Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Unless you live there, it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to look out of the windows of Taos Pueblo and watch the sun rise, reach its zenith, and then dissolve into twilight and finally darkness punctuated by shimmering starlight.
You can come close though, thanks to a room that Taos Pueblo artist David Gary Suazo finished painting on the fifth floor of the Nativo Lodge in Albuquerque on Feb. 20. The inn, which is owned by Heritage Hotels and Resorts, has invited Native artists to decorate its rooms.
Suazo is the first member of the Taos Pueblo to have an artist room at the Nativo, where about 60 of the 144 hotel rooms feature Native creations.
Suazo’s daughter, DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo, finished a room in December at the Nativo, across the hall from her father’s room. She is half Navajo (Diné) and is a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
The trailblazer in the family, however, was DeAnna’s mother, Geraldine Tso, who decorated a room called “Blue Day, Visit to the Pueblo” in 2016.
Tso, who is Navajo, was born in Gallup, but moved to Taos after marrying Suazo. Her room has a striking mural about visiting the pueblo with family and friends. But it also incorporates the landscape of Tso’s Navajo homeland in Coyote Canyon with a series of paintings that hang over the bed.
Tso, who considers herself to be self-taught, has exhibited her work in many Indian markets around the country. She has won best of show in such juried events as the San Juan Bautista Art Show and the Parkview Fine Art Show in Aurora, Colorado.
Suazo and Tso divorced 15 years ago, but they remain business partners. Both are keenly interested in the future of their children and the family’s legacy. Suazo carries Tso’s work in his Evening Snow Comes Gallery, located inside Taos Pueblo next to the visitor center.
A native of Taos, Suazo was raised in Denver, where he attended high school. The family moved to Colorado because employment opportunities were more plentiful there than in New Mexico, he said.
Suazo returned to Taos in 1987 and has lived and worked there ever since. Like his daughter and former wife, he studied at IAIA in Santa Fe. In fact, mutual friends from IAIA introduced Tso and Suazo a year after they graduated.
Despite New Mexico’s well-deserved reputation for nepotism, each member of the family won their commission to decorate a room at the Nativo independently.
“I had no idea they were related,” said Maresa Thompson, proprietor of Constellation Creative LLC and curator for the Nativo’s artist rooms. “Their styles are very different and no one mentioned the other. It’s a happy accident that we have a family represented at the Nativo.”
Tso’s room is the most traditional of the three rooms created by the family. It draws on personal experience and memories. As she notes in her artist statement for her room, her style is influenced by RC Gorman and the Taos Art Society.
One painting on the wall in the Blue Day room features three pumpkins, representing her three children. In addition to DeAnna, she and Suazo have another daughter, Shindine Suazo, and a son, Dexter Suazo.
All the children began drawing around the age of 2½, according to their mother. However, Shundine and Dexter are currently involved in the food business rather than pursuing art full time.
Dexter is head chef at Martyrs Steakhouse, just off the Plaza in Taos, while Shundine has taken an entrepreneurial route with the Shundine Fry Bread Stand on Pueblo Street in Taos.
David Suazo said he and his ex-wife taught their children to have a fallback career for times when the art market is dormant. “Geraldine and I both come from families who have been creating art for generations. But sometimes, it’s not possible to be a full-time artist. That’s why it’s good to have skills that can be used in the food industry.”
Although having an art gallery inside the Taos Pueblo is a seemingly enviable position, Suazo said the pueblo’s religious activities put restrictions on commerce. That’s why he travels a lot, offering his paintings for sale at art shows and displaying his work in such galleries as True West in Santa Fe.
On his website, Suazo encourages potential visitors to his gallery to first call the Taos Pueblo Visitor Center at 575-758-1028 to make sure the pueblo is open to the public.
Much of Sauzo’s work draws on the architecture of the Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there is a striking asymmetry to his structures. It’s as if the pueblo met the classic German horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” where buildings and objects are tilted at unexpected angles.
Still, there’s nothing foreboding about Suazo’s cheerful paintings, which have attracted collectors from all over the world. His work has been honored by Eight Northern Pueblos (of which Taos Pueblo is one), the annual SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe, and other art markets and museums.
Suazo is a master of trompe l’oeil. Windowsills, doors and other architectural elements appear three-dimensional, even though they are painted on a flat surface. In his artist room at the Nativo, which he has not yet named, he painted a door on the wall after being disappointed to find there wasn’t one in the room. To make it look realistic, he went to the nearby Jackalope, a retailer that has a variety of folk art, and bought a rustic handle that he attached to the door.
If Tso is the quiet traditionalist and Suazo the energetic marketer, their daughter DeAnna is the revolutionary in the family. Her eye-popping portraits of young women fuse Native imagery and an aesthetic straight out of Japanese anime. She’s been heavily influenced by graffiti and other street art. Her palette is out of this world.
“See that character on the wall?” she asks. “I’ve been working on her for at least 13 years. I want my Native women to have sass, to have attitude. I’m tired of obedient women.”
Tso said that when she and her daughter visited New York City for an exhibit of DeAnna’s art at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, near Battery Park, they took time to wander around looking for graffiti and other outsider art. “DeAnna is inspired by the streets,” Tso said.
Thompson, the former creative director of Heritage Hotels who came up with the concept of artist rooms at the Nativo, said, “I have never seen anything like DeAnna’s art. It’s so fresh. It’s so pop.”
Thompson said she got the idea for artist rooms in the Nativo after visiting the Hotel des Arts in San Francisco and seeing rooms decorated with the work of Shepard Fairey, best known for the “Hope” poster that he created for President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
She was able to sell Jim Long, founder and CEO of Heritage Hotels, on the idea of making art a calling card for Albuquerque’s Nativo, an economy hotel where rooms rent for roughly $100 a night.
“Jim thought it was more interesting to have artist rooms in the Nativo than in some of the upscale hotels the company owns, like the El Monte in Taos or the Hotel Chimayó in Santa Fe,” she said. “Art should be for everybody, not just people with a lot of money.”
The end result? In 2018, the Nativo was named the “Artsiest Hotel in America” by the trade publication World Property Journal.