Jennifer Garza-Cuen looks for ideas of place through lenses. For pulses.
She searches for the lure in the mundane and the extraordinary. In a room of characters, she finds legends.
Last year, in the historic Occidental Hotel on Clear Creek, her aperture opened for a moment, catching the wind whipping the curtains in the Owen Wister Suite. It’s an image that tells just one of many stories from the hotel.
Garza-Cuen is a professional photographer, professor of art and also the first artist-in-residence at the historic hotel.
Her story first intertwined with the small town at the base of the Bighorn Mountains more than a year ago. She spent a month as an artist-in-residence at the Ucross Foundation. She arrived there on her birthday, Aug. 1, and on one Thursday night, she and some fellow residents from Ucross made the trip to the Occidental jam in Buffalo.
“I was blown away,” Garza-Cuen said. “It was a spectacular sight.”
A conversation with hotel and saloon owner Jackie Stewart led Garza-Cuen to take some photographs of the hotel.
Something about the place pulled her in, Garza-Cuen said. Almost jokingly, she told Stewart, “I can’t seem to get out of this hotel. Maybe I should come back and do a residency here.”
“I would love that,” Stewart said.
Stewart had been brainstorming ways to mix the new and the old at the hotel. Jackie Stewart and her husband, David Stewart, have always had an affinity for the arts and a residency for artists was a great way to marry the historic and the modern.
Jackie and Garza-Cuen began to speak about the prospect in earnest. One year after Garza-Cuen did her residency at Ucross, she returned to the area and began her residency at the Occidental.
For the first two weeks of this month, she called the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo home – a title reserved for a select few.
Garza-Cuen has traveled extensively. When asked where she’s from, she pauses. She says she was born in Seattle, but she’s lived here and there. She lived abroad for over a decade off and on, including stints in Cairo, Egypt, and London, England. She spends much of the year as a photography professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Staying at the hotel allowed Garza-Cuen to truly capture its sense of place. She watched as characters filtered in and out of the hotel. She heard the bell ringing as the door to the lobby opened and closed. She listened to the old-time radios and the creek below and studied the wallpaper.
“I wanted to focus on the space and the feel of that space,” Garza-Cuen said. “I’m not sure you can ever tell the whole story of a place, but I am expressing my experience of it with a series of images that will hopefully give you a feel of the place.”
Garza-Cuen never names a person in her images. The people go untitled. Her goal is to tell the story of the place and allow the people to blend in with the environment.
For her, it’s more about the overall series of images and less about individuals.
“I look around at this hotel and at the images I’ve created and I wonder if it’s the people that make the place or the place that makes the people,” Garza-Cuen said. “I think they are working hand in hand.”
Jackie and Garza-Cuen agree that the Occidental residency will be a very specific type of residency. There’s no studio space and it will be for one artist at a time – not a group whose members interact with one another.
Both agree it will be more suited to writers, photographers and historians. Currently the residency is invite only. Eventually there will be an application process. Stewart is interested in finding artists whose work will flourish in the historic hotel, and Garza-Cuen is helping her with the residency process.
Jackie stapled together numerous pieces of paper with Garza-Cuen’s notes about residency programs, and she’s hanging on to them.
“We want some new, fresh thoughts and ideas,” Stewart said. “My husband and I love the arts and love to see the growth in people. It’s an addition as far as personality, and realistically, pieces that are published about here are good for us. And the Occidental is a piece of art. It’s a saved lifestyle.”
Garza-Cuen agrees, and that’s just one of the reasons she spent time documenting the historic hotel.
“I think certain images make you feel the rhythm of a place, both now and then,” Garza-Cuen said. “Places like this require people to suspend disbelief for a while, allow time to enter another space, slowing things down and looking back.”