Vision, Sculpture and the Spirit Inside
Michael Naranjo is a US Army Vietnam war veteran and sculptor from New Mexico. He was badly wounded in Vietnam and returned home blind and with limited use of his right arm. Undaunted by his injuries, he is now an extraordinarily successful sculptor with work in Aspen and Santa Fe galleries, numerous public spaces and several museums. His vision and work reflect his experiences growing up in New Mexico, his Native American Heritage, his unbridled optimism and curious nature. We are proud to feature him as our USVAA August 2017 Colleague of the Month.
USVAA: What is your process? How do you begin a particular work?
Ideas come from so many places like my childhood and Indian Dancers, animals and the human form. Suddenly I’ll get an idea from a memory, sometimes a dream. These ideas sit inside for weeks, months, sometimes years before I get around to sculpting them into a form.
I’m almost afraid to start a piece, because I’m almost afraid I can’t do justice to the piece. One thing is the idea; it’s me kind of procrastinating in a way. Once I get my hands on the material I sit down and start creating, then everything else vanishes and I’m totally involved. When the image is in my mind’s eye, then I can use my one good hand – I sculpt basically with my three fingers, my thumb and my middle two fingers and so those are my tools. It takes me a lot of touches for me to get an idea of what a thing looks like and then I can go back and add more detail.
In the old days, I could work for a week at a time, anywhere from 18 to 20 hours a day. I liked to work in the middle of the night because there’s magical energy at night and I would work until I finished the piece. As time progressed I could work on several pieces at one time, then on one for a while and another and another.
I want to add that I’ve only made one piece that was about the war. It was one guy carrying his wounded friend over his shoulder and I won’t ever make another piece about that time period in my life. That was it. The war changed my life and I had to find another way of sculpting.
USVAA: Did you enlist in the military or were you drafted?
I was drafted in June of 1967. In November I ended up in Vietnam and I was wounded on January 8th, 1968. I can talk about it, but one never really knows or understands unless they’ve been there. And when you talk to somebody that’s been there, there’s a natural communication.
I started walking point not too long after I arrived. People might think I’m crazy, but I rather enjoyed it. We got caught in an ambush and a couple of the men in my squad got shot and killed and I was wounded after a hand grenade went off. It exploded near my right hand and I let go of my rifle. I caught a lot of shrapnel and later I had my little finger amputated and it left scars on my right arm and I had shrapnel in my face and right shoulder. After that I was medevacked. I remember talking non-stop to the medics because I thought if I stopped talking I was going to die.
USVAA: What made you want to become a sculptor?
My mom was a potter when I was a child and that gave me a chance to mix her clay. I would make sculptures of small animals. Sometimes, on my way home from school, I would go to galleries and see sculptures. The seed was planted and the passion for sculpture stayed with me.
USVAA: Is your work influenced by your surroundings in New Mexico?
Absolutely. The majority of pieces I’ve made over the years have been of animals and Indian Dancers. With my native culture and heritage, the Indian dancers that perform throughout this part of the country, everything from the War Dancers to the Devil Dancers influenced me and I made sculptures of all of those over the years.
As a kid, I went out hunting and fishing with my father and brother. We would often camp for a week at a time up in the mountains of northern New Mexico. I got to see all these animals in their natural habitat. Of course when we were hunting anytime we killed anything, we had to skin it, cut it up and pack it out of the back country. I learned a great deal about the anatomy of animals that I wouldn’t know from just observing them. Once you’ve quartered an animal you see the bowels and how they’re put together and how everything moves. It was a great lesson in anatomy. It was the same with all the fish I cleaned over the years. All of that learning, including birds and quail and I would see eagles flying and it all ended up in my sculptures.
USVAA: Can you go into detail about being an Indian?
Yes, I grew up on the Pueblo Reservation until I was maybe 9 or 10. I’m from the Tewa Tribe. They’re located about 30 miles North of Santa Fe in North Central New Mexico. The Pueblo is about a half a mile — a mile or so from the Rio Grande. It was surrounded by land we used to cultivate. As a small boy, we used to damn up the ditches and those were our swimming pools. To the West, toward Los Alamos, we have Mountains about 10,000 feet. There are 19 different tribes along the Rio Grande and they all speak their own languages.
Santa Fe was about 30 miles away and we would make it there a couple of times a year. There was a degree of isolation. There was a school and a clinic on the Pueblo both run by the government. In those early years we grew up somewhat isolated from the larger Anglo world out there, but I always felt interconnected to the earth and to the world around me at that time.
I speak Tewa and if you’re going to deal with any culture at all, I think it makes a big deal of difference if you can speak the language. It helps you understand when you hear stories of the old days and you understand why the dancers are performing a certain dance and all the paraphernalia that goes with it and the songs. It makes a great deal of difference with any artist who is trying to create a work of art and do research on the subject matter. The same goes with sculptures. The more you understand and the more you put yourself into a piece. It actually goes along with anything that I make, including animals or people.
USVAA: You have overcome an incredible obstacle with the loss of your sight? Can you describe that?
Sculpture is a different way of seeing. It’s a whole new way of looking at anything because it takes a while to get the feeling of anything — even a room in a house. Visual impairment is like being born again. You have to learn how to walk, how to read, how to eat, you have to learn how to interact with people in a whole different way because if you’re going to be a part of it, you’re going to have to figure out how to do it.
A lot of it has to do with attitude. I believe it makes a world of difference in your approach. It’s a different way of problem solving. It might be difficult, it might take longer, but you have to work at it and anything you work at gives you a natural good feeling.
USVAA: Was there a breakthrough moment in your work that allowed you to call yourself an artist?
I never really had a chance to think about it. I remember I was in the hospital at one point after I left the military and this young man approached me because he wanted to know about sculpture and he called me an artist. I broke out laughing. Then I apologized to him and said, “I’m sorry, but nobody’s ever called me an artist before.” The point is I didn’t really know I was an artist. I was just doing my thing and slowly I got better at it.
USVAA: Are you self-taught?
I went to college for three years and I and I took a drawing class and a class in art history. Then I was drafted. Essentially I was self-taught. Some artists told me what kinds of tools they used and I learned how to make armatures.
USVAA: Are there other influences on your work people should know about?
If somebody does anything, they’re going to get better at it. And I can look at the work that I did in the early days compared to what I do now and I can see they’re much more full and flowing because my early pieces don’t have a lot of detail.
For me it’s a world of sound and touch. I deal with the world at-large. I am an Indian, but I make sculptures of everything, Indians, animals, angels and cherubs.
I like the whole world, so consequently, we travel quite a bit and see different things. For example, a scaffold was built for me so I could touch Michaelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’accademia in Florence.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to do all of these things. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to get my sculptures into museums. It was easier in Italy than it was in this country to look at sculptures. Fortunately, my wife Laurie writes incredible letters and that’s allowed me to do a lot of things. My goodness, she’s just made my life so much more because she’s made it possible for me to focus on my creativity.
USVAA: What advice, if any, would you give to an artist who is just starting out?
Find something you love and believe in yourself. If you have the right attitude when you go into it and if you work at it, you can get it done. Nothing would be easy, nobody made any promises, so you have to work at it and there are ups and downs. If you want to live, you’re going to have to do it, because nobody is going to do it for you. If your spirit is strong, then you’ll have to go inside and find it. If you love and relish what you’re doing in life, your profession, then if you approach it with passion. I think it makes a difference. So much of my work is about the spirit that lives in side me.
Jenna Winters, Michael Naranjo’s daughter is directing and producing a documentary called Dream, Touch, Believe about her father’s life. Please visit and support her work at www.dreamtouchbelieve.com
To visit our Featured Colleague for the previous month, please click HERE.