"How would you like to sleep inside a work of art?" asks the signpost outside Albuquerque's Nativo Lodge. It's a perfectly appropriate question. Not only are the interiors of most of the hotel's rooms lavishly painted by regional artists, but one of those artists is just now putting the final touches on an epic, five-story mural covering the north, west and south exterior walls of the building.
Nativo Lodge, located on the far north end of Albuquerque just off San Mateo and I-25, is owned and operated by Heritage Hotels and Resorts, which maintains 13 luxury properties around New Mexico including El Monte Sagrado in Taos, Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces, the Inn & Spa at Loretto and the Hotel St. Francis in Santa Fe, and Hotel Chaco and Hotel Albuquerque here in Albuquerque. Since 2016 Nativo Lodge has been working on a project called Artist Rooms. More than 60 or the building's hotel rooms have been transformed by artists from around the Southwest. Joeseph Arnoux, Amanda Beardley, Patrick "CloudFace" Burnham, Nanibah Chacon, Deanna Suazo and Leandra Yazzie are just the tip of the artistic iceberg. Lodge Collection President Nate Wells says the purpose of the project is to "advance and preserve our New Mexico culture and heritage." The original idea was the vision of Heritage Hotels CEO Jim Long, who saw transforming a hotel into a living art gallery as "a great way to tell the Indigenous story going forward." Each room takes about three weeks to design. Nativo eventually hopes to have all of its 120 rooms transformed into Native American works of art.
The Artist Rooms are a mix of traditional Native designs and eye-bending Pop Art. Among the highlights is a gorgeous fourth-floor room with a balcony overlooking the Sandia Mountains. Designed by Jemez artist Michael Toya, room 412 (a.k.a. "If You Believe") freely mixes popular culture icons with traditional Puebloan interpretations of design. It is Star Wars by way of Northern New Mexico, with Imperial Stormtroopers juxtaposed against Indigenous warriors and Princess Leia reinterpreted as a corn maiden.
Toya comes from a family of pueblo artists. "As young as I could be able to pick up a pencil, I was drawing," says Toya. He first sold his art at a Laguna Fest Day in 2009 and soon moved on to the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market. Originally, he stuck to traditional Native imagery, like hummingbirds. But an encounter with Albuquerque's very first Indigenous Comic Con (now rebranded IndigiPop X) in 2016 sparked his "contemporary flair."
"What a cool concept, I thought: Pop Art in cultural art," says Toya. "It was appealing." That first Indigenous Comic Con motivated Toya to mix his family's traditional Jemez Pueblo style with his modern-day movie, TV and comic-book obsessions.
Now Toya has graduated from painting a Star Wars-inspired room at Nativo to decorating the outside walls in a towering mural. Done up in vivid geometric swatches of black and yellow, his nearly completed mural sends horned serpents undulating along the front of the building. Sun symbols, moon phases and stars cover the entrance, while giant dragonflies and hummingbirds fly up the building's sides. “I drew inspiration from my background growing up in a family of artists. All of these designs stem from ancestral culture and what I want to share with visitors when they stay at this hotel and visit our state,” says Toya.
Recalling all the hard work he put into the "If You Believe" room back in 2018, Toya laughs. "I thought that was a big project." But the five-story mural has sent him up into the warm New Mexico air, working from a cherry picker platform. At first Toya was scared by the height. But eventually, he says, "I got my feel for being off the ground. Sixty or 70 feet up, it's pretty intense."
The scale of Toya's work is immense. A seven-foot sun symbol on the building's south wall took him five hours to finish. He estimates he's gone through 10 to 15 gallons of each color paint applying the mural. Even before the murals went up, Toya spent "a couple months" sketching out designs, "two or three for each wall." A computer design technician came in next and mocked up scale images of what each would look like projected onto the outside walls of Nativo Lodge. Although Nate Wells and Jim Long helped choose the finalized designs, Wells insists that all artists working at Nativo have "complete creative autonomy."
Now it's just a matter of getting back in that cherry picker and putting the final touches on the building's north wall. Toya's mural is projected to be finished sometime in the next week, and Wells expects the hotel to do a special unveiling event when it all comes together.
Although he's never before done such a large scale artwork, Toya says, "This has been such a great experience. A blessing."
For more information about Nativo Lodge, its Artist Rooms Project and Michael Toya's new mural, go to nativolodge.com.
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