Updated July 15, 2019 - 11:51 pm
In the 1960s, Las Vegas seemed like the brightest place on Earth.
Las Vegas native and artist James Stanford remembers convening at the five-points intersection east of downtown before hopping in a friend’s car, blasting the Rolling Stones and cruising down Fremont Street.
“It was like the all-American dream but with neon and rock ‘n’ roll,” Stanford says. “And the Blue Angel watching over us.”
The Blue Angel has since descended from her perch at the Blue Angel Motel, one of the former landmarks near that intersection. Now, Stanford is commemorating her in a mural, “A Phalanx of Angels Ascending.”
He remembers starting his night over baskets of onion rings and cherry-lime rickeys at the Blue Onion restaurant. Then his caravan would trek past the Blue Haven bar and the Blue Angel Motel.
“There she was, standing on top of the building” recalls Stanford, standing outside the nearly-completed mural on the home of the 705 arts incubator building (705 Las Vegas Blvd. North). “She stood like a sentinel. She was our Lady of Las Vegas.”
The 16-foot-tall Blue Angel statue was designed by Betty Willis, who also created the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Eventually, the Blue Angel Motel fell into disrepair, and six decades after she first took her watch, the statue was taken down for renovations.
Last fall, Stanford started kicking around ideas for a mural on the 705 building. He initially planned a mandala, similar to the ones in his Shimmering Zen collection, but decided that the challenge of nailing the perfectly symmetrical design in freehand was too risky.
“I wanted something that would resonate with the community but also complement the Neon Museum across the street,” Stanford says. “I thought, ‘well, what are we missing?’ ”
Last year, Stanford visited his Lady of Las Vegas when she was on display at the Neon Museum’s warehouse space at Ne10 Studio on West Bonanza Road.
His next question to himself: What’s better than one Blue Angel? The obvious answer was many Blue Angels.
Alison Chambers, who owns the 705 arts incubator, moved to Las Vegas six years ago. She took up photographing old motels, paying many visits to the Angel.
“I fell in love with her, like everyone does,” Chambers said. “You could get so close to her and watch her spin on her pedestal.”
In 2007, she had just been repainted and Stanford set out on a stormy December day to photograph the statue.
“Most people who took photos wanted to isolate her from that (motel) building because they were ashamed of it,” he says. “I thought no way, man. That building is a part of her. It may be run down and not looking good, but she’s looking over it and she looks good.”
Stanford used his photo of the building set against a thick, cloudy sky to produce his “phalanx of angels.” The bottom of the mural is the top of the motel building, shifted as though the first story and a half might be tucked underground. The bottom of the mural is surrounded by a shallow planter, whose short brick borders may represent the motel’s retainer walls.
The 705 Building’s heavy metal doors are flanked by the top half of motel room doors and windows. Above them is the crown moulding of the roof. And keeping watch over the motel is the Blue Angel on her perch, repeated ninefold.
“The idea was to create an architectural sense of place,” Stanford says. “All the doors and everything are still on the building.”
Along one side of the building, the angels ascend skyward, assisted by jet rockets at their feet, an homage to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which fly out of Nellis Air Force Base. Another wall portrays her as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
The last wall of the 2,000-square-foot mural retains the uniform murky storm clouds, which are disrupted by soaring dragons. The dragons represent good luck in Chambers’ Chinese heritage and a nod to their neighbors in the Laos Market next door.
Street artist Cliff “Airbrushing” Morris is executing the 71-year-old artist’s vision by projecting the digital artworks onto the building and tracing them.
“Cliff has a huge reputation in town for being a great guy and great airbrush artist,” Stanford says.
For another few days, Morris and Stanford will revisit the mural, adding touch-ups and making the angels more consistent.
“Vegas is so much more than casinos and the Strip,” Chambers says. “Finding things like the Blue Angel when she was still on that perch was pretty perfect.”
In a city known for razing hotels when they get over a certain age, the mural achieves something bold, in preserving the Blue Angel Motel’s memory.