“Would you like to sleep inside a work of art? asks the sign outside the Nativo Lodge in Albuquerque. It’s a perfectly appropriate question. Not only are the interiors of most of the hotel’s rooms richly painted by regional artists, but one of those artists has just put the finishing touches on an epic five-story mural covering the north, west and exterior walls. south of the building.
Nativo Lodge, located in the far north of Albuquerque just off San Mateo and I-25, is owned and operated by Heritage Hotels and Resorts, which manages 13 luxury properties around New Mexico, including El Monte Sagrado in Taos, Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces, the Inn & Spa at Loretto and 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 hotel rooms in the building have been transformed by artists from 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 said the goal 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 the transformation of a hotel into a living art gallery as “a great way to tell Indigenous history in the future”. Each piece takes about three weeks to design. Nativo hopes to eventually transform all of its 120 rooms into Native American artwork.
The Artist Rooms are a mix of traditional Aboriginal designs and stunning Pop Art. Highlights include a gorgeous fourth-floor bedroom with a balcony overlooking the Sandia Mountains. Designed by Jemez artist Michael Toya, Room 412 (aka “If You Believe”) freely mixes popular culture icons with traditional Puebloan interpretations of design. He is star wars through northern New Mexico, with Imperial Stormtroopers juxtaposed with native warriors and Princess Leia reinterpreted as a corn maiden.
Toya comes from a family of Pueblo artists. “As young as I might 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 to the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market. Originally, he stuck to traditional native imagery, such as hummingbirds. But an encounter with Albuquerque’s first-ever Indigenous Comic Con (now renamed IndigiPop X) in 2016 sparked his “contemporary flair.”
“What a cool concept, I thought: Pop Art in cultural art,” says Toya. “It was attractive.” This first Native Comic Con motivated Toya to blend his family’s traditional Jemez Pueblo style with his modern obsessions with film, television and comics.
Today, Toya graduated from painting a star wars-room inspired in Nativo to decorate the exterior walls in an imposing fresco. Done in vivid geometric shades of black and yellow, its near-completed mural sends horned serpents rippling along the facade of the building. Solar symbols, moon phases and stars cover the entrance, while giant dragonflies and hummingbirds fly around the sides of the building. “I was inspired by my childhood 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.
Remembering all the hard work he put into the “If You Believe” room in 2018, Toya laughs. “I thought this was a big project. But the five-story mural sent him into the hot air of New Mexico, working from a cherry-picking rig. At first, Toya was afraid of heights. But eventually, he says, “I felt like I was off the ground. Sixty or 70 feet up, it’s pretty intense.
The scale of Toya’s work is immense. A seven-foot solar symbol on the south wall of the building took him five hours to complete. He estimates that he went through 10-15 gallons of each paint color while applying the wall paint. Even before the murals were put up, Toya spent “a few months” drawing designs, “two or three for each wall”. A computer design technician came next and simulated scale images of what each would look like projected onto the exterior 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 all that’s left to do is climb back into this lifting platform and put the finishing touches on the north wall of the building. Toya’s mural is expected to be completed sometime next week, and Wells expects the hotel to hold a special unveiling event when it all comes together.
Although he has never made such a large-scale artwork, Toya says, “It was a great experience. A blessing.”
For more information on Nativo Lodge, its artists’ bedroom project and Michael Toya’s new mural, visit nativolodge.com.