Allan Capron Houser (1914—1994)
In 1994, Houser returned to Washington, DC for the last time to present the United States government with the sculpture, May We Have Peace, a gift, he said, “To the people of the United States from the First Peoples.” First Lady Hillary Clinton accepted the gift for installation at the Vice President’s residence.
A Chiricahua Apache sculptor, painter and book illustrator, Allen Houser was one of the most renowned Native American painters and Modernist sculptors of the 20th century.
Born in 1914 to Sam and Blossom Haozous on the family farm near Apache, Oklahoma and Fort Sill. Allan Houser was the first member of his family from the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache tribe born outside of captivity since Geronimo’s 1886 surrender and the tribe's imprisonment by the U.S. government. The tribe had been led by the legendary spiritual leader Geronimo, who would later rely on his grandnephew Sam Haozous, Allan’s father, to serve as his translator.
In 1939, Houser began his professional career by showing work at the 1939 New York World's Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition. He received his first major public commission to paint murals at the Main Interior Building in Washington, DC. He also married Anna Maria Gallegos of Santa Fe, his wife for 55 years. In 1940, he received another commission with the US Department of Interior to paint life-sized indoor murals. Then he returned to Fort Sill to study with Swedish muralist Olle Nordmark, who encouraged Houser to explore sculpture. He made his first woodcarvings that year.
World War II interrupted Houser’s life and career path, and he moved his growing family to Los Angeles where he found work in the L.A. shipyards. Houser worked by day and continued to paint and sculpt by night, making friends among students and faculty at the Pasadena Art Center. Here, he was first exposed to the streamlined modernist sculptural statements of artists like Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and the English sculptor Henry Moore. These three – along with the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was among the first sculptors to place sculptural voids within the solid planes of her works – would come to have a huge influence on Houser.
After World War II, Houser applied for a commission at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Haskell, a Native American boarding school, lost many graduates to the war and wanted a sculptural memorial to honor them. Though Houser had been carving in wood since 1940, he had never before sculpted in stone. He convinced the jury with his drawings and his conviction, and completed the monumental work Comrades in Mourning from white Carrara marble in 1948. It has become an iconic work, both for the artist and for Native American art in general.
In 1949, Houser received a Guggenheim Fellowship in sculpture and painting, which granted him two years to work on art and still provide for his family. By then, Houser had three sons and as the Fellowship came to an end, he accepted a job as an art teacher at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah.
In 1962, Houser was asked to join the faculty of a new Native American art school, the Institute of American Indian Arts. He returned to Santa Fe with his family to head up the Institute’s sculpture department. Casting his first bronzes in 1967, Houser was student and teacher as well, bringing forth his own history and ideas for a student body culled from every corner of Native America. He began working with the iconographies of other tribes, using modernist sculptural influences to forge the tribal and the abstract into a visual lexicon all his own. After thirteen years at IAIA, Houser retired from full-time teaching to devote himself to sculpture.
Houser’s retirement in 1975 marked the beginning of the most prolific stage of his career. With time, materials, and the family compound in southern Santa Fe County, Houser honed the visual language that was to become his artistic legacy. Fusing Native subject matter with the abstract forms and sculptural voids of his Modernist peers, Houser carried the mantle of both Native American and Modernism to new levels.
In 1985, Houser’s monumental bronze, Offering of the Sacred Pipe, was dedicated at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City. A year later, he made a bronze bust of Geronimo to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the surrender of the Chiricahua Apaches. A cast of the bust was later presented to the National Portrait Gallery, where it remains in the permanent collection.
In his last five years, Houser produced a remarkable number of pieces, and received many awards for his life’s work. In 1989 he dedicated As Long as the Waters Flow, a monumental bronze commissioned for the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City. In 1991, he presented a casting of a bronze Sacred Rain Arrow to the Smithsonian Institution. In the dedication before the US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, he dedicated the work to the American Indian. And in 1992, he became the first Native American to receive the National Medal of Arts, awarded at a ceremony at the White House by President George H. W. Bush.
In 1993, Houser was honored by the dedication of the Allan Houser Art Park at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and in 1994, he returned to Washington, DC for the last time to present the United States government with the sculpture, May We Have Peace, a gift, he said, “To the people of the United States from the First Peoples.” First Lady Hillary Clinton accepted the gift for installation at the Vice President’s residence.
Allan Houser died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of eighty in August 1994. Upon his death, the honors kept coming. Among these was the installation of 19 monumental works of art in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympics, and a retrospective of 69 works at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC in 2004. The exhibition marked the first major show for the new museum, and over three million people viewed it while it was on display.