With only one hand and no sight, the sculptor has not lost his artistic vision.
As a 23-year-old soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, Native American sculptor Michael Naranjo lost his sight — but not his artistic vision.
The son of famed Santa Clara Pueblo potter Rose Naranjo grew up knowing he wanted to someday follow in his mother’s footsteps and become an artist. But before he could pursue his dream, the draft transported him from the deserts of New Mexico, where he was raised, to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Just two months into Naranjo’s tour of duty, his platoon was ambushed. A grenade exploded, knocking Naranjo unconscious. When he woke up, he was blind. While convalescing in a Japanese hospital, Naranjo requested that a hospital volunteer bring him a ball of clay. With his left hand — the right had been mangled in the blast — he fashioned the clay into a crude figurine.
“I made a little inchworm,” recalls Naranjo, now 71. “The minute I made something that simple — something a child would make — [my entire career] began. I immediately knew that I could [become a sculptor] with one hand and no eyes.”
Naranjo eventually moved to Santa Fe, where he learned to work with oil-based clay and heatsoftened wax, which he cast in bronze. He taught himself to use the fingers of his good hand as tools, sculpting naturalistic figures of animals and Pueblo dancers from memory. He began finishing his bronzes with a black patina — the shade he sees as a person without sight.
Over time, Naranjo’s skill — and life story — earned him international renown and countless awards. He presented works to both Pope John Paul II and former U.S. President Richard Nixon, and his sculptures stand outside the New Mexico state Capitol and Phoenix’s Heard Museum.
“When you consider that he [can’t see] — that these [works] are coming either from a visual memory in his mind or his innate understanding of the mechanics of anatomy — I think that’s what really strikes you,” says Sandra Harris, director of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona, which is mounting a retrospective of Naranjo’s work.
Naranjo encourages visitors touring his exhibitions to run their hands along his sculptures. When they close their eyes and feel the bronze beneath their fingertips, he hopes people will realize that “sight” isn’t limited to the eyes.
All Things Are Possible — The Inspired Life Work of Michael Naranjo will be on view at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona, October 17, 2015 – February 28, 2016. The artist is represented by Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe.
From the November/December 2015 issue.