Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. Her prose and poetry have been internationally published in literary journals, print and online magazines, and anthologies. She lives and writes up in her perch in a quaint little historic town at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, USA.
Dare to Dream
By Katacha Díaz
Wow, this is it! I’m in New Mexico en route to interview sculptor Michael Naranjo at his studio and home in the outskirts of Santa Fe. Mother Nature’s fall foliage display against a piercing blue sky is dazzling. Fall is truly the magical season in the land of enchantment!
You can’t miss it. A stunning bronze sculpture of Snake Dancer stands gracefully on the lawn and lures me to the front entry gate of Michael’s adobe home that he shares with wife, Laurie, and their two daughters. The Snake Dancer is awesome and lets me know that I’ve arrived at a special place.
In the entry courtyard, a life-size sculpture of a mother and child greets visitors. Perched high up on a nearby adobe wall is a bronze sculpture of an eagle holding on tightly to a plump fish. Some of Michael’s original bronze sculptures are on display in the living room, including Shar, a horse, and Tender Moments, a young mother with her baby strapped on her back and her metate, a stone grinding board, sitting close by. Outside on the back porch, another bronze eagle is suspended from a long wire and gracefully flies in the early morning autumn breeze.
Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Michael grew up in Santa Clara Pueblo, and his family spoke Tewa, a Native American language. He is one of 10 children and the son of distinguished ceramic artist Rose Naranjo. His artistic talent, Michael says, appeared during childhood when he spent time working with his hands and making things out of discarded pieces of his mother’s clay. When he was nine, his family moved to Taos, which was a mecca for Southwest art. “I’d walk by galleries and see all kinds of art,” he says. “I thought, someday I, too, will be an artist. I knew from an early age what I wanted to be.”
Michael’s deep love and respect for nature goes back to his childhood. “My brother, Tito, and I would wander for days in the mountains,” he remembers. “When you just sit and absorb, calmly on a hillside overlooking another range of mountains and there’s no time element involved, you look at everything in detail. So all those moments come back now.”
When he was seventeen, Michael crafted a traditional Santa Clara bear out of light clay. However, for his second piece, a horse, he decided to experiment and use micaceous clay. “This type of clay,” Michael explains, “is coarse and difficult to work with, but I saw it as a challenge. Both of these pieces reaffirmed my desire and commitment to become a sculptor.” The clay horse is one of his favorite pieces, and it’s prominently displayed in the entry hallway niche of the family’s home.
As a young man, Michael was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. He vividly recalls crawling like a snake across a rice paddy with his infantry platoon when Vietcong soldiers ambushed them. “I turned around to look and remember locking eyes with the Vietcong soldier who threw the grenade into my hand. It was the last thing I saw,” he says.
The explosion left him blind, with only limited use of his right hand. Michael was taken to a military hospital in Japan for medical care and surgery. “My pinkie was amputated. The ring finger was dead on one side, so I have no feeling. If I cut it, I can’t feel it. There I was, lying in the hospital bed, and I thought about my childhood dream to become a sculptor. I thought to myself, ‘Kiss that one goodbye.’”
One day a volunteer stopped by to talk with Michael, and he asked her to bring him some clay. “My right arm was tied down,” he remembers. “I only had my left hand free and I couldn’t see any more. I took a little piece of clay, I rolled it up, and I made an inchworm. Then I made a goldfish. I knew they looked okay because people could tell me what they were. The minute I made that inchworm, I knew I could do it and all it would take is time.”
Working mostly with wax, Michael’s creates sensuous sculptures focusing on a variety of subjects, including animals, nudes, children, Native American figures, Santa Clara Pueblo dancers, and religious figures. Michael’s favorite piece, he says, is always the one he’s creating and working on at that time. “A piece can take me hours, days, weeks, or months to complete. It all depends how inspired I am and how much time I put into it. I have no set schedule,” he explains.
Sitting in his Santa Fe studio, Michael leans over a small block of brown wax on his workbench. He uses a small hair dryer to soften the wax to make it easier to handle. Michael doesn’t use any tools to sculpt his pieces. Instead, his long, sensitive fingers explore the wax while he depends on his hands to do the seeing. “I use my right hand to hold the piece of wax in place. My fingers and fingernails are my sculpting tools, and my hands touch and do the seeing.”
The wax sculpture he will make today, Michael says, was inspired a few days ago when he and Laurie were driving back home from the grocery store in Santa Fe. His fingers begin to explore the shapeless pieces of wax. He begins the process of creating the first of two small figures of a Native American man – his body, the head, his arms, and legs. Eventually, when the artist finishes these pieces, they will be enlarged and cast into bronze.
When Michael was invited to travel to Florence, Italy to see with his hands many of Michelangelo’s famous marble statues, a special scaffold was built so he could touch every inch of the 18-foot-tall David. Michael was so moved he wept. “It was one of my dreams to look at Michelangelo’s work,” he says. “After I was blind, I didn’t think it would ever happen. No one else who has lived has ever touched as many surfaces of Michelangelo’s work as Michelangelo and myself. I feel a connection. It’s like magic.”
Over the last forty years, Michael has come a long way from the inchworm. His sculptures can be seen in public places from coast to coast. Some are at the White House, in the Vatican, and prized by collectors and museums around the world. In fact, many of his sculptures are sent on special “touch tours,” where both visually impaired and sighted people are invited to touch his beautiful works of art. “I want everyone to run their hands over my pieces,” Michael says. “This really means so much to them, and I’m speaking from personal experience because I feel the same way.”
Michael sculpts by feel in total darkness, but it’s what his heart feels and his mind sees that he shapes with his hand. The artist truly has a remarkable inner vision – a sixth sense. This allows him to see pictures in his mind of things he had once seen and experienced when he wasn’t blind. “I’m sculpting from thoughts, from memories,” he says. “I’m very happy.”
If he could see one thing in life again, Michael said he would like to see his wife, Laurie, and his two daughters. But he is cognizant he never will. When his real eyes started to discolor, he decided to have them removed and replaced with artificial blue eyes. “I’m vain,” he said jokingly. “You just have to do it, you have to keep going. If I don’t try, then I stop living, and as long as I’m here I want to live and have fun.”
Michael Naranjo’s inner strength and self-determination helped him to follow his dream to become a sculptor who sees with his hands. “Yesterday helped me get to today,” he says. “Tomorrow I don’t want to know about. I learned first how to be a sculptor. I just happen to be Native American. Then I just happen to be a blind man.”
“Dare to Dream” by Katacha Díaz. First published in New Mexico Review,
Copyright © 2016 by Katacha Díaz.
Reprinted by permission of the author.