Native Artist Alan Houser
U.S. Army and sent as prisoners of war to Florida. After internment there and in Alabama, the Chiricahua band
who had originally claimed Warm Springs, Arizona, as their homeland, was removed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where
they remained prisoners of war until 1913, when they were released by the U.S. government.
Sculpture by Alan Houser
In 1914, in Fort Sill, Sam and Blossom Haozous gave birth to the first freeborn member of their family, and one
of the first of the whole Warm Springs band, a son they named Allan. Distantly related to the great Chiricahua
warrior Geronimo, Allan grew up proud of the traditions of his people. Still, he found it easiest to anglicize his
last name to Houser when he left Oklahoma in 1934 for Santa Fe, New Mexico. (His son, the well-known sculptor
Bob Haozous, has resumed using their Apache surname.) Having decided at the age of twenty that he wanted to
paint, Houser was encouraged by his parents, who taught him Apache traditional dress and customs so that he
might accurately depict them in his art. Before leaving Oklahoma, Houser's resolution to become an artist turned
into a concrete plan when he saw a government announcement for Dorothy Dunn's Art Studio at the Santa Fe
Indian School. Houser arrived in a new suit that his aunt had bought him at Montgomery Ward, with about one
dollar in his pocket.
Dunn passionately believed in the importance of Native arts and taught painting in a format that was, to her
mind, more "Native" than what she called "modern non-Indian art."(FN*) Encouraged to depict their own cultures,
Dunn felt that Native painters should not have to struggle with such complications as perspective and
chiaroscuro, resulting in a highly flattened style that could easily be identified as "Indian" by viewers who
expected to see an aboriginal, prehistoric iconography. Houser did well in Dunn's studio, producing hundreds of
works on paper He was troubled by her views, however, and especially lamented the fact that she discouraged her
students from studying human anatomy.
Fortunately, 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 Houser, functioning conceptually rather like the Katsinam
and Ye'íí ["Holy People"] of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo), respectively: that is, they are entities or
personifications of powers and processes to whom the community's well-being is entrusted. Later, in 1967,
representations of these dancers were among the first bronze editions produced by the artist, and prefigure the
larger, highly engaging Mountain Spirit Dancers that Houser sculpted in the 1980s and 1990s. Powerfully
mysterious studies in human motion, these bronze figures evoke great strength and a sense of awe--just what the
viewer might feel in their actual presence, and presumably what Houser himself found most compelling about them.
Houser's professional career took off in 1939 with a commission to paint murals, in a style of social realism,
inside the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. In that same year, he married Santa Fean
Anna Maria Gallegos. By 1940, he had returned to his hometown, Fort Sill, in order to study with a Norwegian
artist who encouraged Houser to work in three dimensions. He began making small wood sculptures.
World War II found the Houser 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 whose ideas about negative space in sculpture deeply influenced him.
After the war, Houser received a commission from the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, to sculpt a
memorial to honor the Institute's graduates whose lives were lost as American servicemen. At this pivotal
moment in 1948, Houser sculpted his first non-wood work, a monumental piece carved from a block of Carrara
marble. Comrade in Mourning succeeds in capturing the youth, dignity, and vanished promise of every fallen soldier
across time. This idealized testament to tradition and loss, conveyed simply with an unsentimental beauty, would
become the trademark of sculpture by Allan Houser, whether his subject was a young Diné (Navajo) girl and her
sheep, a warrior with bow and arrow, or the rounded forms of a mother with her child.
By the middle of the twentieth century, his career was well established: a Guggenheim Fellowship had freed him to
make art for two years; he then taught painting at the Intermountain School in Brigham City, Utah. In 1962,
Houser was invited to head the sculpture department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
There, with the likes of instructor Fritz Scholder and student T.C. Cannon, a renaissance in Native arts flowered
that continues to shape our understanding of contemporary Native art.
Retiring from teaching in 1975, Houser devoted himself full time to his art, entering into the most prolific period
of his life. He was known for his poignant sculptures, including the life-sized bronze Chiricahua Apache Family,
dedicated in 1983 at the Fort Sill Apache Tribal Center to honor the memory of his parents. In 1985, Houser's
monumental bronze, Offering of the Sacred Pipe, was dedicated at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New
York. In the next year, he created a bronze bust of Geronimo to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the
surrender of the Chiricahua people. A cast of the bust is now in the permanent collection of the National
Houser received award after award--including the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, presented to him in
1992 by President George H. W. Bush. Houser continues to be honored posthumously with exhibitions and awards,
including a major retrospective in 2004 as one of the inaugural exhibitions of the Smithsonian National Museum
of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
By presenting in his art what he knew best--his own past, rooted in the dignity, betrayal, and renewal of the
Chiricahua Apaches--in a way nontraditional for American Indian art until Houser's time, namely, in a fashion
that reflected the work of classicizing European modernists, Houser cleared a wide path for other Native
artists to follow. His sculpture embodies the importance of liberating Native art from its constricted
categories--categories that tended to define American Indian-made art as "craft" or "folk" art usually consigned
to ethnographic museums or galleries. The use of quote marks here indicates the marginality of these words, and
the stereotyping of art that has gone on under these categories. Liberation from these constricted categories
has allowed successive generations of Native people to become respected mainstream sculptors, following in the
footsteps of Allan Houser. Copyright 2012
Deats, L. Contemporary Native American Artists. 2012.
Reno, D. Contemporary Native American Artists. 1995.
Schaaf, G. American Indian Jewelry I: 1200 Artist Biographies. 2003.