Rebirth: giving up the ghost-town image Arizona: A one-time mining community, Jerome has reinvented itself as an artists' colony, attracting an assortment of odd characters as residents -- and more than 250,000 visitors a year

Destination: The Southwest

June 28, 1998|By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Joanne P. Cavanaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Welcome to Jerome," says the man in the gray hat and the curly red beard.

I detect a familiar long O in his greeting. This is Dan Kimling, sidewalk storyteller, a self-made artist who blends into the old mining town's Western decor, his long hair and beard reflecting Sycamore Canyon's red rock. He was born and raised in Laurel. Now, he's somewhere else.

"It's the place, it's the attitude of the people," Kimling says, his Baltimore accent carrying an odd ring here on Cleopatra Hill. "I came here three years ago from Phoenix for a three-day job and haven't been able to leave. You've got people from all walks of life, from every end of the spectrum. We have no crime and the only drugs here are the ones we do."

The tiny town of Jerome, Ariz., is one of those tucked-away secret places an awful lot of people seem to know about. About 45 minutes from Sedona, the mile-high community hangs on the cliffs of central Arizona's Black Hills, a morning drive from Prescott or Flagstaff. But, to those who have spent any time with the town's inhabitants, it's more like the "Northern Exposure" of the Southwest.

This is the kind of town where a guy named Sequoia jams on bongos, saying things like: "It's art unfolding in the moment. It's a mutual thing." A folk singer of 70-plus years rides down the mountain road in no more than her boots and bicycle helmet, just to "wake everybody up." The pizza chef is a poet, the dishwasher a songwriter. Everyone who moves here remembers the first person they met; and that person likely had a name like Fern or Starr. Television sets are unplugged, broken or too expensive to buy. And doors and windows are unlocked, futons dragged onto porches to take advantage of a midnight breeze.

'Jeromaniacs' live here

"This is the backwash of the avant-garde of the 1970s," says Esther Burton, 68, a songwriter who says she lived in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere before settling in Jerome in 1977. Here, if she's in the mood, you may get her to sing one of her folk songs. Take this snippet from a guitar-accompanied tribute to Elvis Presley: "I gotta know that I'm dead, because I smell so bad."

Jerome locals, Burton explains one evening during an impromptu jam session, have their own moniker. "We are called Jeromaniacs, instead of Jeromians. We are maniacal about our independence."

Once known as the "Billion Dollar Copper Camp" and later "The Largest Ghost City in America," Jerome today sees more than 250,000 visitors a year. Travelers come for the panoramic view of canyons along the Verde Valley, or a taste of wicked Wild West-flavored history. More and more, they're stopping at the community's two dozen art shops and galleries.

Over the years, the one-time mining town has established its reputation as a Bohemian hideaway and a traveler's discovery. When I told people back on the East Coast about my trip, I'd hear this sort of response: "I've been to Jerome! I bought earrings there."

Visitors come here just hoping to meet an artist or two. While I was walking around the San Francisco-angled streets taking notes, a thin, gray-haired woman stopped me: "Are you sketching?" she asked breathlessly. It wouldn't be too difficult to stumble across a creative soul. Jerome's population is only about 500, counting children. The number of artists: about 150. The ghost-town image is fading.

John and Dee Ann Sullivan were out West for their daughter's wedding in Flagstaff, traveling from Huntingtown in Maryland's Calvert County. They stopped in Jerome for a day off from nuptial planning, and wandered into Esser Gallery, a shop where whimsical, buck-toothed papier-mache masks line the wall behind a counter strung with leather-crafted purses.

"This place reminds me of Provincetown, Mass.," said John Sullivan, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, class of '70, who was sporting his alma mater's jacket and cap that day. "You know, an artists' colony."

"You just never know what you'll see in the shops," said Dee Ann Sullivan. "Just look at those masks, my gosh."

In the small galleries and shops lining the town's few blocks, visitors can find innovative artwork: a wooden clock sculpture of a man running in baby shoes; palm-sized busts carved out of Ecuadorean rain-forest nuts; bold-brushed landscapes inspired by the area's carved canyons; or classic nudes in oil on large canvases.

"I don't know anybody who isn't an artist," said Nancy Weisel, manager of Raku Gallery on Hull Avenue, which represents 300 artists from Jerome and elsewhere. "I don't know how many really make a living at it."

Artistic evolution

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