I landed in Tucson on a hot November afternoon. The crisp, dry desert air stung my throat. Inside her Jeep, my friend Elaine blasted the air conditioning — until I asked her to please turn it off. I welcomed the heat like I did super-spicy food, and having arrived from Minnesota, I'd been cold long enough.

Outside the Jeep's windows, cactuses sprouted from the red earth and jagged mountains lined the horizon.

"I hate it when people's first view of Tucson is this long stretch of land," Elaine said as we sped away from the airport. It wouldn't be long before we arrived at "the pretty part," she said, but by desert standards I still wasn't sure what that meant. I was in love with the unfamiliarity of this landscape.

Tucson is a place of natural beauty, with giant cactuses sprouting green arms bent in awkward ways. The dustiness snuck up on me; instead of grass, front yards display thick coatings of sand, pebbles and succulent plants. But I came to the city hoping to find a different kind of sight: its rich local arts scene.

Much of the artwork I encountered in Tucson — an eclectic college town that lies less than 70 miles from Mexico — explores the highly politicized U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the natural beauty and funkiness of this place. Tucson has a vibrant arts scene, which includes some big names that I didn't know lived here and younger artists who were getting their start in curiously located galleries.

Our trek to discover the best of Tucson's art began over coffee. Morning sun shone through the floor-to-ceiling windows at Exo Coffee, a sleek brick-walled place where people toting laptops arrive at 7 a.m. to nab a place at the sturdy wood tables for some writing time. I picked up my soy latte and asked a hip barista where the cool art was happening here. He smiled and suggested that I stop by the vintage clothing store How Sweet It Was to check out the store's mini-gallery that shows mostly Tucson-based artists.

We strutted through the dusty parking lot to our car, and drove past a bright "Greetings From Tucson" mural painted on a downtown brick wall. A purple-and-orange sunset scene with a Saguaro cactus fills the "U"; Mexican food looks delicious inside the "N."

We whizzed by on our way to How Sweet It Was, near Tucson's hip 4th Avenue, a street lined with eclectic restaurants and shops. There's a vinyl record store, a couple of hookah lounges, lots of vintage boutiques and a store devoted to witchcraft.

We went straight to How Sweet It Was, where the low-key gallery Art Party tucks into the front.

Owner Crissy Burgstaler came up with Art Party in 2017 in part as a way to draw new folks into the shop.

"Every artist brings their own following," the manager, Kaylee Ducote, told me. One such artist, Titus Castanza, a landscape oil painter and a teacher, brought in his students. The gallery, where exhibitions change monthly, focuses on artists at the beginning of their careers, experimenting with what's sellable.

When I stopped in, artist Matthew Diggins' portraits, mostly of white women, lined the walls. Each portrait looked as if it could have been vintage, but it was unclear — and a curious way to play with perceptions. We were at a vintage store, after all. In one painting, a blond woman with a white patch over her left eye sits at a table, a landscape painting of green pastures behind her, and a bowl of oranges and a single lemon in front of her.

Truisms: a nice surprise

All this looking at food in art was making me hungry, so we drove over to Hotel Congress for lunch. Most people know of this historic hotel because it's where gangster John Dillinger was shot on Jan. 22, 1934. It should also be famous for its artwork.

The historic decor in the Southwest Deco-style main lounge offers the perfect backdrop for a rotating exhibition of artworks in the Lobby Gallery. When I was there, Tucson artist Lauri Kaye displayed her portrait series of mixed media drawings on brushed metal, capturing a range of people from a man named Alberto, who recently got out of prison, to women of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and many more.

At the Cup Café just off the main lobby, I was startled to find a series of black-text-on-white-paper. Hung on the wall above the dessert fridge, where cakes endlessly spin around until someone orders a slice, are Truisms by American artist Jenny Holzer, known for her works of words and ideas such as "thinking too much can only cause trouble." (Benches with Truisms by Holzer have long been a part of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.) The Hotel Congress bought these pieces from Holzer in the early 1990s, when she was a Tucson resident and before she was famous, a waitress explained to me. "I agree with maybe half of those statements," she added, defiantly.

Border as subject

After coming across Holzer's work, I went to find more political art. Off we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), in an old downtown fire station.

Inside the warehouselike space, I experienced Paul Turounet's "Estamos Buscando A" (closed Dec. 31), a hulking work about the U.S.-Mexico border. Using actual pieces of the original border wall built in the mid-1990s and salvaged in 2005, Turounet built an eerie experience. One side was the U.S., a perfectly clean gray metal wall with a manicured dirt floor and signs that declare "U.S. Property No Trespassing." The other side of the wall, the Mexico side, was anything but austere. It was filled with photos of migrants and their stories and raw emotions. Plants, shoes, bottles and clothing littered the uneven ground. On the wall itself hung steel plate photographs which were both spiritual in nature and signs for other migrants who would cross — or attempt to cross — the border. The installation began as a public art piece, with portraits of migrants installed on the border wall in Tijuana and between the Pacific Ocean and the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

In the second exhibition at MOCA, housed in a small gallery, Ginger Shulick Porcella curated "Nothing to Declare: Transnational Narratives" (also closed Dec. 31) about the border. In Lana Z. Caplan's piece "Maelstroms," the artist creates a video loop of heat-sensitive camera footage from the U.S. Border Patrol and military bombing drones. But the most powerful piece in this part of the show is also the simplest.

Nearby, in a white room with nothing but a shelf winding around the walls, sat a single brick imprinted with the word "Mexico."

This was no ordinary brick. It came from an abandoned brick factory in Sasabe, Sonora, and was smuggled across the valley that separates Sasabe from Tucson, along the same route used to move drugs and undocumented migrants. The brick was delivered to the front door of MOCA by a trafficker the artists had paid with a grant from the museum. It cost $1,500, roughly what it costs for a person to cross. The artist, Miguel Fernandez de Castro, highlighted the dynamic of money from an American institution funding an illegal activity in Mexico, and also how that activity could ultimately bring revenue to or be consumed by U.S. citizens. Curator Porcella said that in fact, "he tried to have three bricks sent, but only one made it to the museum."

As we pondered the powerful nature of this piece, we found our way to the exit. Tucson's warmth charmed me again.

Alicia Eler • 612-673-4438