The Art of Hospitality

How the Graduate Hotel asked Providence’s premiere pop artist to decorate its walls


Earlier this year, Atabey Sánchez-Haiman learned about an open call for artwork. Such crowdsourcing is common practice among galleries and museums, but this call was different: The host was The Graduate Hotel, known for the past hundred years as the Biltmore. The hotel needed someone creative to decorate its quarters.

“Once I took a look at The Graduate Hotel’s website and saw photos of their rooms,” says Atabey, “I was excited to apply, because I thought my work would complement their decor, since I make art that adds a pop of color to rooms.” She already liked the hotel’s bright aesthetic, which matched her own “whimsicality.”

Out of 70 submissions, it was Atabey who was asked to contribute to The Graduate’s walls. This is a major commission, but Atabey is up to the task: She already owns Giraffes & Robots, a Pawtucket-based gallery that showcases her own work. Atabey specializes in cheerful pop-art paintings with electric color schemes. Her subjects are campy and fun – dinosaurs, donuts, and superheroes, as well as (yes) giraffes and robots. The Graduate was initially drawn to her portrait of the Superman building, but several other landscapes have caught their eye. Beyond decor, Atabey may help create a line of postcards and other accoutrements as well.

Atabey was born in Puerto Rico and has led a fascinating life, working as a zookeeper and anthropologist, store owner, and school teacher, until she spent time in Barcelona and discovered her aptitude for art. “Pop art is defined as ‘art based on modern popular culture and the mass media,’” muses Atabey. “That is a pretty wide-reaching description, and to me that says anything goes, and I like that freedom.” She cites Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons as influences.

The same could be said for The Graduate itself, which has both retained the Biltmore’s architecture and added a funhouse of postmodern decor: colorful surfaces, loud paintings, and a wall of skeleton keys have added pep to the 18-story brick building, which first opened in 1922. One thing that has remained intact, to the delight of traditionalists, is the massive, red “Biltmore” letters that crown the roof. This historic signage inspired another of Atabey’s paintings.

At press time, no precise works had been selected. The decision is a big one; The Graduate boasts nearly 300 rooms. But Atabey has a particular affinity for her original submission.

“I like the Superman building because it has such a cool nickname, because it has a great, iconic, retro shape to it, because it is a prominent part of the skyline,” she says. “And because, although it is empty, Providence still loves it. It represents the quirky, artsy, awesome weirdness of this city.”


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