This interview was originally published by the Sierra Nevada Ally, along with an audio version, on March 14.
Weekly motels have been a part of Reno’s fabric for decades. But, as the city grows and re-develops, many of these historic buildings – and their iconic neon signs – are being demolished. Local artist Jenny Kane has memorialized some of these fixtures into a new project that is also very “Reno:” a deck of cards.
The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Noah Glick recently sat down with Kane to learn more about the project and the inspiration behind it.
Tell me about this project. What did you make?
I made a deck of playing cards that features watercolor paintings of local motel signs. Each card is different, each card has a different motel sign. Some of the motel signs are up. Some of them are down. The pack of cards is basically a little pocket size set of nostalgia for passionate Renoites to kind of look back on these retro landmarks that we love so much – whether they’re here or gone.
I want to get into that in a second. But first, you said these are cards are watercolor paintings? So, did you do all these paintings?
I did. So, I’ve been working on them for five years, a shamefully long time. I have always loved the signs and I always wanted to do an art project with them. So, I started doing little watercolor sketches of them. I used my grandma’s old little watercolor kit that she gave me years ago. And [the paintings] are ink and watercolor.
I’m interested in the genesis of this idea. So, it started with these watercolors that you said you started about five years ago. So, how did that idea start?
Growing up in Reno, I think I always had this affinity for the motels and the motel signs. Actually, one of my earliest memories was of my dad bringing me down to the motels when I was a kid, and we would bring boxes of just things we weren’t using anymore, or toys that I wasn’t playing with anymore, and we would go into the parking lots and stand there. And like the families and kids that live there, just come out and come meet us. And so, I always just had that memory of like, being so curious about the people who lived in the motels and having these little conversations. And I remember on my 21st birthday, my dad and I drove around taking pictures of the motels. Like, I just always was really drawn to them for whatever reason.
I didn’t always live in Reno. I moved away for a while. I always was thinking about, “Oh I want to come back to Reno,” and so when I did, I realized that some of these motels were coming down. And I thought that the deck of cards would be a perfect way to kind of pay homage to these hotels. And so I started making these little paintings. I felt at first I was just making them for myself and my friends and family. And then I was realizing how sad some people were to see these motels coming down, [so] I figured we should just share it.
You said that you and your dad would go and visit these motels with old toys and other things. What was that experience like? Do you have any memories that have stayed with you?
Yes. I think that experience shaped me, probably more than I realized. I remember one kid who called himself “Booger,” I kid you not. And I remember giving him one of the toys. And I just was enamored with the families that would come out. It was just fun to meet people that lived in a motel. I thought it was really cool. There’s something “vagabond-ish” about it and it just made me really curious about people.
And it also made me really appreciate my dad had this sense of generosity for people that we didn’t know. He just wanted to give back to people that were either in our community or living for a moment in our community. And it always stuck with me, I think, later in life. It maybe helped found my desire to be a journalist. And then I remember when I lived in New Mexico for a while, I did a story about kids living in motels. And I think living away from Reno for a while, I always thought of the motels as kind of representing Reno. So, whenever I was out and about and I saw motels somewhere else in America, I would take a picture, because it kind of just harkens back to Reno.
You brought up something that’s important to a lot of folks here, which is you’re seeing a lot of these [weekly motels] come down. As someone who has been here when there were a lot more than there are now, what does that mean to you as a person to see these things come down, and what that means and the people who are impacted by that?
I feel like there are so many complex things that sometimes I struggle to put into words. The disappearance, or repurposing, of some of these motels is heartbreaking on a personal level, because I have a love for them in a certain way. I don’t want to diminish the sadness of some of the things that happen in these motels today and the fact that a lot of them are dilapidated and neglected. And some of them need to come down, and I recognize that.
But, I don’t think that takes away from the fact that a lot of Renoites do feel a special connection, or have memories in these motels, and watched them when they were at their height and were like these glamorous beacons on the Lincoln Highway. There’s a mixture of feelings, I think we all feel about the motels. And just because some of them need to come down doesn’t mean maybe we couldn’t make more of an effort to keep some of them or just keep the soul of some of these places alive.
I think one of the points that I’m hearing here is the amount of change that Reno has undergone over the last [several years]. What have you seen in terms of Reno changing? And how does a project like this help to create a record of some of the history?
Yeah, there are things I don’t even remember, [like] how many motels there were when I was a kid. When I moved away and then came back in 2015, I recognized there were changes that made me sad. Like, it’s hard watching your community change, but it happens through the generations, we all remember or if you talk to your grandparents or your parents, they all remember different iterations of Reno. Change is inevitable and sometimes we just have to embrace it, because that’s the only constant, right?
But I will say it has been really cool. Some of the people that have these decks of cards in their hands, like I gave some to my dad and my dad gave some to someone in the community who’s been around a long time. Every single time this guy turned over a different card, he was like, “Oh! I remember that motel, and that’s where this happened. And oh! I remember that one!” [He] had a story for every single motel. And so, I think it’s easy to make change in a community and I think it’s easier sometimes for us young people to forget how important history can be.
I want to shift gears a little bit. You’re a former journalist and to me, it’s interesting to see this kind of merging of storytelling and art. Can you just talk to that a little bit? Do you find this project, maybe even subconsciously, might have been informed by your kind of journalistic streak and wanting to inform and help tell stories?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think my hesitation to kind of “take sides” on development versus preservation. I still naturally have that hesitation, because journalists are supposed to be unbiased. And so, this is kind of my soft way of saying, “Hey, even though I’m a journalist, and I’m not going to take a massive stance on whether this motel or that motel should be standing or be taken down, I can tell you, as someone who is local, and has my own history here, I do have a love for these motels.” Even though they might be decrepit spaces now in a lot of ways and places where they’re last-resort housing, it is very sad, and it’s hard to watch.
But I think that doesn’t take away from the fact that so many of us that have been here for a long time, and certainly people that were here long before I was, there is a piece of heart and soul in those places. If you’re from here, and you didn’t just move here like five years ago, those places are important to us, in a very deep way. So, it’s like a soft, touchy-feely side coming out that I couldn’t always represent in my writing and my journalism.
I know it can be it can feel like picking your favorite child, but do you have a favorite sign or a couple of signs that you really like? Or, was there one that was particularly fun to paint or do?
Before I choose my favorite child like that, that is a really hard question. I will say one of the most interesting things for me was that I discovered motels or motel signs that I didn’t know had existed. Because as I was creating this deck, motels were coming down, and honestly, this deck of cards I started creating just for myself and family and friends. I was just going to make a few random decks for kicks, and then I realized how many of them are coming down. And I was like, “Oh, I really like need to document all these motels.”
I started Googling motels in Reno and realized there were so many more [motels] than I realized were out there. So, there were signs that I discovered that I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was a motel here at one time.”
I think in terms of favorites. I do love the Sandman motel sign, just the combination of kind of these retro pastel colors, The Thunderbird, The Lucky. I had a really hard time painting The Lucky. I still don’t think I’ve quite captured that sign, because it has this beautiful kind of rusty-green color. But there are all these splotches that give it its age and it’s like trying to paint freckles, you’re like, “OK, I’m never going to get this perfect.” You really just have to come down and see The Lucky motel sign herself. I do think maybe if there is an updated deck someday in the future, I think it will probably have a map.
How do you feel now? What does it feel like to have [this project] out in the world?
It is kind of nuts, because I have been working on this for years and I always have I have tons of pie-in-the-sky ideas. And I will tell you, I ordered a crap ton of cards, because I started realizing maybe my family members are not the only ones that wanted [them]. That was a little terrifying to actually spend some money on art that I wasn’t sure [if] it was going to sell. But, it’s been really cool that so many people have supported me and actually are buying cards. And, I can’t thank these little local businesses enough for saying, “Yeah, we’ll sell these in our shop.”
It was so cool to have support and have people share the love for Reno that I have. I love this town and community, and I’m really thankful to everyone for giving me some love.
Jenny Kane is an artist, mom and former journalist with the Reno Gazette-Journal. You can find her deck of cards for sale at some local Reno retailers, including the Radical Cat and Holy Cow Thrift Shop. You can also reach her at email@example.com to request a print or buy a deck of cards.
This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.