splendor of the mesquite.
“The edge of the table is left in the shape of the tree,” said Roseman. “There are nubs where the branches once were. He does those tables and sometimes he does inlay with turquoise and copper. Those are really popular.”
In addition to “live-edge” tables, Rennert produces what he calls “A River Runs Through It” tables. He fills voids where the tree has naturally rotted from the inside out during its lifetime. The holes and pock marks are imbued with turquoise and a fine mica giving the tabletop the appearance of a river flowing inside the wood.
One of the things Rennert most appreciates about mesquite is that though it is a difficult wood to work, he said it’s incredibly durable and will retain its loveliness over time.
“It’s a functional art piece that you can pass down for generations,” he said. “It (mesquite) doesn’t fade. It stays beautiful.”
Chairs That Celebrate Life
Another artist that sells his mesquite creations in the K Newby Gallery, Jeddadiah Emanuel began working with wood as a hobby with his grandfather when he was 7 years old. He began working with mesquite when he moved to Arizona a few years ago and found it difficult, yet rewarding.
“It is a very dense wood,” Emanuel said. “It’s hard on your tools and it’s very satisfying to work with and finish a product with mesquite. Mesquite is now one of my favorite woods to work with as far as hard woods go.”
Like Rennert, he uses rounds (horizontal cuts of the tree) and inlays it to craft distinctive tables but he also produces other pieces including chairs. Emanuel said he combines various woods such as walnut and inlays it with mesquite for diverse effects.
“I use different woods and stones to imbue feelings, emotions, and powers into the pieces,” said Emanuel who spoke spiritually of the wood he works with. “Mesquite wood is local which makes it easy for me but, more importantly, it is viewed as the tree of life in this area.”
Using rounds, Emanuel expresses the entire life of a tree from its exterior to the inner rings in his pieces.
“With it being the tree of life, it seems only fitting to display the tree’s life with these round discs,” he explained. “I feel like when you add mesquite or any kind of precious stone to furniture, it really brings it to life.”
Roseman said the young artist’s walnut and mesquite chairs are a dazzling art form in their own right.
“They are truly artisan-made, dove-tailed chairs that are handcrafted one by one. Each one is unique and individual,” according to Roseman.
A Gift from Arizona
Richard Altenhofen, a Phoenix-based artist who produces pens for galleries across Arizona from the Miraval Resort and Spa to the K Newby Gallery, works on a much smaller scale than many mesquite artists. He started out making furniture in the mid-90s, but soon realized an untapped market for a small, functional gift Arizona visitors could take home with them. That’s when he began crafting Arizona Tribute Pens.
“First of all, there’s a fundamental need, a utilitarian need, for writing instruments,” Altenhofen said. “People need a pen on their desk. It’s perfect for someone who wants a nice fountain pen because they enjoy the art of writing. I also make mechanical pencils.”
A former engineer at Motorola, Altenhofen not only turns the mesquite for his pens and pencils, but he has designed many of his own internal components as well. He crafts fountain pens, rollerball pens, ballpoint pens, and plain mesquite pens among other mesquite products.
Roseman said Altenhofen’s Arizona Tribute Pens, the most popular item she sells in her gallery, include a copper tip, a major commodity of the Grand Canyon state, and turquoise inlay.
“It’s a really great gift for a man,” said Roseman of the pens which exemplify three elements of Arizona. “Women always like jewelry. It seems like people always have a hard time finding a gift for a man.”
Whether for a man or a woman, Altenhofen focuses on making his pens visually appealing. One way he draws people in is by using the burl of the mesquite. A burl is a tree growth in which the grain grows in a deformed manner. This is common among mesquites and typically form as an outgrowth on the trunk. The burl is often filled with small knots, cracks, and fissures which can be filled with black epoxy. This creates a striking contrast with the lighter, natural amber colors of the interior wood.
To craft his pens, Altenhofen starts out with a chunk of mesquite about 12 or 18 inches in diameter. He cuts those chunks into sticks that are ¾ inch square by about 5 inches using a band saw with a bi-metal blade before turning the wood into truly one-of-a-kind writing utensils.
Tours and Mesquite
The Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill was founded in 1982 by Richard Maul, according to Lavender, making it Arizona’s oldest mesquite source open to the public. She said Maul was a true artisan when it came to mesquite and made Tubac a destination when it came to mesquite artwork.
“He really had a love and passion for woodworking and for mesquite,” Lavender said of Maul. “He really put the art of mesquite on the map for this part of Arizona. He started out with cutting boards which is one of the biggest items we sell.”
At the Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill, visitors can take a tour to learn about how mesquite is grown, harvested, and turned into lumber for use in fine art. Members of the public can purchase their own hunks of mesquite, which is harvested responsibly according to Lavender, to handcraft their own art pieces. Guests can also select wood for artists at the sawmill to transform into a unique piece just for them.
“We do everything from harvesting the tree, to cutting the lumber, and creating art with it,” said Lavender, who added the Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill has completed mesquite projects for a number of venues including the Tubac Golf Resort, the San Xavier Mission, the Phoenix Botanical Garden, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to name a few. “We want to familiarize them with the journey of the mesquite. We don’t like to be just a storefront; we like people to really have an experience here.”
Small Treasures from Nature
Michelle Sandoval, owner of Michelle’s Gallery in Tubac, offers custom mesquite furniture orders. She also sells smaller handcrafted mesquite goods folks can take home with them like her most popular seller, mesquite cutting boards that double as cheese boards. Some even have turquoise inlay.
“You can put it in your suitcase or carryon and it’s not like anything you’ll find anywhere else,” Sandoval said. “They don’t flake or chip like other wood cutting boards.”
Sandoval works with Alonzo Gonzalez, a master craftsman from Hermosillo, Sonora, in Mexico because that’s where she said the best mesquite is produced.
“In Hermosillo, there is a forest where mesquite trees are large enough to make furniture,” said Sandoval. “That’s why there’s so much mesquite furniture that comes from Hermosillo.”
Sandoval said Gonzalez kilns his wood with natural sunlight. By the time she gets an order in, the wood is already being prepped. She said this natural drying process keeps the mesquite from warping or falling apart.
Z Forrest, another Tubac Gallery owned by Christine Sisco, features an abundance of mesquite wood from furniture to candle holders. Whether you’re searching for a wine rack, sushi boards, rolling pins, bowls, or lazy susans made of mesquite, Z Forrest is likely to have it. Fangman said all of these artistic pieces are distinctive and that’s what makes them so desirable.
The “Wow” Factor
Like Sandoval, Vis said Tubac Territory owner, Susan Walsh, also partners with an Hermosillo-based artisan, Gustavo Olivas. He works with 10 carpenters, according to Vis, six of which are master carpenters who handcraft some of the world’s most gorgeous mesquite furniture from mantles to bedroom sets.
After mesquite is harvested in Mexico, the lumber, mostly honey mesquite selected for its light coloration, is kiln dried to prevent cracking before use. Vis said the beauty of the wood is in its nature.
“When you finish mesquite, it takes a very soft finish,” he said. “We use Danish oil so when you feel it, you can feel how smooth it is. ‘Wow!’ is normally what I hear when people walk in (to the gallery) for the first time.”
Vis said artists are able to integrate the natural features of the mesquite such as holes, knots, and edges to reveal its inner beauty. It’s this beauty that makes handcrafted mesquite wood so popular in the southwest. According to Vis, three special things come from owning artistic mesquite wood.
“When someone purchases a piece here, they purchase three things,” he said. “One, a piece of furniture; two, a piece of art; three, an heirloom piece. These pieces could never be duplicated and, because it is wood, each piece is uniquely individual.”
Tubac Territory, like many other galleries featuring mesquite products, attempts to use every bit of mesquite wood so none goes to waste.
“We use the smaller pieces of wood to make lazy susans, candle holders, and cutting boards,” said Vis of Tubac Territory’s goal of remaining an environmentally friendly company. “For every tree we harvest, we plant one.”
The practice of replacing each mesquite tree promises future generations the ability to enjoy the beauty of a life grown in the desert. It also promises a mesquite a continued place in the legacy of southwestern art in Tubac and beyond.
Get to Know the Mesquite
Common Species: Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens), Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina), Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), and Creeping Mesquite (Prosopis strombulifera).
Habit: Single or multi-stemmed tree, shrubs
Light and Soil Requirements: Full sun or partial shade with well-drained soil
Bark: Reddish to dark brown
Thorns: Sharp, 2-3 inches long, which present on branches or the trunk
Flowers: Clusters of yellowish blossoms that attract bees
Flowering Season: Spring to autumn
Beans: Present in pods that are 4-9 inches long
Common Uses: Food, serving ware, Firewood, Furniture, and Artwork