Walking in the open desert near her home in Green Valley, artist Rita Renella saw pieces of what she describes as “beautiful desert driftwood.”

New to the area two years ago, she soon learned those distinctive remains were once live skeletons of prickly, thorny cholla cactus.

Without their small, wart-like, sharp spines, Renella picked up some pieces not knowing what she would do with them.

Today, those dried, brown, lack-luster pieces of cholla wood and other desert finds have been transformed by Renella into one-of-a-kind art pieces to hang or lay flat for display.

“Sometimes it was just a piece sticking out of the ground, and the shapes were covered in dirt. Once I cleaned them, I thought … I know there’s something in there,” she said of her early discoveries.

To turn these fascinating findings into artistic pieces, she headed to Tucson hoping to find the right embellishments to make each piece something unusual and artful.

“I bought amber, turquoise, hematite, agate, jasper, and malachite — and antique marbles to add luster — and I added oxidized and colored copper-wire. Then I had to find the right stone to fit a hole …” she said as she showed a display table of her artistic sea-like transformations.

Displayed on a blue plastic tablecloth, the now-finished pieces Renella calls “Sticks and Stones” show how various pieces of minerals, decorative colored wire, and coats of different lacquers can transform the remains of once healthy but spiny cholla cactus and other desert finds into unique pieces of display art that may look like an alligator, crocodile or lizard. Or perhaps a snake, turtle or other reptile and amphibian floating on water.

Gary Sweeney, Renella’s husband, said he isn’t surprised at what she’s done.

“I am so used to her doing art, it’s second nature. I’ve always encouraged her,” he commented.

Renella had planned to show and sell her “Sticks and Stones” decorative pieces at a Desert Meadows Art-in-the-Park event in April until large gatherings were canceled.

She has lived abroad in Afghanistan, London, Amsterdam, Morocco, Istanbul and a few other places. Part of her discovery process in creating unusual pieces of art is learning the lay of the land of where she is and finding what’s available locally.

One art piece Renella created in New York City in 1998 is from her memories of Morocco a year earlier.

“Tangier Casbah #14: Still Lost and Loving It” is an etching on blackened plexiglass and measures 26½ inches wide by 22½ inches high unframed.

She explained her process to create it: “I photo-printed the original etched panel. I cut the print into eight pieces, enlarged them all and laminated them on to plexiglass with polycrylic,” a water-based protective coating.

It appears that no matter where Renella is or what material she may come upon, she can transform it into a distinctive and unusual piece of individual art.

With an original, artistic and imaginative collection of about 150 pieces of “Sticks and Stones” in different sizes and shapes, Renella looks forward to showing and selling her creative pieces in 2021 while continuing to create whatever comes next.

Contact Green Valley News freelance reporter Ellen Sussman at ellen2414@cox.net