ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Retirement is not a word in the vocabulary of internationally renowned Native American sculptor Michael Naranjo.
“What am I going to do if I retire?” the 70-year-old Naranjo asked rhetorically. “I am trying to do less but it’s hard to do less because this is what I do.”
Naranjo, a member of Santa Clara Pueblo, has been creating bronze sculptures and maquettes for sculptures for decades. He has a studio in his Albuquerque home where he and his wife, Laurie, live.
Neither Naranjo’s blindness nor hand injuries – both incurred in a grenade explosion in the Vietnam War 47 years ago – have been obstacles to his creativity and determination. He uses the thumb, forefinger and index finger of his left hand to mold his representational art.
Naranjo acknowledged that he reduced the number of galleries exhibiting his art. On purpose.
“We used to deal with more galleries in other parts of the country but we’re trying to do less,” Naranjo said.
Consequently, he does fewer shows and he doesn’t enter into juried competitions anymore.
He will make his debut in next weekend’s Weems ArtFest. He is one of more than 280 artists and artisans presenting their work at the three-day event at Expo New Mexico.
Mary Ann Weems invited Naranjo to ArtFest three years ago. Naranjo declined.
“They called again and asked. We’re in Albuquerque now and they said it’s for Vets Heading Home. It’s a great cause,” Naranjo said.
He is donating a maquette of his piece, titled “The Gift,” to be auctioned by Weems ArtFest. The auction proceeds benefit Vets Heading Home, a local organization that serves and surveys veterans who are homeless and are ineligible for Veterans Administration assistance.
The full sculpture of “The Gift,” which shows an Indian holding a dove to be released, is in front of the New Mexico State Library and Archives in Santa Fe.
Another motivation for Naranjo accepting the invitation is ArtFest’s reputation.
“What Mary Ann has done over the years and given to the community, well, she’s really done a lot. So it’s an honor to be asked,” he said.
Of Naranjo, Weems said, “He’s the nicest, gentlest, most understated artist I have ever met.”
Among other works Naranjo will show at ArtFest are the sculpture “The Great Spirit,” a Bacchus figure reclining, the sculpture “The Prayer,” of an Indian man on a horse, a maquette of “All Things Are Possible” and a maquette of “Scales of Justice,” the sculpture of which is in front of the federal courthouse in Downtown Albuquerque.
“My pieces aren’t realistic. They show minimal detail. They’re simple,” he said.
Naranjo is unsure how to explain his creative process.
“The steps in the process vary. Sometimes I can sit down and make a piece. Other times I can start a piece and it’s not working. I put it down. … I may come back to it days, years later, and it works,” he said. “Quite often I have a few pieces going at one time.”
Art, he said, lives within everyone but some people act on the impulse and begin to create.
“I think we’re influenced from early on,” Naranjo stated.
Naranjo comes from a family of artists. His late mother, Rose, made trade Santa Clara pottery. His seven sisters and two brothers are all artists.
As a youth he remembers making an oil painting and a few watercolors. Then in college, Naranjo took classes in art and sculpture.
“Sculpture is what I wanted to do,” he said. “Somehow it lends itself to touch. So it worked out, even with one hand and no eyes. I’m fortunate that I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
His bronze sculptures with a trademark matte black patina have come in various subjects and sizes – cherubs, nudes, crucifixes, animals, humans, and recently a Santa Claus and reindeer, which is now being cast. Naranjo has even designed homes.
This past summer Naranjo was an artist-in-residence at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center at Grand Canyon National Park. He gave workshops, a lecture, and created sculptures of two rams.
“They let me look at their archives. I got to touch old things, like 4,000-year-old sandals and cloth and an ancient sloth,” Naranjo said.
Some years ago he was given permission to touch Michelangelo’s famous “David” sculpture in Florence, Italy.
His sculptures are in many art collections, including The Vatican, the White House and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.