“The Art of Gaming +” is the result of a conversation between Joan Arrizabalaga, a local artist, and Donnie Curtis, head of the University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections Department, about featuring gaming art for an exhibition in the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. The discussion naturally turned to the question of what had happened to the art pieces created for the “Art of Gaming,” a display of original art commissioned for the opening of the Hampton Inn at Harrah’s Reno in 1995. These pieces, one of which was displayed on every floor of the hotel, had created a great deal of interest among artists and community leaders.
“The Art of Gaming” exhibit was considered to be an exciting and engaging model for how the gaming theme, when applied to original artwork, can add sizzle, style, and interest to commercial interiors and, especially, to gaming environments. Further inquiry and research led to the location of many of the original sculptures featured in the “Art of Gaming” that had been retired and stored in a Harrah’s warehouse. A plan was put in place to re-exhibit the original pieces in the University’s Knowledge Center and to add other relevant works of art, marketing materials, historical items, and ephemera to embellish and expand upon the theme. Thus was born “The Art of Gaming +.”
In 1995, when the Hampton Inn on the Harrah’s Reno property at Second and Lake Street opened, those in charge rejected the idea of decorating the new property with mass-produced art. Instead Harrah’s executives commissioned, through Stremmel Gallery of Reno, 26 original gaming-themed sculptures, one for each of the hotel’s floors as well as one for the lobby and one for the restaurant area. Much of the credit for the idea behind the Hampton Inn art initiative goes to Jim Rogers, who at that time was the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Harrah’s Reno.
Rogers, who had the vision to marry casino culture to art culture, contacted Turkey Stremmel of Stremmel Gallery to brainstorm. She loved the idea of working art into a gaming theme and moved quickly to develop a concept. The result was “The Art of Gaming,” an ambitious plan to find the best possible artists and invite them to respond to the challenge of creating art with a gaming theme. According to Rogers, “We wanted to make a lasting contribution to the city of Reno and the world’s largest Hampton Inn. So we formed an alliance with Reno’s C.I.T.Y.2000 Arts Commission and Stremmel Gallery of Reno to create something truly memorable.”
Reno artist Joan Arrizabalaga was an obvious choice to feature in the show. Her works had long represented gaming themes—clay and fabric slot machines, big game trophy-inspired mounts made of game-table felt, a “card shark” made of cards—all executed with wit and a deep understanding of the ironies associated with melding art and gaming. She had long been interested in and had demonstrated in her works an understanding of the paradox of the gaudy, glitzy aspects of the Nevada casino scene and the deeper issues of the mystical elements of luck, temptation, risk, and winning. In addition, she had a grasp of the kind of scale required for commercial projects, and her techniques and skills had been well tested. All of this was evident by her creations for the project. Evident, too, was Joan’s awareness of how language can add to the layers of meaning inherent in any art piece. She incorporated puns and word play into the titles of her fabric machines—“Felt Alive,” “Cherries Jubilee,” “Midas Well,” “You Betcha”—giving the viewers a linguistic experience as well as a visual one.
Nevada artist Larry Williamson was another natural for the project. Although his previous work had not focused specifically on gaming as had Joan’s, Turkey knew his pieces would convey a deep understanding of Nevada culture and its diverse elements. Williamson’s art brought to the exhibit an idea of Nevada—a state covered by desert and abandoned things, a Nevada made up of primary elements—and merged it to the casino environment. The natural world celebrated in his art invaded the unnatural one embodied by the casino hotel. His haunting, almost totem-like pieces, made of weathered wood, bone, horsehair, and found objects, threw the viewer back to pre-history, and yet they seemed at home and welcoming in a modern hotel.
Turkey Stremmel brought in another local artist, Mary Lee Fulkerson. Fulkerson was well known for her fiber and multi-media baskets and containers, many of which had been inspired by traditional baskets of Native peoples. For her, gaming-themed art might have seemed unnatural, but the results were magnificent—confetti-like ribbons of PVC woven into baskets containing gaming-related, fun-filled items such as dice, glitter, and playing cards. When asked about the intersection of art and gaming in her work, she said, “In a way my art reflects the two sides of Nevada, the abiding beauty of this desert land, where native people have lived for thousands of years and the razzmatazz of gaming—the spiritual and the artificial.” (Silver and Blue Magazine, Nov/Dec 1995). Her work brought gaiety to the collection, suggesting a carnival, a party, a Mardi Gras. In Fulkerson’s casino, life was a parade, and the season was eternal spring.
Kathleen Akers, who worked at Stremmel Gallery and whose stained-glass creations had been commissioned by churches, restaurants, and other architectural showpieces in the South and Midwest, took on the challenge to respond to the gaming theme without hesitation. One of her pieces, “Probability,” resembles an art deco glass block window constructed to represent a tic tac toe game. The placement of the painted Xs and Os might seem random, but the title of the work suggests otherwise. For Akers, one of the artistic challenges presented by the project was expanding her work into three dimensions, a process she compares to “breaking through a window.” “Sculpture is another way of thinking. It’s complicated. It allows layers of images to guide the viewer to changed perspectives.”
After securing concepts and ideas from local artists, Stremmel then broadened the search to a national level for skilled artists up to the task of fusing art and gaming. She knew of studio glass artist Therman Statom’s standing in the art community. He had done terrific things at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska. She knew he had enormous talent and skill, but didn’t know what he would do with the gaming theme. His piece, the largest of the exhibit, greeted clients and guests in the lobby of the new space. “Sierra Day/Night Cards,” an enormous stack of glass playing cards accented with oil paint, acrylic paint and graphite, arranged pell-mell, dominated the space with its brilliant colors and rich renderings of kings, queens, jacks, spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds. The royal subjects were represented traditionally with sumptuous attire and suggested the mystery and legends associated historically with playing cards. With this piece of architectural majesty, the past luxury of European courts penetrated into the present luxury of the new Hampton Inn.
Stremmel had known about Paul DiPasqua, too, and trusted him to respond to the gaming theme. Known in art circles for his mixed-media found-art sculptures, DiPasqua delivered a hobby horse covered with, layered with, buried under, uplifted by colorful found objects. In the spirit of the show, his piece captured the serendipity, frivolity, and whimsy that many associate with gaming. As in Therman Statom’s deck of cards, parts of the Hobby Horse hearkened back to court history. But many of the parts and figures of the sculpture simply created pure visual delight without need of interpretation.
Peter Shire and Dwight Davidson were both nationally-recognized artists known to the Stremmels through art circles, and both seemed good fits for the exhibit. Davidson had already established a niche in the gallery world creating clay animals that couldn’t help but bring a smile to the viewer’s face. His creations for the “Art of Gaming” did not disappoint: frogs played slots waiting for dragonflies to line up on the reel for the jackpot; frisky clay pigs danced the cancan with seemingly reckless abandon bedecked with rope necklaces; and “Moolah, the Cow” was seated inelegantly on her sofa, in Harrah’s main lobby, suggesting entitlement, come-on, whatever.
Peter Shire’s sculptures added a different sort of style to the collection. Mobile-like, yet anchored to fixed bases, his found objects floated and flew, suspended in air and yet connected to one another by metal wire. Flat planes and geometric shapes of clean, modern colors gave a modernist, minimalist look to the pieces, a contrast to some of the more intricate and detailed works of other artists.
When the exhibit opened officially on October 13, 1995, the brilliance and originality of the art of gaming concept was evident. Each piece fit into the gaming hotel decor by theme and placement and stood out by artistry. The wow factor gave the newest and largest Hampton Inn to date prominence and recognition. The success of the Hampton Inn project led to a whole new burst of branding by Harrah’s in other locales. Phil Satre, Harrah’s CEO, ran with the idea and, over the next several years, commissioned many of the artists who had created for the Hampton Inn show, as well as other artists found through Stremmel Gallery, to create art and gaming displays in Harrah’s facilities in Las Vegas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Tunica, Mississippi, and other sites.
Jim Meeker, Director of Hotel Operations for Harrah’s and the Hampton Inn, was a fan of Charles Osgood of CBS Sunday Morning. He took a chance and invited Mr. Osgood to attend the grand opening of the “Art of Gaming” in October 1995 in the Hobby Horse Café. In his letter to Mr. Osgood dated August 24, 1995, Mr. Meeker stated “There will be a sculpture of a frog playing a slot machine with a moth, gnat and fly appearing on the bar line. To my knowledge and the knowledge of all the people associated with this project, there has never been to this extent, commissioned art work of this nature put in any hotel, let alone a Hampton Inn. Please don’t think that we are crazy.”
Mr. Osgood did not attend the opening, but he did make it to Reno a year later as the speaker for the William F. Harrah Lecture Series. Jim Rogers presented him with a framed poster of the Art of Gaming as a memento of his stay, along with one of Joan Arrizabalaga’s soft-sculpture slot machines titled “Sparkle Plenty.”