Ask anyone to name a Chiricahua Apache, and you will probably hear “Cochise” or “Geronimo.” But the first name coming to my mind is always Allan Houser.
With his hands in his pockets, he stands outside the Allan Houser Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, looking pretty good for a guy 100 years old.
All right, it’s only a bronze sculpture by Houser’s son, Phillip M. Haozous. The elder Houser died in 1994, but since June marks the centennial of his birth, it’s time to give Allan a rocking party. So I have invited some of my favorite artist types to sing birthday greetings.
Why, here’s Thom Ross.
“I liked his work…but I prefer men falling off mountains to their wretched deaths onto the ice fields below,” Ross says.
One of these days, I will learn not to invite Ross to any party.
Ross’s latest works deal with that legendary adventurer George Mallory, who tried to tame that “Wild West” place called Mount Everest (and who fell to his death on Earth’s highest mountain in 1924).
Besides, Ross paints historical figures with pointy heads, and Houser was all about sculpting nobility and curves.
One of the most important artists of the 20th century, Houser created work found not just in American museums. Try London, Paris and Tokyo. His presence is almost everywhere you look in Oklahoma. That Indian figure with the bow and arrow depicted on some Oklahoma license plates? Yep. That’s a Houser. The original piece, Sacred Rain Arrow, also stood in Olympic Village at the 2002 Winter Games, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Allan Houser’s work is the nidus that influences other artists as they grow their own aesthetics,” says Mark Sublette, president of Medicine Man Gallery, in both Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Houser has become the gold standard for not only native sculptors, but any artist who dares to raise the bar of Western modernism.”
I can’t invite Sublette anywhere, either. He’s always using words like nidus and bar.
“His creative spirit remained vital throughout his life as he changed stylistically to reflect his shifting artistic visions,” adds Carole Klein, who just retired as associate curator of art at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “He always sought new expressions. Generous in spirit, he shared this approach with his students, which encouraged them to trust their own responses and respect their unique perspectives.”
Now, we’re getting somewhere. By 1939, Houser’s work was being shown from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. His marble carving Comrade in Mourning was commissioned by the Haskell Institute to honor the Lawrence, Kansas, Indian school’s students killed during WWII.
“There wouldn’t be Indian stone sculpture if not for Allan Houser,” says Carl Berney, a modernist sculptor who works in marble, limestone and alabaster. Berney’s not Indian, but he does wear a funny cap that reminds me of the one Houser usually donned. “He introduced the form to Indians.”
Think about that. If not for Houser, we might not admire works by Oreland C. Joe, the Navajo-Ute sculptor who was the first Indian artist to join the Cowboy Artists of America.
Houser was even revered by Gib Singleton, the sculptor who passed away this February. “We used to go to each other’s openings back when we were both in Arizona,” Singleton said, “and, man, with his pieces in the spotlights and him playing the flute and telling stories about Geronimo and the Old Ones, it just reached right down into your soul.”
Think about that. Houser’s work can reach into the soul of an artist who created work for the Pope! So can anyone please explain why we remember Geronimo and not a genius and inspiration like Allan Houser?
Johnny D. Boggs also likes the stone sculptures of Mescalero-Lipan-Chiricahua artist Jordan Torres, a descendant of Cochise and Naiche.