An Apache warrior lifts his blanket from a fire and looks skyward at the rising smoke. It’s a scene straight out of a B-Western movie, but in Allan Houser’s imagination and sculpture it’s authentic, noble and stunning. Like most of his works, Smoke Signal pulls you in.
Houser created the 53-inch-tall bronze in 1993 after being invited to participate in the Prix de West art exhibition at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum, since renamed the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Smoke Signal won the show’s prestigious Grand Purchase Prize.
“My father’s stories have inspired much of my work,” Houser wrote in a retrospective article for the National Academy of Western Art in 1993. “He told me how the Apaches would use smoke signals to warn each other when the enemy was nearby.”
“A number of aspects about Houser’s Smoke Signal give it a special quality,” says Mike Leslie, the museum’s assistant director. “First, it is a crossover work of art. That is, it combines elements of his early style, seen in works like Singing for Blankets, a two-dimensional piece painted in 1937, with elements more of an impressionistic approach. Also, unlike a lot of sculpture pieces that size that appear stiff, Smoke Signal is very graceful in form and has a certain movement to it.”
‘My father’s stories have inspired much of my work. He told me how the Apaches would use smoke signals to warn each other when the enemy was nearby’
Houser, a member of the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apaches, died the year after that Prix de West, but neither he nor his art has been forgotten. His bronze Sacred Rain Arrow even appears on an Oklahoma license plate. This year marks the centennial of his birth, and many institutions are honoring him.
“It’s not just a regional phenomenon—it’s international,” says W. Jackson Rushing III, Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History and Mary Lou Milner Carver Chair in Native American Art at the University of Oklahoma and author of Allan Houser: An American Master (2004). “It’s really rewarding to see so many institutions embracing the importance of his 100th anniversary, committing the sources to celebrating.”
Houser was born on June 30, 1914, as Allan C. Haozous. His father, Sam Haozous, had been with Geronimo when the Apache surrendered in 1886. In 1934, at age 20, Houser left Oklahoma to study painting at the Santa Fe Indian School. Five years later he was exhibiting works in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. He also married and started a family. In 1940 he began sculpting in wood and found wartime work in a shipyard. In 1948 he completed the Carrara marble sculpture Comrade in Mourning for the Haskell Institute (present-day Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kan., to honor its alumni killed in World War II. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed, and Houser taught art, sculpted and earned more acclaim. By 1962 he was living in Santa Fe, teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He cast his first bronzes in 1967 and retired from teaching in 1975 to focus on his art.
By the time of his death in Santa Fe in 1994, Houser, 89, had created 450 bronzes and 500 other sculptures. “He kept evolving technically, and his use of materials got more and more sophisticated,” says Rushing. “He was always changing, always experimenting with new things. In the 1970s he began to make mostly direct-stone carvings in a variety of materials.”
Today his Santa Fe studio, sculpture garden and archives are open for tours, and a gallery just off the historic plaza exhibits his works. His sculptures also grace private collections, galleries and public spaces east to New York and Washington, D.C., and as far abroad as London, Paris and Tokyo.
“I think the mark of any great artist is the ability to continually push the boundaries of knowledge and ability—the willingness to experiment and fail,” Leslie says. “Many artists, once they obtain a certain level of recognition, lock themselves into a narrow, comfortable style of artistic expression, and their works give the appearance of repetitiveness—having the same look and feel. If you look at Houser’s work over his lifespan, you see a broad scope of artistic style and creativity.”
“Certainly in the Southwest there is a handful of sculptors whose works are deeply indebted to him,” Rushing says. That would include Houser’s sons, Philip and Bob Haozous, who are successful sculptors, and his grandson, Sam Atakra Haozous, an experimental photographer.
“There are many great Western and Native American artists today, and there are many great art teachers,” Leslie says. “It is rare you find the giftedness and the willingness to sacrifice one for the other in one person. Allan Houser was both and did both extremely well. His mark in history will be that he expanded our common definition and expectation of contemporary ‘Indian’ art into the broader American art culture.”
What would Houser think of his Oklahoma license plate? “I think he’d love it,” Rushing says. “He was modest and humble but very ambitious about the success of his work. Rare is the artist who doesn’t want to be recognized for his achievement, and he was no different in that regard.”
“We could use a lot more Allan Housers in the world,” Leslie adds. “It would certainly be a better place.”
Houser centennial exhibits continue at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Okla. (through August 15); at Oklahoma State University’s Postal Plaza Gallery in Stillwater (through October 27); at the Philbrook Downtown in Tulsa, Okla. (through November 2); at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City (through December); at the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, Okla. (through December); at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City (through December 31); and at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (through May 10, 2015). Comrade in Mourning is part of the exhibit “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky,” which debuted this year at Quai Branly in Paris, France, and travels to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (September 19–January 11) and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (March 2–May 17).