GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - This month's South Rim artist in residence, Michael Naranjo, is a member of the Native American Tewa tribe of the Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico and a renowned bronze sculptor.
He's also blind.
While serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1968, a grenade explosion left him permanently damaged his right hand and blind in both eyes.
But that didn't stop him doing what he loved. Over time, he learned to depend on his sense of touch and his memory - to recall childhood experiences of hiking, fishing and hunting with his brother in Northern New Mexico and working with his mother in her clay studio. This vivid recall of his childhood informs his work to this day.
Naranjo said he uses his memory as his eyes and fingers as his tools to model his clay, from which he builds figurative and representational models later cast in bronze.
Working in all sizes from miniatures to monumental, his sculptures include lively images of Native American ceremonial dancers, peaceful female figure studies of woman engaged in everyday domestic or contemplative activities, and powerful pieces that speak of his service in Vietnam. His work is always meant to be touched, and the finely wrought, decidedly unfussy, smooth polished surfaces invite that universal human impulse.
"Over the years, my blindness has made me realize that, for me, the feeling of the piece becomes more important than intricate detail," Naranjo said "My work is representational, and the patina I choose for my bronzes is matte black, which has become my trademark, as this is the color I see."
Naranjo's award-winning art is widely collected and exhibited, and he is a passionate advocate for the establishment of hands-on museum experiences. He's had some remarkable experiences in this area himself; the Italian government allowed him to mount a specially-built scaffold and to come into actual physical contact with Michelangelo's David in Florence. His advocacy work on behalf of disabled artists and audiences includes projects with U.S. cities and museums including the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1983, Naranjo was received by Pope John Paul II, who accepted a gift of Naranjo's piece "Going Home." His piece "Dance of the Eagle" is in the White House permanent collection. In 1990 he was honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the National Press Club in Washington and in 1999 he was the LIFE Foundation's Presidential Unsung Hero.
While in-residence through July 16, Naranjo will work with summer youth groups. Park Headquarters is hosting a small exhibit of Naranjo's cast bronze work, open daily from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. and Naranjo invites everyone to touch his art.
"I've never saw the Grand Canyon when I could see," Narajo said. "We walked down the Kaibab trail a little yesterday with my daughter and her friends. The descriptions are amazing. There's a sense of feeling that you get with the sound, the vastness. In my mind I think about how amazing nature is. Nature is the greatest artist of all. It makes me feel very small."
More on Naranjo's work can be found on his website: www.matteucci.com/sculpture-artists/michael-naranjo/.