Muralist Awakens Guardian Spirit Animals of the Morongo Valley

By Monique A. LeBleu

Bruno the buffalo stands bold and protective, his gilded eyes a-twinkle in the desert sunlight like a proud guardian aloft on his rooftop perch. Below at the highway’s edge, his brother Emilio – a famously beloved tailless horse – also stands like a sentry, with his dazzling coat of cerulean blue.

Each are painted in the delicate Oaxaca folk art style of the Mexican Alebrije. They beckon passersbys, as if daring motorists not to stop and make them social media famous with the click of a photo.

These iconic sculptures are part of the inherited landmark features of the town’s newly opened restaurant, Spaghetti Western.

Painted by local artist and muralist, Emily Tayman, and as commissioned by restaurateurs Jasmine and Lorenzo Tommaso, these sculptures have become part of Morongo Valley lore as the unofficial gateway greeters to this otherwise quiet and charming, growing town.

The interior of the large landmark building, warm and cozy with remnants of the theatrically western-styled saloon and brothel decor from its famous former life as “Willie Boy’s” roadhouse tavern, as well as its original incarnation as a casino built by mobster Al Capone, now also features a new stage with a back wall – a stylized and striking painted desert, also by Tayman.

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The scenic wall mural changes color at the whim and fancy of the stage’s lighting, as a natural desert landscape would when the day’s light awakens the skyline at dawn, looms overhead at high noon, or coolly dims into dusk.

A muralist for 10 years, a painter since she was 14, and a sometime participant as a live artist at the Joshua Tree Music Festival, in September of this year Tayman was introduced the Tommasos by another local artist and mutual friend. Although the project had a modest budget, Tayman said she “had to take it on.”

“Robert Warner, who is a local friend of mine and leather maker who lives in Yucca Valley introduced us,” she said “They were just such lovely human beings. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.”

Working internationally as well as domestically, Tayman says she has painted approximately 220 murals in about 17 different U.S. states, in the Sayulita, Puerto Vallarta, and Sea of Cortez areas in Mexico, and an island in Thailand, she said she can make as much as $17,000 a project. But such projects can be daunting, requiring months of planning and patience with other governmental red tape. The rewards to working smaller budget projects she said can often include more artistic freedom and more timely payments for a job done.

Emily Tayman – Photo by Caitlin Joyce

“In Florida, I get jobs with cities where they give me [a higher budget and fee], but it takes nine months of them approving and then two months to get paid,” she said. “But for me I’m not a muralist because of the money—I’m a muralist first because I’m destined to be an artist and have been my entire life.”

The first project at Spaghetti Western was on the retaining wall adjacent to the restaurant that flanks the parking lot driveway—a 50 foot-plus mural and sign with the restaurant’s name and graphic. After finishing the wall, Tayman said she was asked back and was largely given open artistic license in her commission to paint the horse, the stage, and then the buffalo. Her goal: to texture with her art and add to the “patina of the building” and its surrounding landscape.

“I thought, ‘There’s something about the desert— with how uncontrolled it is and how wild it is—that embracing textiles and bright colors that are more organic I feel adds to the environment. ‘So, I came to [the Tommasos] with the idea of Oaxacan Mexican folk art as an inspiration and they loved it. That’s where we continued from. That kind of style I wanted to course throughout every piece of art that I did for them so that the storyline was consistent.”

Tayman, who as a child rode horseback and fed the horses at camp each summer until her family later got her a pony, is especially fond of Emilio the horse, which she named mostly on her own. But she says her personal favorite piece is that of Bruno.

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu

“Bruno is pretty out of this world—he’s wild and vibrant and very funky. He’s got metallic gold eyes and ears and he has the high textile detail as Emilio does,” said Tayman. “I named the horse Emilio…just, you know, Emilio the Italian Stallion. So that’s kind of how that went together. I like to visit Mexico a lot. I’m so inspired by the Oaxacan Mexican folk art. And my name’s Emily, and when I go down to Mexico people call me Emilio sometimes as a joke. And then Lorenzo was inspired to name the Buffalo ‘Bruno’ because the friend names of Emilio and Bruno go quite well together.”

Both sculptures, striking and uniquely “one-of-a-kind,” have some details a little like hidden Easter eggs. Emilio’s, with his name painted onto the strap of his bridle bit on the street side, are a bit easier to find and see. But Bruno’s are more subtle. Those eyes, which seem alive with golden light, like a DaVinci they appear to give an illusion that they follow your every move. Per Tayman, the illusion is produced by a very small glint of blue.

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Further detail on the horse is to include securing a new tail, and eventually going from a PVC base to a more permanent metal attachment—a concept and plan that is currently in flux and may be likely to change as the restaurant transitions from its opening. For now, a simpler idea is to create another illusion.

“I wanted to do something that was more of an interactive tail,” said Tayman. “So, I was thinking of doing tiny chains that would sway with the wind, which would also add a metal component to the art’s structure. But I think, for now, we’re going to be doing a bright yellow rope installation and letting that fray and bleach in the sun and it will sway as the wind blows and kind of give a movement to the sculpture itself. Lorenzo’s been managing and working on the rope itself. We’re going to be braiding it, and then unbraiding it at the end, so that it has more of an imitation of horse hair look.”

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu

The inspiration and execution of the mural was a little more serendipitous in its conception and planning, uniquely birthing from both an ominous place and a resurrecting opportunity.

“I got a call one evening [in a message from the Tommasos] while I was hiking through the desert, where they said, ‘Please let us know when you’re available to talk?’ At that point I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do wrong?!’”

“But when I show up and they’re like, ‘We want another mural.’”

Relieved and encouraged, Tayman said that they shared with her a few southwestern-style oil landscape paintings on canvas and suggested integrating a southwestern blanket design for the stage backdrop concept.

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu

“Well, about ten years ago, one of my first and best painted murals of my career I had done in California. And it was a southwestern blanket pattern with the desert landscape inside of that pattern,” she said. “So in the negative space [of the pattern] is the southwestern blanket textile with a landscape inside.” The piece was one that a client had decided they weren’t as fond of when it was done, resulting in the reworking of the art at the time.

“But when I showed [the Tommasos] the photo of it, they fell in love and said, ‘We want that in whichever new form you want to do it.’ So it just ended up being a circle for me and it was very fulfilling to be able to recreate a piece of art I did so long ago in the beginning of my journey in this career and then turn it into a whole new version of that in 2022.”

The mural was completed using mixed media with “spackle on the wood of the walls to create a texture within the rocks, and the flora and fauna,” together with a plein air oil painting look.

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu

“They just put the stage lights up as well. The lights change color, which makes the painting look like it’s a time-lapse of the sun rising and setting,” continued Tayman. “The mural changes color as the lights change color. It wasn’t the intention, but the way I laid the paint down it’s pretty incredible to see and witness.”

Busiest with work largely concentrated within two states now, California and Florida, Tayman vacillates between the part-time homes on each coast, but is currently working toward a more permanent home here in the high desert.

“I’m much of a wanderer. I have multiple spaces where I stay in different places and lots of communities that I like to call home,” she said. “I’ve always had a hard time choosing one. I’m feeling very magnetically tied to the desert, and I think it’s time for a new chapter. This might end up being a full-time job space for me. I’ve been very welcomed and inspired by the community around me here. Lorenzo and Jasmine and the amount of creative freedom that they gave me with these projects is just one thing alone that substantially made my career feel as though it’s vaulted through the ceiling.”

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu

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