Sculptor Michael Naranjo portrays incredible ideas in bronze, by touch
By Bryan Corbin, Storyteller magazine editor
Artworks on exhibit in museums often are accompanied by signs that say, “Please do not touch.” But in the exhibition Please Touch! The Sculptures of Michael Naranjo, Eiteljorg visitors can experience remarkable bronze sculptures that are touchable – created by a Native American artist whose compelling life story will inspire reflection about art and artistic inspiration.
Michael Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) grew up in Taos, New Mexico, where his mother Rose Naranjo, a noted pottery artist, encouraged his interest in sculpting. During his Army service in the Vietnam War in 1968, Michael Naranjo was caught in an ambush and suffered near-fatal injuries in a grenade blast. He lost his eyesight and the use of his right hand. Working with clay during his convalescence rekindled his passion for sculpting and eventually led him to a career as a sculptor. Though totally blind and unable to perceive light, Naranjo sculpts by sense of touch with his left hand, and he is admired for his great ability and the beauty of his pieces.
“Sometimes every once in a while, I will be sitting there and an image floats into my mind’s eye. I can literally see it in my mind’s eye, and then it disappears,” Naranjo said. “I’ve captured that picture forever in the storage banks of my mind. I’ll sit down and create it.”
Naranjo’s sculptures, created in wax and cast into bronze, convey human figures, Native hoop dancers, eagles and bison as they appear in nature, as well as mythical creatures. His ideas come from memories and life experiences, and his pieces have become more fluid over the years as his technique evolved, he said. The Eiteljorg exhibition features more than 30 examples of his work spanning 1972 to 2012. Naranjo allows visitors to experience his sculptures as he does: by sense of touch. The exhibition includes Braille labels and audio descriptions.
“After being denied touch at so many places, it became extremely important to me that people can touch my work,” he told Storyteller magazine.
Encounters with great sculpture
Continuing through Feb. 7, 2021, the exhibition is curated by Jennifer Complo McNutt, curator of contemporary art, and Dorene Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), assistant curator of Native American art. The show represents a kind of homecoming: The first museum to stage an exhibition where visitors could not just view but also touch Naranjo’s sculptures was the Eiteljorg, back in 1992. Now a new generation will get to experience his work.
Naranjo has sculpted professionally for more than 50 years, and his sculptures — mostly in bronze, but some in marble — are admired and acclaimed. Examples of his work are in the collections of the Vatican, the White House and the New Mexico State Capitol building in Santa Fe. By 1986 he had become so renowned that, during a visit to the Accademia Gallery of Florence, Italy, he was invited to touch one of the world’s great works of art that normally can’t be handled: Michaelangelo’s statue, David. Climbing a specially constructed scaffolding allowed Naranjo to reach the top of the 25-foot-tall marble masterpiece. He reverently recalls encountering the David statue’s face by touch: “His eyelids were very thin and beautiful, the tear ducts were back in there, the tension in his neck and veins (could be felt). . . . It was amazing.”
More recently, Naranjo and his wife, Laurie Naranjo, got to encounter another iconic work, the plaster sculpture End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. It was for an upcoming documentary film their daughter, Jenna Winters, is producing, Dream, Touch, Believe. Using a harness and scissor lift, Naranjo explored the top of the 18-foot-tall statue — depicting a weary Native man on a horse – that symbolizes the forced removal of Native peoples from their lands by European colonizers. “With the palm of my hand I would look around and I can feel the indentations,” he said of End of the Trail. The statue is so large it took some time to get a sense of it by touch, he said.
Coinciding with the Please Touch! exhibition in Indianapolis, Naranjo will serve as the Eiteljorg’s artist in residence in February. He welcomes the opportunity to spend a week at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired teaching students to sculpt and encouraging them to express their artistic abilities. It’s part of the No Limits initiative with the school, through which student leaders have advised the Eiteljorg on how to improve accessibility for all museum visitors.
“We are honored to have this opportunity to share Michael Naranjo’s beautiful sculptures and personal story with a new generation, and provide increased accessibility for visitors who are blind or visually impaired,” said Elisa Phelps, Eiteljorg vice president and chief curatorial officer. “The exhibit has been a catalyst in shifting our thinking about accessibility and visitor experiences, and will inform our approach to future exhibits.”
Naranjo, 75, said it’s always exciting for him to get a new sculpture started. “People always ask, ‘What’s your favorite piece?’ It’s the one I’m working on now. Because I’ve gone through the excitement, energy, ecstasy, whatever you call it, with the others; but now, it’s a new day, and here we are with this one.”
Image caption above:
Artist Michael Naranjo with one of his sculptures
Image courtesy of Michael and Laurie Naranjo
PLEASE TOUCH! THE SCULPTURES OF MICHAEL NARANJO
JAN. 18, 2020–FEB. 9, 2021
Gerald and Dorit Paul Gallery
Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation
Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
No Limits Arts Series
Lilly Endowment Inc.
Care Institute Group, Inc.
Indiana Arts Commission
Arts Council of Indianapolis
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Storyteller magazine.
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