Michael Naranjo | Sight Unseen


By Gussie Fauntleroy

Before he touched Michelangelo’s monumental marble sculpture of David, Michael Naranjo had tried carving stone. He thought he had done a fair job of it, for someone without sight and with full use of only one hand. Then, in the early 1980s, he had the moving and almost overwhelming experience of climbing onto scaffolding—built specifically for him—surrounding the 16th-century masterpiece in Florence, Italy. He spent hours running his fingers over the extraordinarily smooth surface of the 18-foot-tall figure, feeling the bulging vein in the enormous neck, the muscled arms, even the tear ducts in the corners of the statue’s eyes. When he returned home to New Mexico, Naranjo was profoundly changed.

“I got a new sense of the stone. I knew there was actual life in these pieces,” the Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor recounted in a regional television special some years ago. “My hands could ‘see’ before, but after I experienced Michelangelo’s work, I had new life in my hands. I could see twice as much as I could prior to that time.” Naranjo brought that added dimension of tactile understanding back to his own artwork, which he sculpts both in stone and in wax and clay to be cast in bronze. The result was an even greater sense of the living essence beneath the surface of a human or animal form—a spirit that continues to animate his award-winning art. Over the years his work has earned numerous honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which organizes Santa Fe Indian Market.

Gaining permission to touch revered, centuries-old artwork that no one else can lay a hand on is one side of the coin of being a blind sculptor—with a devoted wife whose letter-writing skills and tenacious efforts have helped open many such doors in museums around the world. The other side of the coin: never having laid eyes on Laurie, his wife of 30 years, or his two grown daughters, and the inevitable obstacles—large and small—that come with living day to day and creating art without the aid of sight.

Naranjo’s eyes were fine for the first 22 years of his life. He grew up in Taos, fishing, hunting, exploring the mountains and canyons, and enjoying the outdoors with his nine siblings. Their mother was noted Santa Clara Pueblo potter Rose Naranjo, and the kids often played with the clay that was always around. While the other children made little pinch-pots, young Michael shaped the clay into small animals. There were no sculptors around to serve as role models, yet he knew intuitively that’s what he wanted to be.

 PEACE, BRONZE, 16 X 7 X 14
PEACE, BRONZE, 16 X 7 X 14

After high school, Naranjo attended New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM, taking design and sculpture courses and intending to major in art. But fate had other plans. In 1968 he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He’d been there less than two months when he and his platoon were caught in an ambush. A grenade exploded, sending Naranjo flying into the air. When he came to, his right arm and hand were badly injured and his sight was permanently gone. Lying in a hospital bed in Japan, the young soldier wondered what he would do with his life. One day a volunteer asked if there was anything he wanted, and Naranjo requested some water-based clay, the kind so familiar from his childhood. With his good hand—fortunately he was left-handed—he rolled the clay into one of the simplest of creatures, an inchworm.

“That’s how it all started,” he remembers, speaking in a soft voice as he sits on the couch in his home near Santa Fe. “Once I made something with the clay, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew I could do it, with time, and there wasn’t anything that was going to change my mind.” Not the discouraging predictions of doctors and physical therapists. Not even the difficult, often frustrating months of rehabilitation and training in things like Braille, getting around, and cooking for himself. Finally, after eight months, he went home to his family in Taos.

But Naranjo was young and full of energy and a sense of adventure. He wanted the freedom to try new things and make mistakes on his own. Home, as he puts it, felt like “too much TLC.” He moved to Santa Fe and began living on his own and pouring his energy into sculpting. He sought out and talked with other artists, discovering that many use heat-softened wax or oil-based clay. He couldn’t employ tools, as they did, so he trained the fingers of his good hand to serve as tools. “When you’re young, you have this fire inside you, and you want to create,” he reflects. “You can’t wait to finish one piece and move on to the next one.”

At first Naranjo’s animals, Pueblo dancers, nudes, and other figures were finished in a standard bronze patina. But he soon switched to a deep black, which he continues to use today. “Black is what I see,” he explains simply. “If I were to put color in there, it would be someone else’s choice of color or shade. That’s a totally visual aspect, and I don’t live in that world.”  As another reminder of the world in which he lives, none of his human figures have eyes, although his animals often do.

One day in 1980, Naranjo, by then married, made a crucifix, and Laurie suggested he give it to the pope. She called the Veterans’ Administration, wrote letters, made follow-up calls, and waited. Two years later, Michael and Laurie were granted a papal audience. A letter of introduction from the Vatican helped pave the way for permission to touch original works of sculpture in Rome. Later, scaffolding was built for Naranjo around Michelangelo’s David. Over the years he has touched sculpture at the Louvre in Paris and elsewhere. The memory of what his hands have seen is still powerful. “I don’t know how they did some of this stuff in stone,” he says of the Greek and Renaissance masters. “It just blows your mind.”

Naranjo stands up and leads the way to his stone-carving studio. His feet know just where to step up onto the flagstone porch. Inside are air-powered tools for cutting away and shaping marble, alabaster, soapstone, and Texas limestone. The sculptor can hold a tool with his damaged hand and guide its movement with the other, relying on tactile feedback and intuition to create the form he envisions. For a number of years, health challenges kept him from stone carving, but today he occasionally works in stone again. Most of time, though, the 63-year-old artist sculpts in wax and clay.

A few steps away in the modeling studio, a turntable holds a two-foot-tall clay Eagle dancer, his knees bent in a crouch, arms outstretched. It’s been more than 40 years since Naranjo has seen such a dancer, so for this and other imagery he reaches back, clearing away the cobwebs of memory and occasionally asking others about details he can’t quite recall. Still, he believes that if given the chance to magically regain his sight, he would choose to stay as he is. He has built a fulfilling life; what he lacks in visual experience is balanced in other ways.

One thing Naranjo would change, however, is the lack of opportunity for others to touch sculpture in galleries and museums. To this end, a selection of his work is available on loan for touchable exhibitions, where visitors are encouraged to “see” the pieces with their hands. Such shows have taken place at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Michael and Laurie also established the Touched by Art Fund (through the Santa Fe Community Foundation), which helps pay the transportation costs to take schoolchildren on field trips to museums.

The inclusiveness Naranjo seeks in the experience of his art is reflected as well in the universal nature of many of his themes. SOLITUDE, for example, depicts a woman sitting in a contemplative position with one knee up. “This woman needs time to be alone,” the artist notes. “She’s thinking about her problems, figuring things out.” Other pieces emerge from the worlds of mythology and fantasy, while still others are inspired by nature or reflect the Native perspective. “I happen to be Indian and I happen to be blind, but what I am is a sculptor,” he affirms. “I guess you do what you do with what you’ve got. But if you don’t ever try, you won’t know if you’ll be able to do it—and then someone else will have the fun.”

Featured in August 2008