Photo credit: Laurie Naranjo, dreamtouchbelieve.com
By Pramila Komanduri
Sculpting, hunting and fishing were a routine part of Michael Naranjo's childhood which was spent with his Pueblo Indian community on their Reservation in New Mexico in the US. The Reservation is about 30 miles from the city of Santa Fe where he was born. Michael's mother was experienced at making Pueblo Santa Clara style pottery. Michael began helping her collect and mix clay when he was seven and he made his own clay animals. He would hunt and fish with his brother in the mountains. He continued the last nine years of his schooling in Taos, a town with many artists and galleries, when his father moved to Taos Pueblo as a Baptist minister.
Michael wanted to be a sculptor. He took classes in art and sculpting in colleges in Texas and New Mexico for three years before he was drafted by the US military in June, 1968. He received a few months of training in the US Army which sent him to Vietnam to fight the Communist Vietcong. He lost his sight in both eyes and the use of his right hand when his platoon was ambushed. He rediscovered how to sculpt without sight and with the limited use of his right hand after months of surgery and physical rehabilitation. His talent as a sculptor re-emerged and his efforts were recognized. His sculptures are displayed in Valley Fine Art in Aspen, Colorado and the Mattucci gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Michael and his family settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His wife, Laurie, takes care of his business matters and compiles his work into informative books. They have two daughters. Their younger daughter is a Behavioural Therapist who deals with the mentally and physically challenged adults. Their older daughter is a producer for various TV shows, one of which is "America’s Most Wanted". She is trying to make a film documentary about Michael, information about which can be seen at her website dreamtouchbelieve.com
Michael shared his experiences, inspiration and philosophy in an interview with Eyeway.
No one ever wants to go to war. You get trained to hunt men, which is tragic. The transition was not fun.
I landed in Vietnam in November, 1968 with the 9th Infantry. There were no roads to our base camp which was on an island by the China Sea. We had to get there by helicopters which would drop us in the jungle where we looked for the Vietcong. There were forty men in our platoon, divided into four squads of ten men each. I was asked to walk in front whenever we were going somewhere in the jungle as I was good at looking for things and seeing things. No one likes to walk in front but I did. We got caught in an ambush in an open rice field. The rice was a few inches tall and you couldn't hide behind that. Everyone hit the dirt as massive gunfire started. I jumped up and charged until I got close enough to the jungle, with the enemy shooting at me. Someone threw a hand grenade at me. I never saw it explode. I had just turned 23 when this happened and I was surprised that I was alive.
I was in the hospitals in Vietnam and Japan for a few months where I had a lot of surgery. I lost one eye right away. I never could see out of the other eye because I had lost too much fluid in it. I had it taken out after a couple of years when it started to discolour. A volunteer asked me after a few weeks in Japan if there was anything that I wanted. I asked for some water based clay. I didn’t think that I would be able to make anything. It would be sad if I couldn’t. I was really afraid to try. The volunteer brought a block of clay from which I was gradually able to roll out an inch worm with eyes and tail, all by touch. I knew that I could do it in the moment that I made it. Then I made a goldfish, a squirrel with a nut and a very crude form of Rodan’s sculpture, "The Thinker”, until I ran out of clay. I went from Japan to Denver, Colorado in the US for more surgery. There I got oil-based clay, so I could repeatedly make something from it and tear it. Someone saw my sculpture and took a picture of it which was in newspapers across the country. I got letters from people all over the place. I then moved to the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, California where I learned how to read Braille, use a cane, how to type on a Braille typewriter. I use Braille now only when I play Scrabble. I play chess. I was always left-handed. I work with only the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger of my left hand. I use the ring finger and the little finger to help hold things. I have only four fingers on my right hand in which has minimal feeling and dexterity. I can hold big things with my right hand but I can’t hold a pencil in it as it would slip through it.
I came back to Taos, New Mexico in October, 1969 and lived with my parents for three months. My parents wanted to do everything for me and it was driving me crazy because I wanted to live. You can’t live if people are doing everything for you. After two months I told them that I was moving to Santa Fe which was about 80 miles away and where one of my sisters lived. She found an apartment for me in which I lived alone. My parents were worried at first. I learned how to cook. I bought a car. I would read books. I started making sculptures out of wax because I found out that they could be cast into bronze. I would melt them again because I was constantly getting better. It took a while before I ever had anything cast in bronze. I would stay up very late at night working, reading and working at the same time. I don’t work at night anymore since I married and had a family.
I sculpted the animals that I had seen or recreated a certain scene. I made two deer fighting, although I had never seen them fight. I saw sculptures on Pueblo Feast days and other occasions of various dances like the Corn Dance, the Buffalo Dance and the Deer Dance, all of which revolve around gratitude to Mother Earth and the connection between man, animals, the crops grown and survival. I wanted to be a sculptor who sculpts everything. I made sculptures of cherubs and male and female nudes, and people in everyday life. I made a sculpture of two soldiers which is the only piece that I made thus far representing my military service. I made a sculpture of a crucifix with Christ on the cross, which I gave to the Pope in 1983. I looked at all the sculptures at the Vatican by Michelangelo and Bernini, and Donatello’s David. I came back home and I told my wife, “I don’t think I will ever be a real sculptor until I carve out of stone.” So she bought me a stone, a hammer and a chisel one day and I made a sculpture. After that I started carving with pneumatic tools like grinders and air hammers. I’d cut myself now and then but that is part for the course. A couple of those pieces weigh a few thousand pounds. I have engine hoists to lift up pieces and move them around. There is a 7 feet tall sculpture of a Hoop Dancer in front of the State Capitol (photo above) that is of an Indian performing a dance through a hoop.
Only the bronze sculptures are sold because they are in edition. A mould is made and a majority of my pieces are in an edition of ten and they start in size from something that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Big pieces are made of oil based clay which doesn’t dry up and the mould is made from that.
Sometimes it takes a year or four to five months to make a wax mould. I worked on the Hoop Dancer for months. Back when I first started I would make a piece and often finish it in a week because I would work long hours and sleep for two to three hours and then get up and work again. There was one time when I worked for 36 hours non-stop! You become so one with a piece and involved that you lose track of time, place, and everything. You are in this other world of ecstasy. It is just magical and there is no other place like it.
Sometimes I will start a piece and not like the way it is going. I’ll put it to the side and have another idea on which I will work. So there is more than one piece being worked on. Sometimes it is good to let your mind rest. When you come back to your work you can see it differently. Sometimes I’ll get excited about a thought that suddenly came into my head and I’ll tear up the piece I am working on, change it around and turn it into something else.
I use visual imagery and my memories of things that I have seen in my past. I get ideas from people talking and from travel. I travel quite a bit. We have had shows all over the country and in other countries and given lectures and workshops across the country. I taught four high school kids who had never sculpted before to make a sculpture of an elk, a deer that lives in North Central New Mexico and has large horns. I had got a commission and they wanted students to work on it. I made an elk and I assigned them sections and told them what to do. They cast their wax moulds into bronze and it stands in front of their high school today. Some years later I did the same thing with five blind teenagers in Phoenix, Arizona.
Everyone can create and there is no right or wrong way as each one’s perspective is different. When I teach I ask people to remember that they will succeed if they follow my instructions and don't compare with their neighbour's work. The more time, energy and love you put into something you do, the more it will show in the piece.
A little bit of everything. My most favourite one is the one that I am working on now, because all the others which I have made are done but this moment is what I have and so this is the most important piece at the moment.
I believe in love and that it makes a difference in how we treat people. We all want the same things, even if we are different. We would be so much better off if we could look at the good side in each of us. The only way that we can experience life is by doing things and by trying. We don’t always have to succeed. We never will always succeed. Respect others and be happy. I am 73 and a very happy man. I have a beautiful wife, two beautiful daughters, one granddaughter and another grandchild on the way. Life couldn’t be better.