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Monsoon Stories 2018: Photographer, Painter On Capturing The Essence Of The Monsoon

Artist Laura Thurbon
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
file | staff
Artist Laura Thurbon.

From the heat, to the rain, to the storms — the monsoon is a uniquely Arizona time of year. Some love it, some hate it. How do you feel about monsoon when it comes every year?  We want to know what YOU think for a series we’re doing on The Show.  Share your monsoon thoughts with us!

LAUREN GILGER: Monsoon season here in Arizona is both violent and beautiful. Powerful winds and rain can flood streets and destroy homes. But the storms also bring at least temporary relief from the oppressive desert heat and much needed water to our perpetually dry city. My favorite part of the monsoon storms are the hours right afterward, when the rain stops and the city smells like creosote and wet asphalt. It's like the whole city can take a deep breath, now that the heat has broken and the storm has passed. Every year the monsoon season stirs up the desert, and this year, we're starting a series about the monsoon to talk about how it stirs us all up, too.

LAURA THURBON: The colors are absolutely amazing and breathtaking.

GILGER: Today, we're speaking with a couple of people who take the monsoon and make something out of it, starting with artist Laura Thurbon.

THURBON: So I have a lot of gray tones and a lot of blue tones ...

GILGER: She's standing in front of a few of her paintings that are on display at Gallery Andrea in Scottsdale. They're not literal depictions of the desert's monsoon storms. Instead, you see layer upon layer of colors — yellows and blues and greens — that all look like they are in fluid motion.

THURBON: And kind of the shine of the sun coming through all these dark colors, so you can actually see the sun coming through. It is, you know, lighting up. It's that moment that is absolutely so gorgeous in Arizona.

GILGER: She layers light and dark oil paints to look like sunlight filtering through the monsoon clouds, the behemoths that captured her imagination when she first came to the Valley.

THURBON: I'm from Peru. I'm from Lima, and of course, when I came here to Arizona — it was 17 years ago — I have never ever seen a monsoon. The first time that I saw it, to me, it was so powerful and so incredibly beautiful and at the same time, so scary because I've never heard thunder. I mean, I've never, you know, seen all this lightning, and to me, it was kind of a panic the first time that I have to live it because I didn't know. Of course, the rain was pouring so hard and I was like, "Where'd this come from?" Open your eyes. Look at the sky. Look at the beautiful weather. I mean, it just comes with so many different colors and different shades and different lightning and different kind of type of lights that we don't see in an everyday Arizona day. So really look out the window. There is like all these amazing colors and light that you won't see in a normal day.

GILGER: Laura Thurbon's monsoon paintings are on display, along with other monsoon art, at Gallery Andrea in Scottsdale. Our next monsoon maker captures the storm right when it happens.

DANNY UPSHAW: People like to call me a storm chaser, but I don't think I really chase them. I just kind of wait for them. I'm not really a storm chaser, just storm waiter.

GILGER: For local photographer Danny Upshaw, the first time he took a photo of a monsoon storm sparked his interest in photography to begin with.

UPSHAW: So at the time, I was just in school and I was just at this kind of like an internship for a graphic design job, you know. Nothing I was too passionate about. But they had cameras there at the office and I was kind of tinkering with them at that time, and on that day, I was on my way to a friend's place. He lives on the base of South Mountain and all I remember is just driving up, maybe it was like 20th Ave or something like that, and just remember seeing this, like, tiny cloud just peek over the South Mountain, like the peaks. As they get closer, it just comes faster, and I thought I'd never seen anything like this before and just pulled over immediately to, like, take some photos with my phone.

GILGER: That semi-blurry cellphone photo was the first of hundreds, probably thousands, of monsoon storms that Upshaw would take. He remembers the moment clearly.

UPSHAW: I remember it just being really still, just like how it is even in this studio, and as soon as it hit, like, a gust of wind and dust, and it was, like, raining in this storm. It was crazy. I've never seen anything like that before.

GILGER: He got back in the car and made his way to his friends house, about a quarter mile away.

UPSHAW: And it was actually pretty scary because you couldn't see in front of you, more than like, 10 feet. There was a couple of cars that were pulled over. I remember just going really slow to try to be really cautious. When I got there, it probably would rain for like a good 30 minutes just non-stop.

GILGER: The next day he saw a time lapse video of the storm online.

UPSHAW: I thought, "What is time lapse? I've never heard of this." I was just getting in to using cameras, and after that, I kind of start researching on what you need to do to capture an image like that and what time lapse meant. At that time, I was just doing graphic design, and I think that kind of launched my career now, which now I do video and motion graphics because just tinkering with video and time lapse kind of just led me that direction.

GILGER: Today when he knows a storm is coming, he prepares.

UPSHAW: Usually, the whole day I just kind of get cameras ready and kind of pick out a couple locations that I might think work. I feel like you can plan as much as he can, but the planning, I mean everything, you know, it never goes according to plan. I have a couple of friends who live downtown and they're able to let me on their roof or there's a couple parking garages that are accessible. There's been a few times where I've been on rooftops where security would come and ask me to leave and I'm like, "No there's a storm coming right there! I already set up, can you just wait, like, ten more minutes?"

GILGER: Did they let you wait?

UPSHAW: No, no.

GILGER: He says he's an advocate for Phoenix, downtown Phoenix in particular, and he wants to share that, to show people how Phoenix is more than just blue skies and cactus.

UPSHAW: I mean, I think there's a lot of life here, and that brings a lot of life. I mean, up until lately, our first storm here, it was pretty blue skies, pretty warm, not much happening. But I think once you see a time lapse in its full form, like, edited and everything, you see how dynamic the weather is here and that kind of opens people's eyes to appreciate it so much more.

GILGER: Upshaw is Navajo, and he says when he was a child and visited his grandmother on the Navajo Nation, the storms always represented something more.

UPSHAW: I mean, I grew up with a grandmother who would chase us outside and make us go in the rain. She would say, "You're washing off the bad stuff with the good rain."

GILGER: That was photographer Danny Upshaw, and as we continue our series on the monsoon, we want to hear what you think about it. How do you feel about this uniquely Arizona time of year? Send us a note, or even better, a voice memo telling us your monsoon story. You can send those to  [email protected] or call and leave us a voicemail at 480-774-8299. You can get all the details of that on our website, as well. You might end up on air as part of our series.

Share your monsoon thoughts with us!

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.