This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of an internationally known sculptor and painter, one most Oklahomans know best from the interstate.
Sacred Rain Arrow, which has decorated state license plates since 2008, features Allan Houser’s statue of a Native American poised with his bow. Houser also created the equally recognizable sculpture As Long as the Waters Flow, at the Oklahoma State Capitol building.
But Houser, a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, was not merely a sculptor of the last 25 years; he was a draftsman for the ages, pioneering contemporary art rooted in Native American culture and tradition.
A decade after his death, museums and organizations throughout the state are commemorating Houser’s centennial with exhibitions of his work, including 100 unpublished drawings at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman.
In 2008, guest curator W. Jackson Rushing III approached the former museum director, Ghislain D’Humieres, about Houser’s centennial, which was just around the corner in museum years.
Houser himself had approached the museum shortly before losing a battle with cancer in August 1994 about an exhibition of his work.
“The show is not just a celebration of [Houser] and his art; it’s the realization of a dream deferred,” Rushing said.
At 20 years old, Houser decided to leave his farm life in Oklahoma and enroll in the Studio School of Indian Painting at the Santa Fe Indian School, according to okhouser.org.
“It was a kind of [an] optimistic bravado about this farm boy who says, ‘I’m going to go off and be an artist,’” Rushing said. “Within the family, it was a controversial decision, but certainly one that proved he was right. He had a sense of his own talent, his own destiny.”
Houser began as a painter. In 1979, he became disillusioned with his craft.
“It didn’t have the freshness and vitality that he wanted,” Rushing said. “It didn’t have a great enough sense of movement.”
Houser then shifted to draftsmanship, and by the end of his career, he filled 230 sketchbooks with 30,000 drawings.
Rushing — who wrote a major monograph on Houser in 2004 and met with him multiple times during graduate school — knew there were thousands of unpublished drawings at his estate in New Mexico that needed to be shown.
“I thought that would be a great idea to do a drawing show, to give the audience in Oklahoma a Houser they had not known before,” Rushing said.
Rushing categorized the 100 drawings in the exhibit into several themes of Native American culture — specifically Apache survival — including musicians and dancers, rituals, women and their labor, portraits and nature.
“The drawings have a certain immediacy to them,” Rushing said. “They’re very accessible. There’s an intimacy to them. You can see the artist’s working process. They’re very revealing of his thinking, his state of being when he was doing them.”
The show includes 55 drawings from that time period and covers 60 years (1934-1994) of Houser’s career overall.
Houser was and continues to be an inspiration to young Native American artists, but not solely for aesthetic reasons.
“There’s a different kind of influence, one that’s less about style than it is about lifestyle,” Rushing said. “He was determined that no one was going to tell him what native contemporary art should be like, that he was going to decide that himself.”