A pointillist portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, surrounded by the likenesses of fellow women’s rights advocates, captures a sense of courage and possibility in Hotel Zena’s lobby gallery. Andrea Sheehan, artistic director and principal at Seattle- and London-based Dawson Design Associates, dreamed up the Ginsburg creation with Julie Coyle Art Associates, mixing pegboard and 20,000 handpainted tampons—materials, Sheehan points out, that contrast the notions of childlike innocence and the forbidden.
Hotel Zena, part of Viceroy Hotels & Resorts, was also conceived and developed by Sheehan, who at the height of the Me Too movement in 2018, contemplated what “a hotel that celebrated women would look like.” Buoyed by audio of Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, a provocative, art-fueled concept grounded in empowered, fearless females began to take shape.
“Art is a door that brings you in,” says Sheehan, and anyone who comes through Hotel Zena will notice every detail reflects a singular vision. MISS CHELOVE’s mural of female warriors graces the façade, leading to highlights like a 50-foot-long serpent sculpture composed of wood rings, a gown conjured from 12,000 vintage protest buttons, and a poolside resin Venus—works all made by Sheehan with Lightlite, Julie Coyle Art Associates, and Axiom, respectively.
In the Sewing Circle textile art collection, a nod to “the women who protected and plotted, often while sitting around making quilts right under the noses of men,” says Sheehan, are two mixed-media ‘American’ flags by Oklahoma City artist Marilyn Artus. One of them shuns the normal cluster of 50 stars for the word “Her.” “When the United States was founded by white men, women’s needs and wants were not considered to be important,” says Artus. Reimagining the “patriotic icon” as she calls it, “is a visual reminder of this history.”
The Rockaway Hotel
One of the first pieces of art encountered at the Rockaway Hotel is the photograph Sessions End, revealing two dedicated surfers trudging through the snow with their boards in tow. The work of local photographer Susannah Ray, it provides a portal into the passionate, year-round surf culture that grips the Rockaways, New York’s beach hideaway.
“We are on the very edge of Queens, literally between the city and the sea. The forces of urban culture and a water-based life commingle, conflict, and create a place unlike anywhere else,” explains Ray. “While I have photographed outside of Rockaway, I continually return to this peninsula as a touchstone and inspiration. I am eternally surprised and grateful that one place can hold so much.”
Such an otherworldly locale is propelled by a deep sense of community, and leaning into that and cultivating it was essential to Rockaway Hotel partner and chief social impact officer Michi Jigarjian, who curated the hotel’s vast and rotating art collection that melds pieces from emerging and established artists, both international and local. (New York firms Morris Adjmi and Curious Yellow handled the architecture and design.)
Jigarjian, who also serves as president of arts organization Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, hadn’t spent much time in the Rockaways prior to the hotel’s development, but she deems that unfamiliarity an asset because it compelled her to plunge in and meet as many people as possible, visiting stores and peering into studios. “From the earliest stages, this project has always been about making art the connective tissue of the community and creating social impact, asking lots of questions and answering needs,” explains Jigarjian. “Who were the artists here making their marks.
All of the works on display are imbued with intention, melding with the quirky, magical spirit that defines the Rockaways. There is Roe Ethridge’s graceful pigeon, and Tom Sachs’ charted tides, for example, as well as Derrick Adams’ gliding swan boat and Alessandro Teoldi’s assemblage of used airplane blankets.
Further cementing the Rockaway Hotel’s connection to the neighborhood is its sponsorship of Shantell Martin’s massive 16,000-square-foot mural covering the blacktop of the Seaside Playground at the adjacent Waterside Children’s Studio School. Affirming and vibrant, naturally it can be glimpsed from the Rockaway Hotel’s rooftop.
When the Allen Brothers founded Houston in the 1830s, it was really the trailblazing businesswoman Charlotte Baldwin Allen (wife to one of them) who funded their land speculating pursuits. C. Baldwin, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, is named for the unsung “Mother of Houston,” and guests first become acquainted with her in the lobby. Here, Mark Powell renders a mature Baldwin in a ballpoint pen ink drawing fittingly printed over an antique map of the city.
For local firm Rottet Studio, the decision to illuminate Baldwin later in her life, “represents her hard work and determination,” says president and founding principal Lauren Rottet. During Baldwin’s day, as a woman she wasn’t even allowed to sign checks. An X on the façade hints at that stark inequity, but inside, confident, ambitious women take centerstage, reinforced through the artwork curated by Kevin Barry Art Advisory.
Consider the clandestine ladies-only parlor adorned with black and white photos of some of Houston’s most famous women, photographer Dewey Nicks’ kinetic and carefree Get ’Em Up adding life to a men’s restroom, or the prefunction wall heightened by Reagan Corbett’s Lady Work, a painting that juxtaposes a sexy pair of strappy yellow heels with a shovel. “I was delighted that the art not only made a statement, but supported the acknowledgement of our female leaders in Texas history,” says Rottet. “The message we wanted to convey is that the sky is the limit in life. You can take risks and make things happen and leave a legacy by what you create.”
All of the guestrooms star portraits by local photographer Elizabeth G. Conley, who embraced the city’s car culture by turning her lens onto four Houston women alongside arresting lowriders and “slabs” parked at a former tool and die shop. The neutral backdrop, “a shade of green that mostly empty warehouses are painted,” points out Conley, lends the images a retro-industrial air. Upon moving to Houston five years ago, “one thing that struck me is the strength of the women here,” she recalls, “so finding out about Charlotte’s story, it resonated with me. I wanted to make a modern-day Charlotte, what she would look like today in Houston.”
Photos by Mike Schwartz Photography, Kyle Knodell, and Eric Laignel
This article originally appeared in HD’s December 2020 issue.