In The Footprints of Allan Houser

Celebrating an Artist’s Influence

BY CINDRA KLINE

WHAT MAKES AN ARTIST important or inspirational? Iconic? What sets a path to a legacy, and what earns one in the eyes of an audience? Whatever the answer, Allan Houser was born with a special ability to connect, through his art, with peoples all over the world.Born a member of the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apaches, Allan Capron Haozous was the first child in that tribe born out of captivity following his parents’ internment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His lifetime of work crossed both cultures and genres. Houser was a key figure in the twentieth-century repositioning of the concept of what Native American art could, or even should, be; his vision set new standards and expanded not only the imaginations of, but also possibilities for, other Native artists.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Houser’s birth. And while his work is globally dispersed and beloved, his presence is strongly felt in the Santa Fe region of New Mexico. Houser’s work abounds around Santa Fe in hotels, restaurants, galleries, and other public arenas, but now his role as a teacher and mentor is being highlighted through an exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC). Work of students and others he inspired is showcased alongside seven Houser sculptures in the outdoor exhibition, Footprints: The Inspiration and Influence of Allan Houser, through June 15, 2015.

Twenty-seven works of art are featured. “When I began to hear discussion of an exhibition taking this approach, the influence aspect, I knew it would be historic and wanted to get involved,” said Dorothy Grandbois (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), curator of the show. “I felt it was important to honor him, and to give back.”

That the display is in a natural setting is in sync with Houser’s sensibilities. His ten-acre sculpture garden and studios on NM 14, New Mexico’s “Turquoise Trail,” are a go-to attraction for tourists in a serene landscape. MIAC director Della Warrior (Otoe/Missouria) is delighted that Houser and those he mentored and inspired have a “place in the sun”—literally—for nearly a year. “I believe the outdoor venue and the aura of Milner Plaza add to the exhibition,” said Warrior. “It’s really a wonderful way to acknowledge the legacy of Mr. Houser, to show that the art is going on and thriving as never before. I wanted to highlight his role as teacher and a mentor. In life we all have mentors who put a hand out and help you take a step—Allan was all about that. I know many of my successes are because various people through my life have guided me. My hope is that this exhibition will showcase how his influence extends beyond his own personal creativity.”

The exhibition includes sculptures by Doug Hyde (Nez Perce/Assiniboine/Chippewa), Don Chunestudey (Cherokee), Tony Lee (Diné), Estella Loretto (Jemez Pueblo), Oreland C. Joe Sr. (Southern Ute/Navajo), Rollie Grandbois (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), Craig Dan Goseyun (San Carlos Eastern White Mountain Apache), Larry Ahvakana (Iñupiaq [Alaskan Inuit]), Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo), Robert D. Shorty (Diné), and Bill Prokopiof (Aleut), as well as work by two of Houser’s sons, Bob Haozous and Phillip Mangas Haozous.

Warrior said, “Helping other artists to express themselves was a big part of Allan’s life. These artists are from different parts of the country and different tribes, and now they are influencing a whole new generation. Allan’s work was twentieth century, and now these twenty-first-century artists are continuing the path.” Many of the selected artists were Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) students; others worked with Houser in his studio or are “following his footprints.”

dedication to creativityHouser grew up in Oklahoma helping his parents raise animals and grow cotton, alfalfa, and vegetables. His reverence for nature is frequently incorporated into his work, and if the work itself does not have an element of nature in it, then it is often the case that Houser’s sculptures are appreciated in natural settings.

Houser first gained fame for his painting skills and creating murals and was a prolific sketcher throughout his lifetime. He attended Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School, at the Santa Fe Indian School, from 1934 to 1938, and his paintings were displayed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Fresh out of school, Houser was paired with Navajo painter Gerald Nailor to install murals in Washington DC’s Department of the Interior Building in 1939—the same year he married Anna Marie Gallegos, his lifetime bride, who, at age 102, still appears in public today to speak about him. He returned to DC in 1940 to paint another commissioned, life-sized mural and became a teacher of mural painting in Indian schools in Dulce, New Mexico; and Anadarko, Oklahoma, although by the end of his life, sculpture was the medium most associated with his name. Houser launched the sculpture department at IAIA in Santa Fe, and following his retirement from teaching at IAIA, he began simplifying and refining his style, putting together 35 one-man shows in 20 years, 26 group museum shows, and 21 solo museum exhibitions. Houser shattered stereotypes and enjoyed extraordinary success at the end of his career. His bronzes were dedicated at the Smithsonian Institution and the US mission to the United Nations, and in 1992 he received the National Medal of Arts from President George H. W. Bush.

An artist may be prolific, but sharing artistic sensibilities and mentoring—teaching one’s vision and practice—is another integral part of creativity. At least it was for Allan Houser. His years at IAIA, as well as teaching at Utah’s Intermountain Indian School for nearly a decade, were vital to his artistic experience.

Fifty years ago, Doug Hyde had Houser as his high school teacher at the Institute, and he credits Houser for his work ethic. “Showing up every day and working on your sculpture—that was a key message of his, because from each thing you do, you learn. He instilled that in me,” Hyde said. Hyde’s bronze in the exhibition, People of the Red-Tailed Hawk, features a large hawk with wings spread over a range of Native nations and is a cast of a direct stone carving. “I had this piece of Utah alabaster with stripes,” explained Hyde. “I loved the stripes, but I must’ve had that stone for fifteen years, not knowing what to do with it. With direct stone carving, you try not to alter the stone too much—you work with it, and with the shape and patterns. Then one day, I could see a red-tailed hawk. So I started with an area under the wing where the stone changes color and began using the combinations of colors, and it just kept expanding.

“The red-tailed hawk is a bird that belongs to all nations,” Hyde explains. “Everyone reveres the red-tailed hawk. So I incorporated quite a variety of images, from Northwest Coast to Iroquois to Mesa Verde. It’s been really well received and is an extensive, unique, and wonderful piece. I think it’s my crowning achievement so far.

“I’ve always been an experimental artist—I work with stone, wood, a bit of everything,” added Hyde. “In 1963 at the Institute, we were encouraged to do as much experimental work as

we could. So I work in all mediums, but often I go directly from stone carvings to casting the piece in bronze, which is what I did for this piece. Mr. Houser did direct stone carvings.”

Shirt Off His Back

Santa Fe jeweler Brett Bastien, known as “Big White Boy” for his six-foot–four-inch stature and “BWB” jewelry hallmark, was the first “Anglo” student accepted at IAIA. Although he did not attend during Houser’s tenure (Houser had retired by that time), he credits Houser with helping him get accepted into the school.

“He actually wrote a letter so I could attend,” said Bastien. “I moved to Santa Fe in 1984. Houser had been featured in Arizona Highways. I really wanted to meet him. Then, as fate would have it, he wandered into my parents’ store—Indian Trader West, on West San Francisco Street.” Bastien and Houser developed a friendship that would last for the duration of Houser’s life.

“On Sunday nights,” recalled Bastien, “he had this routine where he liked to buy a shirt from Alan’s Men’s Store, the clothing store across the street, and stop over to talk. Then I began hanging out at his studio while he was working on a piece. He played in Indian League baseball, and baseball is part of my background, so we were always talking baseball.”

Houser became a fan of Bastien’s jewelry designs. “He’d tried making jewelry for a short time, and was very encouraging. He was always telling me that being an artist is a nine-to-five job—no slacking off!” Bastien laughed. “He was so dedicated, very focused, and constantly drawing. His studio floor would be filled with crumpled up sketches. I used to tease him and ask him if I could take his garbage out.”

Generosity played a huge role in Houser’s life, according to Bastien: “One time he asked me to come see him at San Marcos Café. He was having lunch with Robert Redford, and he invited me to join them. That’s the kind of guy he was. It was so nice to have someone older like him to learn from in the art world. My son’s middle name is Allan, in his honor. I just really liked his style, and his sense of humor.”

Bastien also became close with “Mrs. Houser,” as he respectfully calls her to this day, and, upon her husband’s death, she gave her husband’s shirts to Bastien: “I got, like, 200 of them,” Bastien remembered. “It was the sweetest thing. They were all pressed and ready to go, and they fit because he liked to wear them so oversized—I didn’t have to iron a shirt for a year.”

He misses his mentor, but the lessons persist. “Allan and his friend Charles Loloma always said to me, ‘Once you get to a certain stage in your work you should give back, the way we’re giving to you.’ And so I try to do that now,” Bastien reflected.

“Allan told me people would say to him, ‘Don’t give away your secrets.’ But then he would smile and say, ‘If you give away your secrets you’re just going to be forced to get better.’”

Weighty Decisions

Footprints includes sculptures in stone, welded steel, and bronze. MIAC preparator Andrew John Cecil relished the logistical complexities of installing massive works high on Museum Hill. “Because of the scale of some of the pieces, we worked not only with art handlers, but also with crane operators. It presented some intriguing challenges.”

The center of MIAC’s Milner Plaza contains a dance circle, and it was important not to obstruct that space and keep it viable for events such as the children’s dances that celebrated the opening, with performances by the Acoma Rain Dance Group, the Bacavi Dance Group of Hopi, and the Pojoaque Hoop Youth Dancers.

Milner Plaza already contains a huge, permanent sculpture, The Mountain Spirit Dancer, by Craig Dan Goseyun (who has an additional piece in the show), and it factored into the display of the other pieces. Not wishing to compete visually with Mountain Spirit Dancer, yet giving each artist his or her own focus, was a key consideration. Many of these artists have studied outside the United States, and the work represented has a world view in addition to an expansive Native view. “Whenever I go up to Milner Plaza, I notice the different languages being spoken by our staff, our artists, and our visitors,” said Grandbois. “This assortment of artistic styles and tribes is really a testament to Houser’s broad influence. And the variety of visitors attests to his global influence.”

Houser’s sculpture Homeward Bound is the first piece people see when they come up the walkway, and the exhibition includes a sizable work by Estella Loretto, who has achieved both national and international acclaim.

Loretto was in the tenth grade when she began attending IAIA “for my high school,” she said. “I got there in 1970 and graduated in 1972. I had no idea who Mr. Houser was. I thought I was going to be a painter,” recalled Loretto. “Then there I was, a sixteen-year-old in his class, and it was being in his class that made me want to do sculpture.”

Loretto continued her education by experiencing the world through college foreign exchange programs and enjoyed living in different regions. After a time in the Northwest Coast, she returned to Santa Fe in 1989 and looked up her former teacher. “Mr. Houser took some time with a piece I’d done—it was about twenty inches high—and I remember him telling me I should enlarge my work and pursue ‘monumental sculpture.’ For him to have that confidence and belief in me really moved me.” Loretto began sharing breakfast with Houser and then going to work with him in his studio “in that 1988, ’89 time frame,” and the two remained close. “He was my primary mentor and the grandfather I never had. There are not a lot of women in monumental sculpture, and I am the only woman in the MIAC show,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, working large. Mr. Houser used to tell me to ‘keep on top of it’—he believed in showing up and staying on top of the details.”

Peaceful Warrior is the title of Loretto’s sculpture, and it is accompanied by a unique detail: a prayer.

THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR’S PRAYER

The peaceful warrior’s prayer
Is a healing prayer to the global community
About living in harmony
Upon our Mother Earth

To reunite the spiritual circle
Of the human family.

To remind us all
Of the sacredness of life.
And to walk gently with dignity and integrity.
Respecting one another
And all our differences.

Graphic designer Susan Hyde Holmes created elegant outdoor labels that can withstand New Mexico sun and weather for a year. Senior New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs exhibit designer Antoine Leriche was vital in placing and positioning the art, and Peaceful Warrior holds a prominent position as visitors come onto the plaza.

Visitors may not often ponder factors such as how the size of a piece, or cost of materials, or exposure to the elements, present challenges that artists must contend with in addition to harnessing their creative inspiration. Loretto explained that all of her large pieces are standing outside “because, for example, the one being featured in Milner Plaza is 12 feet tall. They don’t make many big doors like that!”

Doors and cranes and weather and weight considerations aside, preparator Cecil said he’s come to see the show “as about reaching out to all of humanity through peace and justice. I was just the ‘heavy-lifting guy’ on the project, but that’s my take-away.” “Heavy lifting” could be another name for the exhibition: Rollie Grandbois’s limestone pieces, Prayers for the Future and Stories and Dreams Are the Seeds of the Future, each weigh 2,000 pounds; Phillip Mangas Haozous’s Mothering II weighs 600 pounds; and Doug Hyde’s People of the Red-Tailed Hawk comes in at 700 pounds.

Not every piece is outside. Phillip Mangas Haozous has created a life-size bronze of his father, which is featured inside the MIAC entrance. “We placed that under the skylights as you enter the museum,” said Cecil. “It’s really a wonderful tribute. So in addition to showcasing his influence on other artists, Allan’s relationship with his sons Bob and Phillip is celebrated.”

Giving Back

“Every artist included in the show has been so happy and honored to be chosen,” said Della Warrior, “because he made such an impression on them. Mr. Houser was a traditional, quiet, kind-hearted person—very supportive. In his work, he strived to showcase the beauty of Native people and their culture, and communicate strong messages about one’s place in this world. He strived to create awareness that you have a responsibility to give back. We should all make a point to mentor. Responsibility and reciprocity and respect are ingrained in Native culture,” she added, “and he helped to perpetuate that.”

Curator Grandbois is beyond thrilled that New Mexico visitors and residents have the opportunity to enjoy the interaction of these unique pieces in an outdoor venue. “It’s been amazing to meet these artists and hear their stories of how Mr. Houser changed their vision of Native art,” said Grandbois. “Over and over, you hear how he emphasized dedication to one’s craft and instilled passion and commitment to producing work.”

Grandbois has her own Houser memories. “When I first saw his work, I was speechless,” she recalled. “It was in 1988 or ’89, when I was just an insecure single mother and young artist and beginning photography student at IAIA, that I interviewed and photographed him for my class. Mr. Houser was so gracious. He really inspired me regarding what it takes to be a professional artist. Later, when I realized just how big he was, I was very humbled that he took that time with me—maybe four hours. It was an incredible opportunity.”

Grandbois received the Allan Houser Memorial Award/Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for her documentary work in 2001. “I received the first medal given with that award,” she noted. “Bob Haozous, Allan’s son, cast the medal and was so excited to show me the number one on the back of it. Anna, Allan’s wife, put it around my neck. It was extremely meaningful to me.”

Grandbois recalled, “He wasn’t a large man, but he had an enormous presence.” Warrior is gratified that this presence is being felt, and honored, in such a scenic setting. “When I go out and walk in the plaza or sit in the gardens, it’s both inspirational and restoring,” she said. “So seeing all of these beautiful pieces outdoors, with the sky and the clouds, will put us more in touch with the beauty. The Navajos talk about ‘walking in beauty’ and surrounding oneself in beauty, and this exhibition is the perfect example of that concept. Everyone loves it up here on Museum Hill. Looking out at the views, with these artists coming together—it all makes a powerful statement about beauty and the world we live in.”

Cindra Kline is the author of Navajo Spoons: Indian Artistry and the Souvenir Trade, 1880s–1940s (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2001) and recipient of the Southwest Book Award. A former research associate at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, her work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine and American Indian Art. She contributed the feature article on MIAC’s exhibition, Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning, to the summer 2014 El Palacio.

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