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From Freedom to Eternity
One hundred years ago, Allan Houser was born. His work, which transcended conventional notions of Indian art, now resides in the realm of the sacred and sublime.
By Dyrinda Tyson
Published May/June 2014
Earlier this year, Jeff Haozous was wandering through Allan Houser’s Sculpture Garden near Santa Fe, New Mexico. He took his time, absorbing the beauty and tranquility that defined many of the works of one of the twentieth century’s foremost American artists. The twelve-acre garden adjacent to the late artist’s studio contains nearly eighty stone, steel, and bronze sculptures that complement the rugged beauty of the New Mexico landscape. For Haozous, who is Houser’s nephew, the visit marked both a return and a revelation.
“It was the first time I’d been there in maybe eight years,” he says, “and there was one sculpture I hadn’t seen before.”
That piece, Warm Springs Apache Man, struck him. More than four feet tall, it is a sculptural head of a young Apache wearing a headband, his expression inscrutable.
“His art resonates with me very much,” says Haozous, who legally took back his family’s traditional name in 2001. “I find it very beautiful, and it tells our story.”
That story is one of ferocity and perseverance, bravery and betrayal, loss and imprisonment—all mirrored in the calm, guarded expression of the face in the bronze.
It is the story, in brief, of Houser’s tribe—and his nephew’s. Haozous, a Lawton resident, is chairman of the Fort Sill Apaches, also known as the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, and the tribe’s culture infuses Houser’s art. He captured daily Apache life and landscapes in delicate watercolors; celebrated rituals in sculptural works such as Morning Prayer, with its blanket-wrapped figure in midsong; and offered up an occasional reminder of a history that was sometimes harsh. As Long as the Waters Flow, an imposing bronze on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds, draws its name from President Andrew Jackson’s promise that Indians would retain their lands “as long as the grass grows and the rivers run.”
Houser’s family is steeped in Apache history. From the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, the tribe contended with waves of settlers rolling into their lands, where modern-day New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico meet. Houser’s great-grandfather, Apache leader Mangas Coloradas, led the fight against encroachment, dying at federal hands in 1863. His own father, Sam Haozous, was Geronimo’s distant relative. Captured in 1886, Haozous eventually was imprisoned at Fort Sill, where he languished until 1914, the year the last eighty Chiricahua Apaches were released. Some returned to New Mexico to rejoin their Apache brethren; others settled on nearby 160-acre plots allotted by the federal government.
Sam Haozous and his wife Blossom chose to remain in Oklahoma, putting down roots on land near Boone. There, on June 30, 1914, just months after the last of the Chiricahua walked free, their son Allan was born. Family legend holds that he was the first Chiricahua born in freedom in more than a generation. It was during his time attending school in Boone that he began using the surname Houser, the Anglicized version of Haozous.
In the ensuing decades, Allan Houser would leave behind a body of work that is a reflection of twentieth-century art through his own distinctive lens. Private citizens and institutions continue to collect his sculptures and paintings. His works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and United Nations building in New York and in museums at home and abroad, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He illustrated seven children’s books with the same intensity he gave his gallery pieces and became the first Native American to win the National Medal of Arts. His home state would dub him its first Oklahoma Cultural Ambassador in 1984, an award honoring native Oklahomans who have a national and international impact on the arts.
Sacred Rain Arrow, a bronze depicting a young Apache warrior shooting a prayer for rain toward the heavens, greeted Olympians in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Winter Games and now stands in front of the main entrance to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. Most Oklahomans see a smaller version of it every day—its image is on the state’s standard license plate.
Allan Houser achieved all of this and more without a patron or a teacher who shared his vision.
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In 2014, Oklahoma museums are celebrating Allan Houser’s life and art with exhibits throughout the state, many featuring works on loan from Allan Houser Incorporated. Check with each institution before visiting; dates and other details may change. For more information about Houser, his work, and centennial exhibitions, visit okhouser.org.
> Form and Line: Allan Houser’s Sculpture and Drawings at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa will display stone sculptures, charcoal drawings, and sketchbooks highlighting Houser’s skill and energy as he traversed different media. Through June 29. 1400 North Gilcrease Museum Road, (918) 596-2700 or gilcrease.utulsa.edu.
> Houser’s Sounds of the Night is on display at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art’s Postal Plaza Gallery. The piece, on loan from the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, embodies one of Houser’s favorite subjects, the bond between mother and child. Through October 1. 720 South Husband Street in Stillwater, (405) 744-2780 or museum.okstate.edu.
> Warm Springs Apache Man, Hunter’s Vision, Spirit of the Wind, Morning Prayer, and Singing Heart will join two permanent Houser statues, As Long as the Waters Flow and Dialogue, on the State Capitol grounds for Allan Houser at the Capitol: A Legacy in Bronze, an Oklahoma Arts Council exhibit. Through December 15. 2300 North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, (800) 652-6552 or arts.ok.gov/Art_at_the_Capitol/Houser.html.
> See Houser’s artistic journey in Born to Freedom: Allan Houser Centennial at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Through December 31. 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, (405) 521-2491 or okhistory.org/unconquered.
> Six bronze sculptures Houser created between 1980 and 1993 will take up residence on the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s rooftop terrace at the Allan Houser: On the Roof exhibit. May 1 through July 27. 415 Couch Drive, (405) 236-3100 or okcmoa.com.
> Allan Houser: A Celebration at the Philbrook Downtown concentrates on Houser’s works in the Indian Annual, a juried competition that took place at the museum between 1946 and 1979 in which he won many awards and served as a judge. May 18 through November 2. 116 East Brady Street in Tulsa, (918) 749-7941 or philbrook.org.
> The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan will host Allan Houser: Legend Born Free, a glimpse into the lives of the Fort Sill Apache and how their struggles are reflected in Houser’s work. Desert Flower, a bronze from the center’s permanent collection, will be on display along with other items on loan from the Allan Houser Foundation, including tempera paintings and ink drawings used as book illustrations. June 1 through August 15. 1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway, (580) 252-6692 or onthechisholmtrail.com.
> In Anadarko, the Southern Plains Indian Museum’s permanent collection includes several Houser pieces, including dioramas the artist created for the exhibit space. Museum officials are planning other events and exhibits in connection with the Fort Sill Apaches’ annual homecoming in September. Details will be released as the homecoming draws closer. 801 East Central Boulevard, (405) 247-6221.