Painter, illustrator, sculptor, husband, father, innovator, teacher: Oklahoman Allan Houser was all of these things and more. Above all else, he was a storyteller.
Throughout a prolific and illustrious career that spanned seven decades, Houser used paintbrushes, pens, chisels, mallets, and even jackhammers to bring to life stories of traditional Native culture and evoke timeless universal emotions. He was known for his energy and experimentation, as well as his entrepreneurship and work ethic, values he instilled in his children and his students. He demonstrated his versatility through his adeptness at creating beautifully rendered figures, as well as elegantly minimal abstracts. Although known for his monumental sculptures in stone and bronze, he began his career as a painter, and spent more than 30 years teaching. And he was always drawing, sketching ideas for his next work no matter the medium or subject matter. His life and career were auspicious for many reasons, and even 20 years after his death, he remains one of the best-known and most influential Native artists of the 20th century his work is in public and private collections throughout Oklahoma and around the world. This year, with the centennial of his birth, his home state of Oklahoma celebrates his many contributions to American art, life, and culture.
Allan Capron Houser (1914 – 1994) was the first Chiricahua Apache child born to the tribe following their release from more than 20 years in captivity as prisoners of war of the U.S. government. His community had been led by such renowned chiefs as Cochise, Victorio, and Mangas Coloradas (Houser’s ancestor), and later by the infamous Geronimo. Throughout the 19th century, these powerful leaders and fierce warriors resisted increasing encroachment by non-Indians into traditional Apache territory in the American Southwest (present-day Arizona and New Mexico). Following the four-decades-long “Apache Wars,” Native warriors and their families were rounded up and imprisoned first in Florida, later in Alabama, and eventually in Fort Sill in southwestern Oklahoma. It was here that Allan was born to Sam and Blossom Haozous on June 29, 1914. (The spelling of the Apache surname is “Haozous,” but early in his life, Allan changed it to the more Anglicized “Houser,” which was easier for non-Indians to spell and pronounce.)
Houser was raised on his family’s farm near Fort Sill, where he helped tend livestock and harvest fruit trees, corn, cotton, oats, and wheat. He listened to his father’s stories of the past, from historical events and battles to traditional ceremonies and ways of life. These stories and his own experiences with Apache culture became the subject of much of his art. With paint and wood and stone and metal, he created images of Apache people engaged in such daily activities as hunting, or sacred rituals like the girls’ coming-of-age (Sunrise) ceremonies or the burial rites for a loved one who had died. Many times he illustrated the most basic human group, the family or just mother and child. While such images may appear to be distinctively Apache and feature traditional clothing, they also depict one of the few true universals in life: we all have families.
As a child, Houser was known for his athleticism and his interest in drawing. While the former had a place in farm life, the latter did not. It was not until 1934 when Houser was 20 years old that he had the opportunity to actively pursue his passion for art by making a life-changing move to Santa Fe. It was the capital of the New Mexico where Houser’s education and career really began, and it would be where he made his most indelible mark on the Native art world through his art and his teaching.
The timing of his move could not have been more fortuitous; Houser’s career began at the dawn of contemporary Native fine art in the 20thcentury. He moved to The Land of Enchantment not for leisure, but to enroll in the recently established “Studio” art program at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS). The program was created in 1932 by Dorothy Dunn, a teacher trained at the Art Institute of Chicago who had already taught Native students at schools in two Pueblo communities in New Mexico. This was a time of great change in federal Indian policy, as those in government sought to address the devastation of the Great Depression in Native communities. Among the policy changes were a lifting of the ban on teaching traditionally Native arts in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools like that in Santa Fe, and the establishment in 1934 of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB). Both of these were seen as ways to encourage Native people to develop economic sustainability through the creation and sale of art. Some Native artists, including Allan Houser, were even part of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, and commissioned to paint murals in government buildings in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country.
At about the same time, Oscar Jacobson, a professor of art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, had taken on a group of students known as the Kiowa Six. These painters (Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, Lois Smoky, and Monroe Tsatoke) are credited as among the first Native people to pursue formal art education at the university level. In addition, their work was displayed as fine art in exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, and was published in a portfolio that remains one of the most important publications of Native art to this day.
Houser began his art education in the midst of this revitalization of Native art, and in Santa Fe no less, which was already recognized as the heart of the Native art world. It has long been a nexus for trade and commerce among Native peoples (Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and others) and between Native and non-Native peoples, particularly the Spanish and Anglo (American). In 1922, it became the site of the Santa Fe Indian Market, now the oldest and most prestigious competitive show of Native art. Forty years later, it became the home of the Institute of American Indian Arts, a unique academic institution exclusively for Native students, and where Houser taught for many years.
Dorothy Dunn’s “Studio” program was long-lived and had an incredible impact on Native painting. Her method of teaching was based on her belief that students should paint what they know from their particular tribes and communities, and that they should portray such scenes in a “traditional” manner. By this she meant a flat style of painting that did not include background, foreground, perspective, or shading (some of the hallmarks of established Western art practice). Appropriate subject matter was deemed to be scenes of supposed Native life, such as hunting, warfare, and ceremonies.
This perspective was based on a commonly held idea that Native peoples and their cultures were vanishing because of the assimilation into mainstream American culture and the incredible pressures imposed by government policies, Christian missionaries, a capitalist economic system, and formal schooling where Native languages and ways were forbidden. With a sense of reform and reclamation, Dunn encouraged her students to preserve such traditions by painting them in a rigid style that she deemed appropriate. Although Houser did create many works in this flat style, he bristled under such unyielding and ill-informed ideas about who Native people were and how they lived.
Houser painted figurative work and often portrayed Apache people engaged in traditional activities and rituals, but he also longed for more—more instruction on Western painting techniques and styles, and more freedom to explore other non-Native subjects. He was always a voracious reader and so continued his pursuit of knowledge outside the classroom, devouring books on such Western artists and illustrators such as Frederic Remington, whose sensitive depictions of animals, especially horses, was always an inspiration to Houser. Throughout his career, he was inspired and guided by his identity as an Apache and his knowledge of history and culture, as well as his confidence in experimenting with new ways of doing things.
His move to Santa Fe was a catalyst for many important events in his life and career. In 1937, while still a student at the SFIS, Houser had his first solo exhibition of work at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. In 1938 and ’39, he and classmate Gerald Nailor (Navajo, 1917 – 1952) were commissioned to paint murals for the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. He had a watershed year in 1939 when he married Anna Marie Gallegos (a Navajo woman with whom he had four sons) and had his work shown in three exhibitions across the country, at the Art Institute of Chicago, the New York World’s Fair, and at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. The following year, Houser painted a fresco mural with Norwegian artist Olle Nordmark in his hometown at the Fort Sill Indian School. From 1941 to 1947 he, like many other Americans, worked in variety of war-related jobs, primarily construction projects in Los Angeles. While there, he took advantage of the many museums in the area, learning independently about various European and American artists and their work.
Houser painted figurative work and often portrayed Apache people engaged in traditional activities and rituals, but he also longed for more.
In 1947 he learned of a competition sponsored by the alumni association of Haskell Institute, an Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas. The winning artist would be commissioned to create a sculpture to honor fallen Native veterans. Although Houser had only ever created small wooden carvings and not life-size (much less monumental) sculptures, he decided to enter the competition. His sketch of the larger-than-life “Comrade In Mourning” won the contest, and the resulting 7’ marble figure was Houser’s first real foray into sculpture.
Houser’s career really began to take off with this commission, as well as with the awards and accolades he was receiving from museums and art organizations across the country and around the world. For instance, he won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1949 and Les Palmes Academique from the French government in 1954. In 1950 he created a series of unique dioramas for the IACB’s Southern Plains Museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and, in 1958, was commissioned to design the commemorative medal for the Society of Medalists.
Among the competitions he entered was the Philbrook Indian Annual, a juried exhibition primarily for painters and sculptors. The Annual ran from 1946 through 1979, and Houser was active as both a participant (entering 22 paintings and 9 sculptures) and a judge. He won a record of five Grand Awards, tying with his contemporary Oscar Howe (Yanktonai, 1915 – 1983) for the most of these coveted Best of Shows. His first Grand Award was for a watercolor called Apache Baby Burial (1948), which depicts a family mourning the loss of a young child. One might ask why an artist, any artist, would choose to illustrate such a scene. Although the image is of traditional Apache burial rites, the emotions of all the family members in the painting are universal; any family that has endured such a tragedy can relate to the pain and grief of this type of tragedy.
The last Grand Award he won, 20 years later, was for an ebony carving titled “Sacred Rain Arrow,” which in 1968 became the first sculpture to win this award. In this sleek, stylized sculpture we do not see an entire figure, but only the man’s left arm, head, and right hand. The bow and arrow are merely hinted at—not fully defined with the wood, but rather left to the imagination with just a suggestion of the form. (The following year he was honored with the Waite Phillips Award for Lifetime Achievement for his many contributions to Native American art.) Twenty years later he created a bronze version with the same title, editions of which can be seen throughout the country, including in front of the Gilcrease Museum of the Americas in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since 2008, an image of the bronze sculpture has been on the Oklahoma license plate.
Not only was Houser a prolific artist who won honors for his many paintings and sculptures, he was also a dedicated teacher, working with students for nearly 30 years before retiring to focus on his own art in 1975. For more than a decade (1951–1962) he taught painting, sculpture, textiles, and graphic design at the Inter-Mountain Indian School, a vocational school primarily for Navajo students in Brigham, Utah. In keeping with his interest in life-long learning, he not only taught classes, but also took classes, enrolling in extension courses at Utah State College. It was during this time that he also illustrated nine children’s books for the Indian Reader Series, a collection of Native-themed books for which many Native artists served as illustrators from the 1930s through the 1960s.
By the late 1950s, the Native art world was becoming contentious as many were constricted by the expectations and definitions of what was Native art. The commonly held perspective about “traditional” Indian painting that had been articulated by Dorothy Dunn at the Studio was still affecting what was taught, created, and purchased by both individual and institutional collectors. The question of who was defining Native art came to a head in 1958 when an abstract painting by Oscar Howe titled Umine Wacipe (War and Peace Dance) was rejected by judges at the Philbrook Indian Annual for being too contemporary and not authentically “Indian.” An outraged Howe wrote a scathing letter to Philbrook protesting that only Native artists can define what authentic Native art is. In response the museum added a new category for “Non Traditional Painting” the following year.
But this type of stagnation chafing Howe in Oklahoma was being felt by Native artists in the Southwest as well. In response to a growing outcry from Native artists and others, the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a series of summer workshops at the University of Arizona in Tucson to address the status and future of Native art. Artists like Houser joined in discussions with academics, curators, traders, government agents, and others to discuss ideas about authenticity, culture change, individuality, and modernity, as well as the reality of the market at galleries, museums, shows, and trading posts.
Not only was Houser a prolific artist who won honors for his many paintings and sculptures, he was also a dedicated teacher.
One of the other major points of discussion was that Native art education was unacceptable and needed to be changed drastically. It was in the wake of this cry for change that the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was founded in Santa Fe in 1962. This unique school was created exclusively for Native students and was staffed primarily by Native instructors. Houser was among the first teachers hired at “The Institute,” along with Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee, 1916 – 2002), Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921 – 1991), Fritz Scholder (Luiseňo, 1937 – 2005), and others. One of the things these artists had in common was motivation to experiment and push boundaries and expectations themselves as individual artists and Native art in general. The Institute created a progressive atmosphere in which these innovators encouraged their students to express themselves through their art, whether painting, sculpture, jewelry, or other media.
Houser taught at IAIA for 13 years before retiring in 1975 to focus exclusively on his own creative process. But his time at the Institute was a productive one during which he flourished, experimenting with carving wood and stone and casting bronze. His first castings were in 1967 at the Nambé Mills Foundry in Pojoaque, New Mexico, near Santa Fe. By casting, Houser could create multiple pieces in editions, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s he was fabricating sculptures, welding pieces of metal together to create a single, unique piece. And he continued to carve sculptures from stone.
With all of these materials and techniques, he experimented with contrasts, creating a variety of textures, and playing with positive and negative spaces. Many of his stone sculptures feature a contrast between highly polished areas (faces on his figurative pieces) with areas left rough and textured to depict such elements as hair or clothing. On some of his more abstract metal sculptures, there is both the presence and absence of materials, as in the elegantly beautiful “Apache Mask” (1976) in which the upturned face is both there (in bronze) and not there. Such work was the distillation of an image to its very essence of structure.
Later in life, Houser continued to receive recognition and accolades for his work, and not just in the Native art world. In the 1970s he had solo shows at the State Capitol in Santa Fe and at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. In 1981, his paintings were included in an exhibition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and his sculptures were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais in Paris. In 1983 he had exhibitions in both France and Germany, and was honored by the State of Oklahoma with the Governor’s Award for Visual Arts. In 1986, he was commissioned to create a bust of Geronimo, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the surrender of the Chiracahu’s (and the beginning of their decades-long incarceration). Copies of the bust are on display at the Fort Sill Apache Tribal Center in Oklahoma and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1992, Houser became the first Native person to receive one of the nation’s highest honors, the National Medal of Arts, in a ceremony presided over by President George H.W. Bush. The following year, IAIA honored him by establishing the Allan Houser Park on their campus in downtown Santa Fe.
Here in Oklahoma, one can see Houser’s work at museums and private collections, as well as throughout the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and even on the grounds of the State Capitol on Oklahoma City. His images are powerful and have universal appeal in their beauty and in the emotions they depict and evoke. They remind us that we are all human.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 12, June 15, 2014.