Culture Shock: Walking In A Winter Wonderland

The Artist Behind The River Of Lights

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
River of Lights
(Eric Williams Photography)
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Joey Trujillo described the inception of his first piece more than 11 years ago. His supervisor brought him a model T-rex that belonged to his son. “You think you could do something like this?” he had asked. Trujillo, as he recounted the event, shrugged, “I said I’d just give it a try.” From where we stood near the entrance of the city’s botanic gardens, I could see the T-rex where it staked out significant ground on the lawn, no longer miniature at all, instead, realized as a piece of illuminated sculpture art standing at quite a height. This dinosaur stalking the grounds of the BioPark is one of around 600 distinct pieces, which take on various shapes and sizes. Of these sculptures, Trujillo estimates he’s made more than 300.

“It’s Christmas year round for us,” Trujillo said, gesturing to the far reaches of the property, where he and his team of two others occupy two large warehouses. Here, the crew stores the thousands of pieces that comprise the entirety of the River of Lights sculpture collection and work throughout the year on new creatures to bring to the show. Even the smallest of pieces takes several weeks to complete. Bigger ones, like the brontosaurus, which towered at least 12 feet over our heads as we stood gazing up at it, took 2 months for Trujillo to build, and another month for his coworkers to string the whole design with lights. Engineering the wonder of River of Lights really is a full-time, year-round job.

Trujillo had greeted me from the roof of an administration building when I entered the gardens as he busily repaired an electrical panel that had shorted out the night before. As the main architect of the show, he stays busy, overseeing issues big and small—from minor technical hiccups throughout the night to keeping teenagers in line and out of the displays, and making sure no one loses their family. He’s the last one to leave every night—locking the gate behind him around 10:30pm, after dimming the lights on his hundreds of creations. Despite the demands on his time and energy, Trujillo was unflaggingly calm and patient as we toured the gardens before sundown during the show’s second week. When the displays are up and the River of Lights is on display for the city, things are actually more relaxed for Trujillo. “Because we have to be done by Thanksgiving weekend, it’s a little stressful leading up to that … but once we open that night, it’s a big weight taken off the shoulders. Until then, I get a lot of gray hairs.”

For all that he contributes to this Albuquerque tradition—and by proxy, all that the experience returns to members of the community—Trujillo is remarkably humble. “Have you always been an artist?” I asked him as we strolled passed a series of cheetahs, animated with timed lighting, and he pointed out a UFO—new this year—that beams a cow into its haul. “If I was artistic, I didn’t know it,” he offered. He detailed his history—working in construction and the occasional odd job, several years contracting with the city, until he came to his current position, initially brought onboard because of his welding skills, which he learned from his father. “That got funner as I got older,” he laughed.

“In construction, you do everything you can to make it look like the way you’re picturing it,” Trujillo said, “that’s pretty much what I do here.” Although he pointed out, at least, in this position, he has miniatures to reference. Typically working with a toy as a model, Trujillo then goes on to sculpt the metal pencil rod he uses entirely freehand, often with tools—hand benders, mostly—that he has made himself to fit the needs of this niche variety of metal work. For some pieces, Trujillo has even visited his neighbors at the zoo, examining the animals he’s aiming to recreate with an eye for their size, their build, their movements. He pointed out the lion specifically, which he based off of observations gleaned by observing the animal at the zoo. “His mane? That took three weeks by itself just to get that right. It was tough. … In order to get that detail, I have to make tight pieces. That makes it harder.”

Trujillo described making his own lifts to put together large pieces when a lift can’t be brought in, in addition to building the sculptures themselves and the tools he uses to craft them. “I think you must be a very patient man,” I said. “Oh, everybody tells me that. Yeah, very patient.” But the time consuming nature of his work doesn’t corral Trujillo’s dreams—he dreams of making things bigger, when he sees a dark patch in the river at night, he images how he might illuminate it next year.

River of Lights will shutter for the year on Dec. 30, but it will take until nearly the end of February to tear everything down and very carefully pack it away until next year. When everything’s in its place, Trujillo and his team will start planning for the next year. With record-breaking numbers with this outing—like 8,000 visitors in a single night—Trujillo feels a certain responsibility. Mostly to keep visitors safe, but also to deliver on the wonder of this Albuquerque tradition, year after year. The months of work feel worth it when the show is up, and Trujillo can fall in with the crowd wandering the River of Lights. “I can just stand here and listen to all the kids and families, and their comments. It feels really good,” Trujillo said.

See Trujillo’s creations every night—except for Dec. 24 and 25—until Dec. 30, between 6 and 9:30pm at the River of Lights.
Tickets are available online at and at the door.
River of Lights

Eric Williams Photography

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