Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Naranjo Michael

Michael Naranjo

Honored May 2016

Michael Naranjo

It’s in his DNA. Michael Naranjo grew up surrounded by creativity and beauty. His mother was Rose Naranjo, a famous Santa Clara Pueblo potter who worked in clay. As a young boy growing up in the stunning landscape of Northern New Mexico, in the Pueblo and Taos, Michael hunted, fished, and was immersed in Native American culture.  His dream to become a sculptor was almost  extinguished  when fighting in Viet Nam he lost his sight and the use of his right hand from a nearby grenade explosion.
    Dreams die hard.  He has not let his blindness stop him from creating beautifully powerful art. A determined Michael fought his way back to a new and rich way of experiencing life. His journey led him to Rome where a special scaffolding was built so he could touch Michelangelo's famous works including Pieta and David. In Washington DC he was finally allowed  a “touching tour” of the national treasures. “I gave my eyes for this country, and I felt I had a right, as a sculptor, to touch our national treasures.,” he claimed.
    Michaels bronzes of animals, human figures, and Pueblo dancers are in private, public and museum collections in the United States and around the world— from Santa Fe the Bataan Memorial Building and our State Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution, the White House, to the Vatican. He has met Richard Nixon, and President Clinton and had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. Michael was on CBS’s Morning with Charles Kurault and Diane Sawyer. His inspirational life story is depicted in books.
    Always humble and gracious, Michael has been honored for creating beauty in his art and never allowing his “disability” to be a barrier from what resides in his heart and soul.  Among Michael’s many honors are The Governor’s Award for sculpture by Governor Jerry Apodaca; The “Outstanding Vietnam Veteran Award by President Carter and Governor Bruce King; the Profiles in Courage Award by NM Vietnam Veteran’s Association; the Distinguished Achievement Award by the American Indian Resources Institute, National Press Club, Washington DC. In 1999, to highlight his inspiration to others, Michael  was the first artist to receive the Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year award. In 2014 President Obama spoke during the dedication of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington. In his speech, Obama talked about a quote from Michael which is engraved in the memorial.  It says, “When you’re young, you’re invincible.  You’re immortal.  I thought I’d come back.  Perhaps I wouldn’t, there was that thought, too, but I had this feeling that I would come back.  Underneath that feeling, there was another, that maybe I wouldn’t be quite the same, but I felt I’d make it back.”
    Known as “the artist who sees with his hands Michael “serves as a powerful example of the human spirit and the infinite possibility of one’s potential.”  He generously and unconditionally shares his talent.  He is a mentor and inspiration through his lectures, teaching especially to youth. He has donated pieces of his work to schools and organizations. He helped four Pojoaque high school students create a bronze elk, the school’s mascot.  He has spearheaded touch art exhibits around the country  allowing the visually impaired a tactile experience of the art.
 With his wife Laurie, Michael started the Touched by Art Fund non-profit to raise money to bus children to introduce them to the museums and galleries in Santa Fe.
    The following quotes illustrate Michael’s far reaching influence.
    “An uncommon determination and belief in himself inspired a strength and spirit that has served countless others”
    “Michael emanates joy, peace, and gratitude for life and his humility about the excellence of his art totally overwhelm me.”
    “Michael has become a light in the darkness not only for those with a disability aspiring towards the arts, but to all of humankind, as to why it is so important to follow one’s ideals.  He hopes that through his work, he can stand as an example of what can be done, and encourage others to go on.”


Story by Nancy Dahl

Photo © 2016 by Genevieve Russell