Houser Exhibit Reflects Impact On His Students

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1993 Smoke signal

Houser Exhibit Reflects Impact On His Students

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

Mention the name Allan Houser, and it immediately brings to mind vivid images of Native Americans portrayed in paintings and sculpture.

To Oklahomans, his name is exemplified in the majestic, larger than life bronze sculpture that graces the State Capitol grounds – As Long As the Waters Flow. To visitors to the National Cowboy Museum, his name is synonymous with his graceful bronze sculpture, Smoke Signal, an iconic work that accurately depicts a Native American communications custom. The bronze won the Museum’s prestigious Prix de West Purchase Award in 1993 and is in the permanent art collection.

Through May 11, 2014, the National Cowboy Museum is offering another look at Allan Houser, as seen through the eyes of many of his students, who today enjoy their own style of fame in the Native American art genre. The exhibit, Allan Houser and His Students, looks at Houser as teacher and mentor. The show includes Houser’s works from the Museum’s collection, as well as art by his students and protégés.

Among the artists and colleagues he taught, influenced and exhibited with were Bob Haozous, one of his two artist sons; Kevin Red Star, Pop Chalee, Gerald Nailor, Robert Chee, Earl Bliss, Parker Boyiddle, John Hoover, Doug Hyde, Fritz Scholder, Dan Namingha, Ben Harjo, an Oklahoma City artist, and T. C. Cannon. Among those, Cannon is often credited with being a trendsetter in Native American art for his colorful and controversial contemporary views of Native life.

Born in 1914 on the family farm near Apache and Ft. Sill, Houser was the first member of his family from the Chiricahua Apache tribe born outside of captivity since the 1886 surrender of Houser’s granduncle Geronimo and the tribe’s imprisonment by the U. S. Government.

At age 20, Houser left home to study at Dorothy Dunn’s Art Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. He excelled there, became Dunn’s protégé, but found her program constricting. Five years later, he began his professional art career by showing at the New York World’s Fair and other prestigious exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. His first public commission was for the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C. It was an auspicious beginning to a career that lasted until his death.

As a teacher at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah and later the Institute of American Indian Arts in
Santa Fe, Houser had the opportunity to impact hundreds of students with his strong work ethic and his belief it was important to work in as many sculptural media as possible.

After 36 years in the classroom – all the while creating hundreds of sculptures, drawings and paintings – he retired in 1975 to devote himself to sculpture. His retirement was an artistic rebirth and marked the most prolific stage of his career.

Among his most distinctive honors was receiving the National Medal of Arts in 1992. He was the first Native American to receive this honor, which was presented at the White House by then President George H. W. Bush. Two years later, he presented the sculpture, May We Have Peace, as a gift to the U.S. Government. The sculpture was accepted by then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for installation at the Vice President’s official residence.

As a writer and art collector, I had the opportunity to meet him casually at several art shows in Santa Fe during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it was a distinct pleasure – an honor really – to have him seated across from me at my desk at the National Cowboy Museum where I served as director of publications and editor of Persimmon Hill magazine from 1990 to 2008.

It was a pleasant June afternoon in 1993 and the Museum was buzzing with Prix de West activity. Houser’s magnificent sculpture, Smoke Signal, was included in the show. The Prix de West committee, which chooses the major award winners for this exhibit, had voted Houser’s stunning sculpture as the Prix de West Award winner. It was a tradition for the honoree to give a small acceptance speech – something a little more than “Thank You” – at the Saturday evening awards banquet.

Houser was nowhere to be found.

Museum directors were frantic. Byron Price was the director then and he put his detective talents to work. He knew Houser was very close friends with Betty Price, then the executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council. And he knew the Red Earth Festival was in full swing downtown. He sent out his sleuths to find Betty Price, who helped locate an unsuspecting Houser. Naturally, he was found visiting with Native American friends in one of the Red Earth art booths.

In our interview later that afternoon, before the awards banquet, he reminisced about the first time he participated in a show in 1966 at what was then named the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He remembered he was in good company at that show with other artists including R. C. Gorman, Willard Stone, Fred Beaver and Rance Hood. It was at that show that he met Glenn Green who had just opened a new gallery for contemporary Southwestern art in Phoenix. The chance meeting proved invaluable for Houser.

As Houser pondered the significance of winning the Prix de West Purchase Award in our interview, he was humble, soft-spoken and thoughtful, as if measuring each word. His acceptance speech that evening was equally as brief, but touching.

Several of Houser’s comments that day still linger in my memory.

He explained that Smoke Signal was inspired by a story told to him by his father about how Native Americans sometimes communicated. “I think that all I’ve witnessed, the stories my dad told me, gave me a lot of pride in who I really am and encouraged me to tell stories in my art. I felt strongly that I had something to offer, and I continue to do it in my way,” he said.

I remember he paused, again seeming to measure his comments. “My work is about my people’s beauty, their dignity. About showing in my way, what I think of who I am, who they are, and making them proud. In my work, this is what I strive for, this dignity, this goodness that is in Man.”

A recent article in Persimmon Hill noted, “Houser has been referred to as the ‘Grandfather of Contemporary Native American sculpture.’ He has, without question, had the most influence in establishing the canons of Native sculpture.”

Houser continued sculpting and winning awards and accolades until his death, August 22, 1994. He was 80 years old, but his passing did not quell his artistic legacy. In 2008, the Oklahoma History Center held a major exhibition, Unconquered: Allan Houser and the Legacy of One Apache Family,” which looked at three generations of the Haozous/Houser family. His work continues to be exhibited in the Betty Price Gallery at the Oklahoma State Capitol and at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. The Houser family compound, near Santa Fe is a magnificent tribute to his immense talent.

Today, his work can be found in collections all over the world including the British Royal Collection, London; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; and the Japanese Royal Collection in Tokyo. The National Cowboy Museum exhibit honors Houser, whose 100th birthday would be June 30, 2014.

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