A Dignified Depiction Of Stories and Songs


THE essence of Allan Houser's life is dignity. It is dignity that distinguishes his sculptures of American Indians and their cultures in a time when so much art has abandoned ideals - both moral and aesthetic - for cruder perceptions of experience. Dignity characterizes his interaction with strangers. I saw him address a conference on public art, heard his message to young artists of color, and through all his conversation with me and with them, the subterranean theme was dignity.Mr. Houser's art appears in many world-famous collections. He has won many awards and fellowships and has traveled widely in Europe and Japan lecturing on his work. His sculptures come in all sizes, embrace nearly all sculptural media, and exhibit a full range of styles from realism to highly stylized referential form to absolute abstraction. His art is sometimes romantic, but not of the type that degenerates into self-indulgence. Rigorous precision of expression marks every elegant piece he produces. A member of the Chiricahua nation, Houser has been dubbed "the patriarch of Native American sculpture." I had admired the man before I met him or saw his work because of what he has done for so many young American Indian artists. He is a legend at the Institute of American Indian Art, in Santa Fe, N.M., where he taught for 13 years. This quietly assertive man, nearing four-score years, has influenced an entire generation of young American Indian artists by his example and through 25 years of teaching. Am ong his students are many renowned Indian artists, including his own son, Bob Haozous. Painter Dan Namingha (Hopi) counts him among the best of friends and mentors. Houser's teaching went beyond questions of form and technique - he taught his students a sense of self-worth. "I tried to give them the dignity they need," Houser says of his students. ve had a lot of students who were very troubled. Many came from families where there was drinking, or they had been put down by white people. Some of them hated whites or themselves. So, even though I was teaching sculpture, I'd sit down with them and have discussions and get them to think about what they might become. And some of them would begin to learn that pride they'd lost." Creative activity, Houser believes, can go a long way in restoring self-esteem. Houser himself still draws strength from his parents' teaching. His mother's tenderness toward him and his siblings recurs thematically over and over again in his moving mother-and-child pieces, and his father taught him to love everyone, regardless of color. His father's philosophy of tolerance is all the more remarkable since he was a captive of the United States calvary for 27 years. Sam Haozous, the grandson of the famous Apache chief, Mangas Coloradas, was taken prisoner at the age of 14 with the rest of the Chiricahua band in 1886 and deported to alien land on a military post in Alabama. Mr. Haozous served as Chief Geronimo's translator. Promised 160 acres of land each, Haozous and his wife, Blossom White, were given only 80 acres each at their release in 1913 - hardly enough to scratch out a difficult living in the Oklahoma of the early 20th century. Nevertheless, they raised five children, and Allan learned to guide a plow behind a horse before he became an artist. "A lot of my work comes from the experiences I had growing up," Houser says. "We had a close family, we really enjoyed each other ... but it was a hard life. For a while I had to run the farm by myself. Dad would come out to the field to bring me a bunch of bananas or something, and we'd talk. You worked from sun-up 'til after dark. But then you'd wash up and sit down to supper, and there was a nice feeling there with Mom and Dad and my sisters. After we'd eat, we'd go to the living room and Dad would pi ck up his drum and sing songs and tell stories about the old days in his homeland and how he was raised. He, like all the other young boys, trained for war. Those stories were the source of a lot of my work." So, many of his works have titles like "Coyote's Warning" or "Mountain Echoes" or "Sacred Rain Arrow," names derived from his father's stories and also tribal tales - his own and those of other tribes as well. Houser is a student of all Indian societies. His art is meant to inspire respect for tribal cultures, and his knowledge of individual tribes is far-reaching and profound. His "Kiowa Song" accurately captures the details of dress, features, and attitude of a Kiowa singer because tribal identity is important to him. He has intentionally learned all he can about the plains tribes, and having lived in Santa Fe for over 30 years, he feels particularly close to the Pueblo tribes and to the Navajo, whose language, he says, is related to his native Apache. The works themselves can be specific to a given tribe (as is "Kiowa Song"), or more universally Indian. "If I'm going to have to make a piece for a museum or something like that, then I don't pick a particular tribe. I pick something everyone is familiar with, like a man with a war bonnet on, for example. I made a 15-foot [maiden] for the state capital in Oklahoma. They told me to avoid making her look like one tribe or another. I made her with braids, but I made her so that you would have to question wh at tribe she came from." Many tribes could see something of their own in this stylized figure. Most of Houser's sculptures are voluminous. Some of them seem to emerge out of stone as if Houser were engaged in revealing what was already there (locked in the stone) rather than imposing preconceived form on material. All these works are swept by grace and elegance, and they bespeak eternity. The poignant forms of mother and child carved from a single piece of alabaster or limestone suggest ever-present, encompassing tenderness and peace. The figure of "Sacred Rain Arrow" urgently anticipates movement , power, and ancient tradition. Besides the stories and songs of his own culture, the most important influences on Houser's art have been the works of Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, and Henry Moore. Houser's abstract "Water Carrier," reminiscent of Moore, is distinctly Houser's and distinctly Indian. The line both suggests an Indian woman, her shawl drawn up, balancing a water pot on her head, and presents a purely abstract form. Weighty, highly textured bronze, the piece brings together the great evolution toward simplicity in modern art and the cultural and historical issues of an American Indian artist working in these times. "I see that simplicity is just so beautiful," Houser says. "I work with beautiful form.... I have always felt the need of art - to be around something beautiful.... What I like about [abstract art] is the thrill of design. I have studied design, taught design, and I realized there is nothing like a good design. A good design will last. There is a lot of thought behind it, a lot of feeling, a good rhythm. People want to stroke a good design.... "I have my own sculpture garden, now that I can afford it. It is something I always wanted. I have a little kiva down there, and sometimes I take my flute. A lot of times you just don't have the creative spark. So I go down there and play my flute." Refreshed, he returns to work or goes for long walks, walks that offer all manner of organic forms to inspire him. I am inspired by the ancient glance of a marble piece called "Desert Nomad." It reminds me of both Egyptian classical simplicity and Mayan fierce grandeur. But though those ancient cultures come to mind, this, too, is pure 20th century Houser - noble, strong, intelligent, and eloquent in its stony silence.

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