By Muriel Tissonnier
A Tewa Indian born in the Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, Michael Naranjo dreamt of becoming a sculptor. His mother Rosa, was a well known potter within the pueblo which allowed Michael to grow up around clay. While his siblings were creating pinch and coil pots Michael was shaping small animals. As a young man he spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing with his brother. These “natural anatomy” lessons would serve him well later in his life.
Upon graduating high school, Michael began taking design and sculpture courses at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM and planned to major in art.
His path took an unexpected turn when he was drafted in 1967, at the tender age of 22 to serve in Vietnam. It wasn’t two months into his service when he was caught in an ambush.
It was a grenade that took his sight and most of the function of his right hand.
Would his dream of becoming a sculptor now be out of reach? Not for Michael, as he has a drive all his own. While in the hospital recovering, he asked the nurse for some clay and with his one functioning hand made an inchworm.
“It was exhilarating! Soon I progressed to goldfish and squirrels. And this made all the difference in the world.” He was starting over, re-learning the basics.
After returning home he announced to his family that he would be moving to Santa Fe in pursuit of his career as a sculptor. His dad’s response, “But how will you eat!”
Well, along with several TV dinners and an artist willing to teach him the lost wax method of sculpting Michael was right back on track in achieving his dream.
Michael’s career as an artist would continue to move forward with the help of his wife Laurie and the inspiration of his two daughters. Laurie began handling the business side of his career. Writing several letters to museums in 1986 the two were welcomed into Italian museums and Michael was allowed to touch/see several sculptures created by the original masters; including Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria del Academia in Florence. They built scaffolding around the famous statue and Michael spent hours “seeing” the David.
Michael Naranjo has sculptures placed at the Vatican, the White House and the Heard Museum. His monumental Hoop Dancer is placed outside the Capitol Building in Santa Fe, NM and he has a permanent exhibit “Touching Beauty” at the Atrium Gallery in the Bataan Memorial Building.
The exhibit includes 25 sculptures and welcomes its visitors to touch and see his work. Michael has also started the “Touched by Art Fund” at the Santa Fe Community Foundation. The fund provides schools with transportation to museums and galleries. Michael understands the importance of exposing our youth to the arts at a young age and the effects it can have on their development.
Michael recently published a book highlighting his emotionally charged sculpture. Ben Nighthorse, who wrote the forward, said of Michael:
"To say that Michael Naranjo is one of the world's great disabled sculptors would be a disservice to him. For Michael Naranjo is one of the worlds great sculptors."
Michael will be signing his new book at Sorrel Sky Gallery's 10th Anniversary Show and Celebration on April 6.