River of Lights

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, December 2010

It’s unclear as to whether Joey Trujillo considers himself an artist. He’s never had any formal artistic training, and he doesn’t like to draw. In fact, when asked if he creates anything beyond the work he’s paid to do, he pauses. “You mean on paper?” he asks. “I can’t draw very good. I’m not good with pencils.” 

As he wanders around Albuquerque’s Botanic Gardens on a bright and biting fall afternoon, he mentions repeatedly that he loves “this artistic stuff,” but he never once yields to the term “artist.” Yet even though it may not be clear whether Trujillo thinks of himself as such, to any outside observer it’s undeniable that’s exactly what he is.

Trujillo is the main man behind the city’s River of Lights. The event, only 14 years old, has not only become one of Albuquerque’s biggest holiday traditions but also one of its most attended. Last year, about 76,000 people came to the Botanic Gardens to see more than a hundred sculptures lit up with Christmas lights, which wend their way around the entirety of the gardens for the month of December. Trujillo is the guy who makes those sculptures. 

He works full-time year-round shaping and welding pencil rod to make rhinos, cacti, penguins, lions and whatever else he or his employers, the New Mexico BioPark Society, come up with. He makes the frames for the pieces, and his partner, Bucky Bomaster, wraps rope light around them. 

Trujillo makes every piece freehand, referencing nothing more than miniature, often windup, toys. Not only does he not have any formal art training, he was also never officially taught how to weld. But Trujillo figured it out when he was growing up by watching his father, who used to weld on the side. 

The magnitude of Trujillo’s innate talent isn’t realized until his sculptures are directly in front of you. That’s not just with regard to his River of Lights structures; Trujillo also works with sheet metal to create various pieces around the gardens. Notably, he made the frame for the welcome sign just inside the entrance of the park and the frame for a sign next to the pond, which details different dragonfly species. The frames are three-dimensional, covered with hummingbirds and dragonflies and perfectly shaped roses. The pieces are so detailed and well-crafted, it’s the kind of quality you’d expect from someone who’s had a lifetime’s worth of experience. But the 39-year-old only started the work three years ago. 

The first thing you notice about Trujillo is his smile, which is constant and brimming and almost unbelievably natural. He looks younger than he is, which is perhaps due not only to that grin but to his unflinching enthusiasm for his job. Trujillo is lucky—he stumbled onto his calling. His first position with the BioPark nine years ago was in construction. Then he worked for a few years in horticulture, cutting weeds and doing irrigation. Three years ago, the Botanic Gardens needed a welder, and they got one for life—at least, for his life. “I see myself doing this for the next 25 years,” he says, smiling, of course. “Until I retire. I love it.”

The River of Lights had an unglamorous beginning. Judi Civerolo, the special events director for the New Mexico BioPark Society, says the tradition formed in 1997 when the society’s board wanted another big special event. “Our director at the time knew zoos around the nation were doing zoo lights,” she says. “We decided it would be better to feature one of the parks.” And so the society and the City of Albuquerque borrowed the idea and put on the first annual River of Lights show, which included 25 rented two-dimensional panel sculptures—the kind you find strung up on roofs near the holidays. 

The next year, the society hired a full-time staff of two to make their own pieces. Today, the event includes more than 142 original sculptures, many of which are three-dimensional. The River of Lights is now the BioPark’s largest event of the year, bringing in 55 percent of fundraising profits at $200,000.

All the pieces for the show are constructed in a 1,500 square-foot airplane hangar a five-minute drive away from the gardens, past towering cottonwoods and an apple orchard that serves as a morning rest stop to sandhill cranes in winter. Coils of rope lights and giant metal frames line the walls, and stray sculptures that haven’t yet made it out to their stations are scattered around the floor. A small, hanging shelf looks like a menagerie, studded with tiny plastic rabbits, frogs and penguins that have served as sculpture models past.

It takes Trujillo, Bomaster and a crew of five or six temporary workers two months to set up the show, starting on Oct. 1. Trujillo can’t say how many lights are used in the event (his estimation when asked is “billions”), but he says seven or eight miles’ worth of extension cords are strewn across the gardens. And as an example, his favorite sculpture, a Tyrannosaurus Rex that weighs 400 pounds, uses 1,400 feet of rope light. With a bulb every inch, that’s nearly 17,000 lights for one sculpture.

The T-Rex was the first piece Trujillo made when he started welding for the River of Lights. It took him two months to complete, including about two weeks spent figuring out how to use motors to get its arms and mouth to move. The time was well worth it, he says. “The first year after I made the T-Rex, a little kid was standing there, growling back at him,” he says. “It made my day.”

That’s one of things that lends to Trujillo’s love of his job—people’s reactions. He gets to experience something rare: All his work has a tangible result. He spends eight hours a day all year long creating something, and then at the end of that year he’s given a satisfying conclusion, a celebration of what he’s built. He works during the event itself, which allows him to wander among throngs of people who stand and admire what he’s made. “I hear a lot of people say, I’d like to know who did it all,” he says. “Sometimes I make myself known.”

New sculptures this year include a 3D Antarctic exhibit with 10 penguins, a 3D island with a circling shark fin and a life-size motorized lion. Trujillo’s started planning for next year, too; his already momentous grin grows when he says, “3D elephants.”

“When it comes to this show, I’m on top of the clouds,” he says, adding, in a statement that comes as no surprise, “I smile every day.”

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The River of Lights runs through Thursday, Dec. 30. It’s open until Dec. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. and from Dec. 17 to Dec. 30 from 6 to 10 p.m. The event is closed Dec. 24 and 25. Tickets are $8 for adults 13 and up and $4 for children 3 to 12 (kids under 3 are free). Park and Ride will be available this year from the zoo and Tingley Beach. For more information, call 505.768.2000 or visit www.cabq.gov/biopark/garden/lights.html.