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Allan Houser, “Earth Song”

Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser’s “Earth Song” is the signature sculpture on display at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ. Created in 1979 from Alabama marble, it depicts an Apache man singing a song of respect, a prayer to Mother Earth. Houser is considered the Grandfather of Contemporary Native American Sculpture for creating works that are grounded in a respect for all indigenous cultures. Discover more reasons why “Earth Song” is a masterpiece with David Roche, Dickey Family Director and CEO of the Heard Museum. Video by Bank of America. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Music plays) Hello, I'm David Roche, the Dickey Family Director and CEO of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today, I would like to talk about one of my favorite works from our collection, "Earth Song" by Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser, and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. "Earth Song" arrived at the Heard in 1984, when it was generously gifted to the museum by the artist. This 48 ½ x 24 x 24 inch sculpture was carved in 1979 from Alabama Marble. It has graced the museum's entrance since its donation and greets all who visit the museum. It is now our signature work, an ambassador of our collection and mission. It is so emblematic of the Heard Museum that our member magazine is named after it. The Heard is one of the oldest museums in Arizona, founded in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard. The Heards understood the importance, beauty and creativity of the Indigenous cultures in the Southwest and wanted to share their appreciation with the public. The museum's collection contains more than 44,000 objects of Indigenous manufacture, and our library and archives house hundreds of thousands of artist files and documents that do not exist anywhere else. Our exhibitions and collections highlight the extraordinary breadth and variety of American Indian art, from objects made by North America's original inhabitants thousands of years ago, to cutting-edge works of contemporary art created within the last year. Allan Houser is a legendary figure in the world of contemporary Native American art. Often referred to as the grandfather of contemporary Native American sculpture, he was born Allan Capron Haozous on June 30, 1914. "Haozous," in the Apache language, describes the sound and sensation of pulling a plant from the earth at the point in which the earth gives way. The son of Blossom and Sam Haozous, he was the first member of his family to be born into freedom after the Chiricahua Apache peoples were held as prisoners of war by the U.S. Government for 27 years. Houser was an inquisitive child who loved exploring the outdoors and drawing. In 1934, he saw a notice at the Indian Office in Anadarko, Oklahoma, inviting applicants to join the Painting School at the Santa Fe Indian School. Much to his father's chagrin, he applied and was accepted. Houser began his formal art training at the school's newly formed studio class, later known as "The Studio," taught by a young Chicago Art Institute graduate named Dorothy Dunn. He attended the Indian School from 1934 to 1938, during which time he changed his name from Haozous to Houser, having been suggested to do so by school administrators. Houser and the students of The Studio became known for their distinct painting style of pastel colors that were outlined to create a flat and two-dimensional quality. This style of painting later became known as "Traditional Indian Painting." In 1939, Houser married Anna Marie Gallegos. As work had become scarce after leaving the Indian School, the couple relocated to Los Angeles in 1942. During this time, Houser befriended students and faculty at the Pasadena Art Center, where he was exposed to the work of world-renowned modernist sculptors such as Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and Barbara Hepworth. This exposure laid the foundation for what would later become Allan Houser's own take on modernist sculpture. Houser was at the height of his painting career, but it was at this moment he began to experiment with three-dimensional media. He first experimented with wood carvings, later working in stone and bronze. In 1948, he was commissioned to create his first monumental piece for Haskell Indian College in Lawrence, Kansas, entitled "Comrade in Mourning." Houser went on to have a highly successful career as an artist. He was a member of the 1962 inaugural faculty at the Institute of American Indian Art, where he taught painting and sculpture to hundreds of students, many of whom like the renowned Nez Perce, Assiniboine, Chippewa sculptor Doug Hyde went on to establish their own successful practices. In "Earth Song," you can see the influences of Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera, as well as the British artist Henry Moore, both of whom influenced Houser's distinctive sculptural style. It depicts an Apache man singing a song of respect, a prayer to Mother Earth. He is seen beating a water drum with a pounder, which measures the rhythm of his prayer as he sings to thank the Earth for sustaining all living forms. The model of "Earth Song" was San Carlos Apache artist Delmar Boni, a good friend of Houser's. Houser's subjects are grounded in a respect for his Apache culture and for all Indigenous people, while his themes are based on stories he heard as a child about the lifeways of the Apache people before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1997, "Earth Song" was included in the exhibition series, "Twentieth Century American Sculpture at The White House." And in 2015, "Earth Song" was one of eight sculptures in the museum's collection that benefited from a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, and we are so grateful for that support that enabled us to safeguard this important work. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about "Earth Song" by Allan Houser. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the work with family and friends. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.