Sculpting a Century

One hundred years after Allan Houser’s birth, a major exhibition celebrates his art and influence.

FOR CURATOR Dorothy Grandbois, meeting sculptor Allan Houser (1914–1994) was a life-changing event, as it was for so many young Native artists who found themselves in New Mexico in the splashy, art-filled eighties, when “Santa Fe style” was riding high in the worlds of art and design. Distantly related to Geronimo, Houser was one of this country’s most important twentieth-century sculptors. He lived a life that was profoundly grounded in his Apache roots. Despite his fame, Houser was hardly flashy. A man who believed that “less is best,” both personally and aesthetically, no one artist has influenced so many subsequent generations of American sculptors simply by remaining true to hisown identity. Through his work, the chronicle of his people continues to contribute to an art history that is uniquely and insistently American. Houser taught for years at the pioneering Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA), and his impact was phenomenal. This year, his natal state of Oklahoma and his ancestral state, New Mexico, celebrate what would have been Houser’s 100th birthday—June 30—with scores of events and exhibitions scheduled to take place this summer and into next year. 

This month, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) opens the outdoor exhibition Footsteps: The Inspiration and Influence of Allan Houser, guest curated by Grandbois. The show will exhibit nearly 45 sculptures outdoors, on Museum Hill’s Milner Plaza, including several major pieces by Houser and two of his sons, Bob and Phillip M. Haozous. Sculptures by some dozen other Native artists will be on display, all of them having been deeply affected by Houser as a man, an artist, and a teacher. “This is the first and only exhibition of Allan Houser’s work to be shown with that of the Native American students he taught, mentored, and inspired,” says Grandbois.

Back in the 1980s, Grandbois, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa from the reservation in North Dakota, came to New Mexico, where her brother, Rollie Grandbois, was working as a stone sculptor. Visiting Houser’s studio complex south of Santa Fe with Rollie in the late eighties, she remembers huge scaffolds, and welders and foundry workers busily making big bronzes. Houser graciously took the time to explain his process. He showed them sketches and maquettes (models), and described how they went from the spark of creativity to larger-than-life, fully finished sculptures. 

Grandbois recalls that Nez Perce artist Doug Hyde, whose work she chose for inclusion in Footsteps, was Houser’s assistant at the time. Hyde absorbed Houser’s artistic curiosity into his own practice. “With sculpture, you learn every day. After 50 years,” he says, “that still applies.” Houser called on artists to be true to their vision and creativity. He asserted that anyone with basic skills could copy another’s work; the real task was finding a unique message and conveying it. 

Inspired by Houser, Grandbois enrolled at the IAIA for photography in 1989, and would go on to do her graduate work at the University of New Mexico. She returned to the IAIA as a faculty member nearly 20 years ago, today overseeing the same department where she was once a student. Grandbois proposed Footsteps to MIAC’s director, Della Warrior, with “a focus on how Houser has changed all of our lives, and the world. His work educates, subtly, as to art and culture. His traditional pieces speak volumes about Native values and culture.” He was a gentleman, too, she says, with a “good sense of humorapproachable. It was always easy to go up and speak to him.”

IN THE SUMMER OF 1914, on their farm in Oklahoma, Sam and Blossom Haozous rejoiced at the birth of their clan’s first member born outside captivity: a son they named Allan. The boy grew up instilled with the traditions of his people. Still, he found it easiest to Anglicize his last name from Haozous (pronounced HOW-zuss) to Houser when he set out in 1934 for Santa Fe, where he wanted to 

learn to paint. He was encouraged by his parents, who made sure he was familiar with their traditional dress and customs so that he might accurately depict his Apache roots. According to his son Bob Haozous, Houser felt a great responsibility to his people to share their story, to evoke the essence of who they were and, thus, are now. 

The 20-year-old, who arrived in town wearing a new suit his aunt had bought him at Montgomery Ward with just one dollar in his pocket, went on to do well in Dorothy Dunn’s Art Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School, producing hundreds of paper pieces. Though he became known primarily for his sculpture, Houser continued to enjoy drawing and painting for the rest of his life. However, he was troubled that Dunn’s views limited Indian art to a highly proscribed style, and especially lamented that she discouraged her students from studying human anatomy. Houser was a gifted draftsman, as his early drawings and paintings of the Ghan dancers show. These Mountain Spirit Dancers were a natural subject for him, functioning conceptually rather like the Hopi Katsinas and Diné Yei: supernatural beings entrusted with the 

community’s well-being. Much later, in 1967, representations of the Dancers were among the first bronze editions produced by the artist, prefiguring the larger Mountain Spirit Dancers that Houser sculpted in the 1980s and ’90s. Powerful studies of human intensity, these bronze figures evoke great strength and a sense of awe. 

Houser’s career took off in 1939 with a commission to paint murals inside the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. That same year, he married New Mexican Anna Maria Gallegos. World War II found the family in Los Angeles, where he worked in the shipyards by day and made art at night. It was there that Houser was exposed to the Modern art of Jean Arp, Constantine Brancusi, and Henry Moore—all of whom deeply influenced Houser’s own output, belying those who would pigeonhole him as a traditional Indian artist whose work is irrelevant to the canon of Modernism. Yet, as Bob Haozous has explained, while Houser was certainly inspired by key European artists, “Allan used them as a writer would a dictionary: They were references for his own experience, and for the narratives of his people.” 

MUSEUM MUSTS
When you visit Footsteps at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, be sure to take in these sculptures. 

Homeward Bound (bronze, 1989) Houser presents a young Navajo girl, carrying a lamb and driving her flock toward home at the end of the day (p. 25). His more naturalistic style, rather than an abstracted sensibility, is at the forefront here.

He Will Be Home Soon (bronze, 1989) This piece evokes the anticipation of a beloved father’s imminent return. The abstracted style invites viewers to experience the emotions of longing, love, and hope. 

As Long As the Waters Flow (bronze, 1988) Commissioned by Oklahoma’s capital, Oklahoma City, this monumental sculpture stands as a symbol of the very people who comprise Native North America today.