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Are art and architecture not what you think of when someone mentions Yuma? As it does in all kinds of ways, this vibrant city in the southwestern corner of Arizona will surprise you.

Walls of Wonder

In fact, even before you get off the highway, you’ll get an eyeful of Yuma’s approach to public art: a ginormous and colorful triptych of a desert scene spread across three huge water tanks that tower above the interstate.

Created by Tucson artist Tim Merrick, the murals were completed in 1999 at a cost of $50,000 – and caused a pretty big splash of controversy at the time. But The Rio Project later earned an award from the Governor’s Pride in Arizona Committee, and most Yumans are now pleased that the tanks offer an artful welcome to town – along with about 3 million gallons of vital water. Want to know more? Quench your curiosity at writer Sam Lowe’s invaluable website.

Bridging the Past

Yuma bridge 5 crop - credit Corral_Edit_Final.jpgAnother roadside attraction is just downhill, where a stylized steamboat chugs across the bridge that carries 16th Street across the interstate. Because it’s a major gateway, the city of Yuma and its Parks, Arts and Culture Commission wanted to enhance the structure when the bridge was expanded.

The steamboat theme – carried further by historic photos embossed into the bridge’s concrete portals – portrays the era of Yuma’s history when steamboats were the dominant mode of transportation along the Colorado River. See more on the architect’s website.

A Sensory Experience

Off the highway and on the river, a unique “sound and light” show gives an even more vivid glimpse into Yuma’s history, with laser beams that trace the path of the first rail bridge across the Colorado River as the sound of a steam train’s arrival echoes from speakers.

You’ll find this high-tech installation at Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, on Madison Avenue at the Colorado River, along with a 1907 steam locomotive kids of all ages can admire and also clamber over.

Art in Motion

The same mix of old and new shines forth at the Yuma Art Center, 254 S. Main St., where a modern building that opened in 2004 adjoins the Historic Yuma Theatre, originally built as a Vaudeville house in 1911 and restored to the Art Deco glory of a Depression-era renovation. Don’t miss the murals, original light fixtures and plaster bas-relief.

In the theater, you can catch diverse entertainment, from foreign films to Chinese acrobats, while the nonprofit Yuma Fine Arts Association host rotating exhibits in the spectacular gallery spaces from artists with local, regional, national and international reputations.

The Art Center is also the heart of several outdoor art events, including evening Art Walks that extend throughout downtown businesses (November 2013 and May 2014) and ARTbeat (April 19, 2014), a juried show that features local and regional artists working in a variety of media, along with live entertainment. For more information, call (928) 373-5202.

The Art Center is also a venue for an event that’s become an institution. For more than 30 years, the Yuma Art Symposium has drawn artists from across the nation for what its organizers describe as “comfort food for hungry artists.” From the pin auction to the “saw, file & solder sprints,” the Symposium is like nothing else under the sun. In 2014, it runs February 20–22.

Seen in the City

If you wander down Main Street, you’ll also find more interesting public art, including a giant fork that’s near but not literally in the road. Sponsored in part by a neighboring restaurant, the giant utensil meets one criteria of the city’s four-pronged Art in Public Places Master Plan, namely whimsy.

Examples of some of the others – culture, history and nature – can be found in various locations, from City Hall to Desert Hills Golf Course to the West Wetlands Park on the riverfront. The latter contains twining branches and leaves on wrought-iron gates and restroom doors that carry out a natural theme, artwork created by local college students surrounding a solar array that powers park lighting and a bronze statue commemorating the history-making march of the Mormon battalion.

Stately Structure

Still looking for evidence that cutting-edge art and architecture can be found in every corner of Arizona? Fittingly, you can find it in Yuma’s new federal courthouse.

Set to be dedicated in October 2013, the John M. Roll United States Courthouse commemorates the judge who was one of its biggest champions. Judge Roll was killed in the 2011 shooting that took the lives of five others and wounded 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
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Part of a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of Yuma’s historic riverfront, the building’s design puts a Southwestern twist on classic courthouse design with locally sourced sandstone and living walls made of vines planted on steel trellises to shade windows.

Its centerpiece is a 10,000-square-foot canopy of photovoltaic panels that will provide shade while generating one quarter of the building’s electrical needs – features that are expected to earn the project LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Led by Ehrlich Architects and Sundt Construction, the project’s team won honors for design excellence from the Design-Build Institute of America’s Western Pacific Region in the spring of 2013.

Surprised to learn Yuma is bursting with public art and innovative architecture? Discover other unexpected pleasures that await you in the world’s sunniest city at www.visityuma.com, or call the Yuma Visitors Bureau at (800) 293-0071.

(Brought to you by the Yuma Visitors Bureau, (800) 293-0071, www.visityuma.com.