Only at Interlochen: Student creates immersive art hotel room on Interlochen’s campus

Interlochen’s Stone Hotel is set to feature an installation by visual arts student Leo Cohen.

Leo Cohen Stone Hotel 400x600

At Interlochen Arts Academy, instructors encourage students to chase new heights in innovation and collaboration. As a result, Academy students often find unique opportunities to apply their skills to real-world situations. One recent example is the collaboration between Interlochen’s Visual Arts Division and the on-campus Stone Hotel, which has lodged Interlochen guests since 1958. As the first phase in an ongoing redesign project, alumnus Leo Cohen has transformed an ordinary hotel room into an immersive arts experience that feels like the great outdoors.

When you step through the door of Room 220, you’re greeted by a panoramic vista of mountain terrain. The room features textured wall murals of rolling hills, green turf carpeting, and a band of dark wood that bisects the room from floor to ceiling. When the room is finished, it will also have its own pebble footpath.

Room 220 was a collaborative process from the very beginning. It started when Interlochen President Trey Devey contacted Melinda Zacher Ronayne, Interlochen’s director of Visual Arts, about reconceiving the rooms in the Stone Hotel. Ronayne researched the global phenomenon of art hotels, in which individual rooms—or, in some cases, entire hotels—become showcases for creative installations. She then posed the concept to Scott Leatherman, general manager of Stone Hotel. Leatherman was thrilled. An Academy alumnus himself, he envisions student artwork all over Interlochen’s campus. “It's exactly what I was hoping would happen someday,” he says. According to Leatherman, the culture at Interlochen lends itself to artistic exploration in unexpected spaces. “We have an opportunity here to continually push the envelope. I think it's our responsibility to do that.”

Ronayne would concur; in her classrooms, she challenges students to create with a broader audience in mind. “They're creating artwork that's interactive, that's accessible, that people can engage with,” she says. With guest lecturer and nationally-known museum advisor Elaine Gurian, Ronayne is developing the curriculum for a class in Public Art, which will debut at Interlochen next fall. As part of the class, students will create and submit proposals to a design contest. Students with the best proposals will win the opportunity to remodel other rooms in the hotel.

For this first redesign, however, Ronayne had one student in mind: Leo Cohen. Originally focused on painting smaller canvases, Cohen shifted gears after studying Monet’s immersive, room-circling art. “I was hoping that it would be like a portal,” says Cohen. “You walk through the painting and become part of this piece.” The room was inspired by a six-month stay in California. Murals depict the striking, magma-filled rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park in vibrant yellows. Cohen used molding paste to build up thick texture on the walls before painting them over. 

The project required daily labor for nearly a month and a half. “It really pushed my limits,” says Cohen. Cohen relied on Interlochen’s maintenance department to help with many of the practical aspects of construction, including taking out a wall and laying wood trim. “I'm grateful for all the help I’ve received on this project. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do it in the first place.” 

President Trey Devey is enthusiastic about the Stone Hotel endeavor, and looks ahead to similar projects in the future. “Our students are so talented,” he said. “They love to think outside of the box and explore all the possibilities in their fields. At Interlochen, they find the freedom to do that in uniquely innovative directions. It’s only natural that projects like this one would develop.”