Remembering sculptor Allan Houser on the centennial of his birth
By M.J. Van Deventer
This story was featured in the March 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Do artists ever really know how many people they influence? Allan Capron Houser spent 36 years in art classrooms in Utah and New Mexico, and in that fertile environment, he impacted hundreds of students with his strong work ethic and innovative teaching style, to say nothing of his own widely respected works in a variety of media.
In celebration of what would have been the 100th anniversary of Houser’s birth, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City is showcasing Houser’s influence on other artists in the exhibition Allan Houser and His Students. The exhibit portrays the distinguished artist as teacher and mentor and runs through May 11. The academic perspective on Houser presents his art and that of many students whose lives he touched. Among the featured artists are Fritz Scholder, T.C. Cannon, Dan Namingha, Kevin Red Star, Benjamin Harjo Jr., Doug Hyde, Joan Hill, and Bob Haozous, one of Houser’s three sons.
Houser generously shared with students his belief that Native American subject matter could be fused with abstract, sculptural forms to create a new style of art. He took the term modernism to new heights. He encouraged his students to experiment with as many sculptural media as possible. Like Michelangelo, Houser could sense within a piece of stone the figure waiting to emerge. He brought to his students a range of artistic skills and techniques. Perhaps more important, he embodied the virtues of patience and tenacity—character traits learned from his father that guided Houser’s artistic efforts throughout his life.
Houser (née Haozous) was born on the family farm near Fort Sill, OK, on June 30, 1914. He learned early the work ethic required to yield crops of cotton, alfalfa, and vegetables. He tended livestock and horses. In his limited free time, he relished pictures he saw in books and magazines—seeds planted for his eventual career path.
Through his father’s frequent storytelling sessions, Houser learned about the oppression that plagued his Chiricahua-Apache tribe. As a youth, he grasped the history, hardships, and beauty that his culture comprised. He was proud to be Geronimo’s grand-nephew.
At the age of 20, Houser left his Oklahoma home to study with Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. He absorbed her traditional teachings and became her model student, though he found her program stifling. To his death, he began every work of art with a simple sketch, a technique she discouraged.
Other experiences molded his direction as an artist. He painted life-size murals, made simple wood carvings, and was exposed to the work of sculptural icons Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, as well as the British artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth while studying at Pasadena’s Art Center.
His time as a teacher at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, UT, branded Houser as a teacher of influence who was willing to experiment with a variety of media, techniques, and assignments. It is easy to picture Houser standing before a classroom of eager faces: jaunty beret on his head, long shirt sleeves rolled up, hands in his pants pockets, a teacher and mentor at ease, sharing his life stories, his vast knowledge of Native history, and his talents. In 1962, Houser returned to Santa Fe as a faculty member at the new Institute of American Indian Arts, a creative incubator that provided him his greatest opportunity for influencing the face and direction of Native American art.
Bill Prokopiof was one of Houser’s early students during the IAIA’s formative years. At that time, Houser was sculpting, drawing, and painting; Prokopiof focused on sculpture. Cassandra Prokopiof, Bill’s widow, recalls that time with fondness. “Allan was a great teacher,” she says. “He always took time out to talk to the students on a personal level. He taught students the discipline an artist needs to be successful.” Prokopiof and Houser later shared a studio at the IAIA, and Cassandra recalls, “All the time Bill was sitting with Allan, he was learning more about sculpture. Allan showed Bill how the stone could talk to him. I think they learned from each other. Bill considered him a great teacher and a wonderful friend. He was a towering icon.”
Doug Hyde, a well-known Arizona sculptor whose work has long been influenced by Houser’s teachings, was a student at the IAIA during the 1960s and recalls his association with Houser with great admiration and respect. “What influenced me most was his work ethic,” Hyde says. “I still follow it. I go to the studio. I work every day. That’s how a sculptor improves his work. I learned that from him.” Hyde was a painting student, but Houser introduced him to sculpture. “He normally had the students draw first, then mold something, and then he would give them a stone to work with. But he gave me the stone and let me work without having a preconceived idea. It was the old direct-carving method, which I still use today,” Hyde says. “If I’d had another teacher, I doubt I would have become a sculptor.”
Benjamin Harjo Jr. was a contemporary of Hyde and Prokopiof at the IAIA and recalls Houser as a man who “never lost the ability to communicate with anyone.” Although Harjo was not one of Houser’s students, he remembers “doing a thumbnail sketch of him and admiring a painting on his easel.” Harjo knew from conversations with Prokopiof that Houser pushed students not to emulate his work but to find their own style. Harjo watched Houser’s growing reputation after he had retired from teaching. “I would go to his openings, and I always enjoyed talking to him about his work,” Harjo says. “He achieved so much as he aged. He was an inspiration to a lot of sculptors because he did drawings, paintings, and sculptures. He stood out as the premier American sculptor. Who else can you name who is so renowned?”
Houser’s gracious teaching approach also was appreciated by Glenn Green, who owned The Gallery Wall in Phoenix, AZ, when he first met Houser. “He was excited to introduce us to the students and other teachers and their work. It was obvious Allan was respected and loved … here was a truly gifted, unusual man,” Green noted in a Persimmon Hill magazine article.
By 1975, Houser had left teaching to devote himself to his art full time. The next 20 years were exceedingly prolific for him, as he created more than 1,000 sculptures in wood, stone, and bronze and received accolades around the globe.
Winning the Prix de West Award at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 1993 (then called the National Cowboy Hall of Fame) was particularly rewarding. In an interview following the announcement that his sculpture SMOKE SIGNAL [see page 63] had won the Purchase Award, Houser was characteristically humble, soft spoken, and thoughtful. “I think that all I’ve witnessed, the stories my dad told me, gave me a lot of pride in who I really am and encouraged me to tell stories in my art,” he said. “I felt strongly that I had something to offer, and I continue to do it in my way … my work is about my people’s beauty, their dignity, about showing, in my way, what I think of who I am, who they are, and making them proud. In my work, this is what I strive for, this dignity, this goodness that is in Man.”
Houser’s death at the age of 80, on August 22, 1994, may have quieted his beloved Italian sculpting tools but not his influence on contemporary Native American art. For Houser’s devotees, his legacy lives on in the numerous museums and galleries that continue to present his art in exhibitions that explore and define his multifaceted talents.
To honor the 100th anniversary of Houser’s birth, many museums and institutions in his native Oklahoma are hosting special exhibits and events; a sampling is listed here. Information is available at www.okhouser.org.
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman
Allan Houser Drawings: The Centennial Exhibition, March 8-May 18
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa
Form and Line: Allan Houser’s Sculpture and Drawings, February 13-June 29
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Allan Houser: On the Roof, May 1-July 27
Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City
Born to Freedom, March 13-December 31
State Capitol, Oklahoma City
Installation of Five Monumental Works, Through December
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