It is rude to stare.
I know this, but I couldn’t help it.
The three of them were like nothing I had ever seen. Where were they from, and who made their clothes? How long had they been hanging around? Did they even like each other? I’ll never know, but I do know they’d been in the lobby long enough to give off a tense, weird energy that made it impossible for me to concentrate on the simple questions I was asked as I checked into the Marriott Hotel in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.
Business travel is rarely glamorous. You’re never quite in a city proper, and once you’ve gotten your rental car and driven the 20-30 minutes to the suburb where all your business action is, you’re so drained from getting from A to B that, rather than being fun, ordering room service becomes another ordeal you have to navigate so your expense report won’t get rejected by finance.
Still, I thought Alabama’s capital city would be kind of a fun trip. “Montgomery’s a shitty city,” came my born-and-bred Alabama colleague’s reply to my email asking him what was worth seeing. “There’s not much to see. But it’s hugely important in terms of Civil Rights. Martin Luther King Jr. got his start there, and don’t forget it’s where Rosa Parks rode the bus. You can visit the church where MLK was a preacher; I think his Bible is there. If you get a free minute, go see that.”
I never got to see MLK’s Bible, or walk past any of Rosa Parks’s old haunts. I didn’t even make time to see the Hank Williams Museum in the strip mall across the street from the hotel. I knew as I checked in that I’d have an authentic Montgomery, Alabama experience right there in the Marriott, courtesy of my cultural ambassadors: the three life-sized papier mache dolls hanging right behind the lobby.
Like I said, they were something else. I think they were supposed to be best friends: two white, one black, each one decked out in their Southern-belle finest on their way to the integrated antebellum ball. But their faces and body language telegraphed something, in addition to the Civil War, was about to go wrong.
The doll on the right’s face seemed to capture the moment she was realizing her beau was the victim of the horrible accident she’d heard while waiting for him to escort her to the dance, holding in her hand the flowers he just gave her, soon to drop. The one in the middle was mid-sashay, walking away from the hearts she just broke, not caring about slaves, the price of cotton, or anything except her secret Yankee beau she was running off to meet. And the doll on the left had to have been their free black friend who, in spite of having the most fabulous dress and all her documents in order, was still turned away at the dance’s door.
It was love at first freak flag. I had to see the rest of the hotel.
Survival. Paranoia. Instinct. The food chain. These were the themes on full display in the hallway on the way to the gym. I can’t imagine what the artist’s influences were, but my guess would be nature show outtakes mixed in with Faces of Death. The most prominent piece featured a cat, prey in mouth, standing in front of a gang of squirrels, showing them their fate. I especially loved the backdrop of the field filled with weirded-out flowers at dusk.
The rest weren’t as violent, but no less disturbing: An angry, puffed up dog in mid-trot plotting something less than wholesome. Two bunnies locked in a treacherous-looking game of cat and mouse against a pre-hurricane, pinky sky. A cautious deer trying to get some peace—and not become someone’s meal—as he chewed on a fern leaf. Were all these animals lurking in the same creepy forest where military schools tossed surly teens to start their survival training? Did Goya get to see these dark scenes from his place in the ever-after? Why were so many of these animals brown? More questions. No answers. That’s life sometimes.
Soon it was time for dinner. My colleague and I were seated by a wonderful host, and as I looked up, my eyes met the gaze of a been-caught-stealing raccoon. The restaurant art was far-out. (Side note: it also had incredible food – one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I still think about the steak, and their warm chocolate chip cookie sundae was otherworldly. If you’re ever in Montgomery, catch a meal at the Marriott.) There was an animal theme on full display here, too, but the creatures on these canvases were on their way home from either a peyote trip or an LA coke binge.
A triptych adorned the top of the door: On the left: a too-happy and groovy dog fresh from his Ren & Stimpy audition, communing with some teeny birds. In the middle: a nerved out feline finding its way home from outer space. Finally, a yammering-away raven, talking evermore to Edgar Allen Poe, who was three sheets to the wind and couldn’t quite make it to the canvas.
There were also a few fish-themed paintings featuring things that swam. I posted one of these to Facebook and one of my arty-friends summed it up best: “That looks like a turd, and a foot.”
God Bless this Marriott for shattering the boring hotel art mold into a jillion jittery, fabulous pieces. I no longer travel for my job, but I still dream of a day where every hotel chain will take down those black and white photos of local attractions that, in spite of featuring different places, all look the same, and jazz up their halls with fun art from crazy, talented locals.