James Stanford’s work inspires contemplation. And while his kaleidoscopic mandalas foster a sense of wonder, they also capture the essence of Las Vegas, using photographs of the city’s neon landscape to transcend the city’s shimmering facade. If neon optical illusions distract people from the desert’s inherent brutality, then Stanford’s mandalas magnify that illusion, creating intensified visual abstractions that entrance and mystify.
His most recent work, A Phalanx of Angels Ascending, might not require the same level of introspection as his Shimmering Zen mandalas, but the symbolism is no less potent.
Las Vegas history is in Stanford’s blood. He was born and raised here, growing up in the now-gentrifying Huntridge neighborhood. His parents moved to Las Vegas in 1936 and his father, Harvey Stanford, coached the undefeated 1944 Las Vegas High School football team, a “dream team” that became local legend.
When local curator Laura Henkel asked him to create a digital rendering for a mural on the Neon Museum-adjacent 705 Arts Incubator building—replacing an Aaron Sheppard mural—he knew the Blue Angel had to be a part of it. “I remember when the Blue Angel motel was built,” Stanford, 71, says. “She was very close to me.”
Situated at Charleston Boulevard and Fremont Street, the now-defunct motel’s 16-foot tall guardian angel—created by “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign designer Betty Willis—was a Downtown beacon, overseeing everything below it for six decades. In 2016, the Angel was taken down and stored for a still-ongoing restoration, though she made an appearance last year during a brief exhibit at the Neon Museum’s NE10 Studio.
Stanford reminisced about cruising down Fremont Street while listening to The Rolling Stones, driving past the Blue Angel to a drive-in diner called the Blue Onion, and he realized something: “Our lady of Las Vegas is not around, so the Blue Angel has to be on the building.”
And instead of painting just one Blue Angel, Stanford decided to paint multiple versions—one emerging from a half shell like Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” and others as rockets ascending toward the heavens.
“I thought, what’s better than one Blue Angel? Lots of Blue Angels!” Stanford laughs. Airbrush artist Cliff Morris, who also painted the mural of Mayors Carolyn and Oscar Goodman behind Main Street’s ReBar, was tapped to paint the building’s 2,000-square-foot exterior. A fundraiser for the mural, on schedule for completion in July, is up through July 7 at Kickstarter.com.
Stanford says the Blue Angel represents his experience growing up in Las Vegas. “People don’t think about Las Vegas being an all-American city, but in a way it exemplifies the rest of the country. We build what [people] want, and they come here to enjoy it.”