Michael Naranjo, All Things are Possible, 2001. Bronze, Edition of 5, 26 x 11 x 25 inches.
The Rockwell Museum’s exceptional collection of Hudson River School paintings or early American modernist prints won’t surprise anyone. Museum visitors in this part of the world–central New York state–expect that kind of thing. The institution’s rich holdings of Native American art from the Southwest is another matter.
Corning, NY is 2,000 miles east of Zuni Pueblo. Countless Indigenous homelands are found on the land in between. How did this stuff get here?
It got here from the collection of Bob and Hertha Rockwell, the museum’s founders.
Bob Rockwell grew up on a ranch in Colorado, enchanted by the Western landscape and cultures. He collected Western and Indigenous art from the area and displayed it in the department store the couple owned in Corning. Shoppers at the Rockwell Department Store enjoyed paintings from C.M. Russell, sculptures by Fredric Remington and Native southwestern pottery, baskets and beadwork while they browsed for slacks and dresses–the Rockwell’s displayed their collection in the store!
Until 1976. That’s when most of the collection was donated to function as the core objects for a new museum. “The best of the West in the East” is what the Rockwell Museum liked to say before widening its focus in recent years to share a broader range of stories across the American experience through American art.
Michael Naranjo, Eagle and Fish, 1977. Bronze.
The Rockwell Museum’s southwestern roots reveal themselves, however, during the exhibition “Please Touch! The Art of Michael Naranjo,” on view through October 30, 2022. Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo; b. 1944) grew up in Taos, New Mexico.
The Naranjo name is synonymous with art from the Southwest. Pottery in particular. Michael’s mother Rose is matriarch to arguably the most prominent family of Indigenous artists from the area, a lineage that includes Jody Falwell, Susan Falwell, Roxanne Swentzell and Rose B. Simpson to name, but a few.
While Michael Naranjo’s artistry comes from the southwestern United States, it was in southeast Asia where his life took its most dramatic and sudden turn. While serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1968, Naranjo suffered near-fatal combat injuries in a grenade blast.
Despite persistent efforts by the federal government to exterminate Indigenous people, Native American’s serve in the country’s armed forces at a rate five times the national average.
For his service, Naranjo was left with a total loss of vision and no use of his right hand at 23-years-old. A life of self-pity and self-destruction might have been expected. Instead, during his convalescence, Naranjo began to sculpt clay with his left hand. The material returned him to his childhood. Almost unimaginably, Naranjo’s skill–blind and with only the use of his left hand–led him to a professional career as a sculptor whose works are highly admired.
“Please Touch!” features approximately 30 sculptures that span the artist’s 50-year sculpting career, including depictions of birds and animals in realistic poses, people in motion and mythical creatures.
The exhibition’s title is not a metaphor. One of the artist’s conditions for exhibiting his work is that guests be able to touch the sculptures in order to engage with the objects as he does.
“I pass through that gallery to get to my office every day and I see people looking over their shoulder, making sure security is not going to come up and reprimand them,” Kirsty Buchanan, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Rockwell Museum, told Forbes.com of guests’ initial hesitation to do precisely what they’re forbidden from doing in every other museum. “It’s such an acknowledgment of what we all want to do when we’re in a museum. We want to touch; that’s one of the senses that is typically denied.”
The idea of touching what’s displayed in a museum takes getting used.
“People are a little bit timid at the beginning,” Buchanan observes. “We thought that the signage in place when we opened the show would have left no doubt in people’s minds, but we’ve even added more signage in proximity to the objects to just really reassure people that in this gallery, it is okay to touch.”
Through touch, visitors experience a deeper connection to the artist than sight alone provides.
“He is working by touch, he is not working by sight, and that can be challenging for us as sighted individuals, but it helps give us a new perspective and it helps reminds us of all the different ways that people connect with art,” Buchanan said “It’s a really good lesson, I believe, for humanity to stop a minute and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes.”
The Rockwell invited Naranjo to participate in the exhibition’s opening where he trained the museum’s docents about how to better communicate with visitors about the work and creative process. He also provided art instruction for local kids with sight impairments, working one-on-one with every student in attendance.
The exhibition includes narrated audio labels from Christopher Lomax, an artist and musician who grew up in Corning, losing his sight at age 5. Each sculpture has an audio description replacing wall text. Braille descriptions are also available.
Lomax further assisted the Rockwell on the exhibition’s layout and wayfinding.
Wendy Red Star, Catalogue Number 1938.52 from the “Accession” Series, 2019, pigment print on … [+] archival paper, 29 × 19 in., Clara S. Peck Fund. 2021.2.1.
Additionally leaning into its founding traditions, the Rockwell Museum wraps up the initial presentation of a suite of 15 recently acquired prints by Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow; b. 1981) on September 5. The artist’s “Accession” series evolved out of her Native Artist in Residence fellowship at the Denver Art Museum in 2016 and 2017.
While there, Red Star came across object cards created by anonymous Works Progress Administration artists beginning in the 1930s cataloguing the Denver Art Museum’s holdings of Indigenous artwork. The cards featured small, beautifully rendered watercolor paintings depicting the items alongside written descriptions.
“I felt a connection with the artists who created the work, and I was jealous of the time they got to spend with my ancestors’ materials,” Red Star said.
She took digital copies of the cards to the Apsáalooke Reservation in Montana for the annual Crow Fair, photographing contemporary Native people wearing or using contemporary examples of the historic objects catalogued in the Denver collection.
She later collaged her photographs with reproduced images from the painted catalog cards. The “Accession” series honors the artistry of the original Native makers who crafted the objects, as well as the anonymous artists who catalogued them.
“She had a recognition that these were original works of art done by anonymous artists and that bore a great similarity to these beaded objects that were in the Denver Museum and those makers’ identities had also been lost,” Buchanan explains. “She saw that as being a justification for blending those two pieces back together with her own photography.”
Red Star reanimates the historic material.
“The objects are so often seen as static, kind of (an) old-fashioned relic in a museum, and that’s not how they would have been seen, that’s not what they were designed for,” Buchanan said. “Her photography reminds us of how they were used and how they would have been activated.”
She focuses attention on the details of the objects’ artistry: colorful bead work, geometric patterns and designs inspired by the natural world. Superimposed over these are images of women wearing elk tooth dresses, men wearing feathered back bustles, and both horses and cars adorned in similar fashion presenting the Apsáalooke culture as vibrant and thriving in a contemporary context.
While Red Star’s “Accession” prints will soon be going off view at the Rockwell, her first public art commission, Travels Pretty, inspired by parfleches, vibrantly painted rawhide bags made by nomadic tribes of the North American Great Plains including her own, can be seen on 300 bus shelters this fall across New York, Chicago and Boston.

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