‘Love Affair’ with the Desert: Diana Madaras shows the colorful side of Tucson

By Laura Latzko

Tucson gallery owner and painter Diana Madaras has had a 45-year love affair with the city’s landscape and wildlife.

Each fall, she takes that relationship and parlays it into her annual show. This year, she dubbed it “Love Affair,” and it runs from Saturday, October 23, to Sunday, November 7, at her gallery.

For “Love Affair,” Madaras painted desert landscapes and floral scenes as well as portraits of different domestic and wild animals, including birds, bobcats, coyotes, horses and bison.

Madaras was inspired by spots in Southern Arizona, including Hacienda del Sol and Santa Catalina Mountains, as well as Rancho de la Osa in Sasabe, and places in Wyoming and South Dakota.

She tried to incorporate important details — such as the pots that the plants were placed in at Hacienda del Sol — into scenes in her paintings.

For reference, she uses photos taken by herself and a photographer friend. 

“You have to start with a good reference to make a good painting,” Madaras says. “I have thousands of photos, and sometimes I will look through them and see what captures my imagination at any particular time.”

This year, the show will feature three new pieces from “The Masters Series,” in which Madaras recreates the styles of renowned painters using saguaros as the focal point. Her newest pieces are in the styles of Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and Raphael.

For the Pollock-inspired piece, she used a paint-splattering technique. Within the Kahlo-inspired piece, she painted an image of Kahlo on a saguaro cactus.

Thus far, she completed eight works of art for the series, which was inspired by artist John Nieto, who combined Native American subject matter with a Picasso-inspired cubist style.

“I thought that was very interesting and wanted to try my hand at painting my subject matter, which is more of the desert, in the style of Picasso,” she says.

“That was one of the first ones, and it led to more and more because it was so much fun.”

Stately saguaros

Madaras has used saguaros in her work for years and was not at a shortage for inspiration.

“I’ve painted the saguaros so many times that I know the shape pretty well. I can paint saguaros from memory,” Madaras says. “It’s an iconic representation of the Sonoran Desert. It’s one of the only places that has saguaros. They are so stately, and each one has personality.”

Madaras, who uses watercolor and acrylic paints and pastels, has been working as an artist for about the last 25 years.

The impressionist painter is known for her use of vibrant colors and her nature-themed subject matter. She often tries to highlight the beauty within everyday scenes.

She says her style continues to evolve, but it still retains signature elements.

“I never want to lock myself into anything, but I think you can recognize pieces as ‘Madaras’ pieces,’” says Madaras, a signature member of the Southern Arizona Watercolor Guild.

“You will see some very traditional Madaras pieces in this show and then some that are more experimental, but that’s pretty typical for me.”

Throughout the years, Madaras’ artwork has been featured in the Tucson Museum of Art, the estate of a former president of Mexico and resorts. Along with painting, another passion of Madaras is giving back to her community.

Madaras founded the nonprofit organization Art for Animals in 1999 to help injured, abused and orphaned animals through art. The foundation has raised more than $200,000 during the last 20 years for various animal causes.

She has had a love and respect for animals from an early age. Growing up in New Jersey, her father was a veterinarian.

“I grew up in my dad’s veterinary hospital, taking care of animals from the time that I could walk,” Madaras says.

Madaras has also supported the Boys & Girls Club, the Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

Passionate about painting

Madaras enjoyed painting in high school and college, but she wasn’t encouraged to be an artist.  She was on a very different path before she decided to pursue art in her 30s.

Formerly, Madaras owned a sports marketing company. It was during a trip to Greece in 1993 that she picked up a brush.

“I saw somebody’s work and got inspired to paint again,” she says. “I had stopped for many years. A professor at the University of Arizona saw my work and invited me to paint with his group in Greece, and it changed my life.”

When she started, she was painting buildings and landscapes from the Bahamas. A commission from a local friend encouraged her to paint the desert landscape and then animals.

“That’s the first time I painted the desert, and I just really loved doing it. And then the animals came later,” Madaras says.

Madaras hopes the new exhibition spotlights her deep passion for being an artist. 

“I love the whole painting scene, every aspect of it, from taking a photo for reference, to creating a design, to painting it, to framing it, to selling it. I love all aspects of the artist experience,” Madaras says.

Madaras says over the last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, painting helped her to stay centered.

“It is meditative for me and peaceful,” Madaras says.


More info

What: “Love Affair” Gallery Show

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, from Saturday, October 23, to Sunday, November 7

Where: Madaras Gallery, 3035 N. Swan Road

Cost: Free admission

Info: 520-615-3001, madaras.com

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