The late artist Jerry Ehlers was an early riser; he would wake up at sunrise, walk outside the 16-foot travel trailer he shared with his family in Castle Valley, and sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” at the top of his lungs.
“Every neighbor within a mile radius could hear him,” said his widowed wife, Jo Anna Ehlers. “He was exuberant and he loved life and his family.”
Jerry Ehlers was also a painter. Oil paintings were his forte, but wall murals were what often paid the bills. In the 1970s, Ehlers would paint hotel murals for $65 per room. His murals could also be found in restaurants, office buildings, churches, hospitals, apartment homes and private homes. Today, his murals can still be found at the new Expedition Lodge in Moab.
The Expedition Lodge, owned by hotelier Justin Mabey of Salt Lake City and Vista Host, a Texas-based hotel development and management company, was purchased in March from the estate and trust of former owner Michelle Mathis.
Immediately following the transfer of ownership, the hotel underwent six weeks of extensive renovations. However, amidst the demolition, the new owners kept Jerry Ehlers’ murals intact. In fact, they framed them with reclaimed barn wood, highlighting them in the newly renovated rooms.
The new owners wanted the renovation to embrace the time period of the hotel, which was built in 1976. The rooms feature a bold pop-art-esque color palette and are adorned with retro touches, including vintage inspired telephones, refrigerators and microwaves. There is no shag carpeting, though: Guests now enjoy unique flooring with a wood finish – the same flooring used next door at the Hilton Homewood Suites.
The pet-friendly rooms also feature high-end mattresses, bedding and free Wi-Fi, and some rooms have queen bunk beds. Phase two of the renovation, with an expected completion date this summer, will include a 1970s-inspired arcade room, lounge area and breakfast room.
When asked why they decided to keep the murals, Vista Host founder and CEO Michael V. Harrell responded, “It was the signature item from when they first opened in the 1970s.”
Justin Mabey said they were kept to embrace history.
“They are a key part of art history in Moab,” he said.
“Jerry would get a kick out of being remembered for his murals,” Jo Anna Ehlers said. “He told me before we got married, ‘Don’t ever ask me to get a job. I am an artist and that is what I’m going to do.’ And that was OK with me. We only knew each other a week before we got engaged. Every time we had a baby, he was excited just like the first time, and we had 10 babies. He was dedicated to his art and a fantastic artist, but he did murals to support his family.”
Jerry Ehlers was an award-winning painter, but also a pioneer in the local community. He brought his family to Castle Valley from California in 1976, and according to his longtime friend Mathew Stucki, Ehlers was responsible for a significant influx of residents in Castle Valley.
“He was instrumental in persuading people to come to the stunning community known as Castle Valley in the early days,” Stucki said. “Jerry’s description of the valley persuaded many to come see the dream, of which he spoke so highly. Some stayed and made it their home. He was a dear friend and an advocate for us all.”
Jerald Frederick Ehlers passed away from a heart attack in 1988. According to his wife, his final painting “Last of the Strays,” which portrayed a cowboy rounding up the herd before a storm, was sold just before his death for $3,000, which is exactly how much his burial cost.
“He took care of that for us, too,” she said.