Beautiful sculptures by blind Native American sculptor are a multisensory experience

Joey Amato | January 9, 2020

A new exhibition opening Jan. 18 at the Eiteljorg Museum is accessible to everyone, including the blind and visually impaired. The exhibit features bronze sculptures that guests are encouraged to touch. Created by renowned Native American artist Michael Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo), who was blinded by an injury, the sculptures are touchable so that visitors with limited or no vision can experience and appreciate his art.

Please Touch! The Sculptures of Michael Naranjo 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. Naranjo, 75, grew up in Taos, New Mexico, where his mother Rose Naranjo was a noted pottery artist. While serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1968, Michael Naranjo suffered near-fatal combat injuries in a grenade blast. With a total loss of his vision and the loss of use of his right hand, Naranjo during his convalescence began to sculpt clay with his left hand. Eventually that pursuit led him to a professional career as a sculptor whose works are highly admired.

Naranjo’s sculptures now are in the collections of the Vatican, the White House, the New Mexico State Capitol and other institutions. This is the second time the Eiteljorg Museum has presented an Indianapolis exhibition of his work; during his earlier show in 1992, the Eiteljorg became the first museum to allow visitors to not only view but also touch Naranjo’s sculptures.

The title of this new exhibition, Please Touch!, is a gentle rebuff of the standard warning signs stating “Please Do Not Touch” often found in art museums. For blind and visually impaired visitors, the Naranjo exhibition includes Braille labels and audio descriptions.

Please Touch! is open from Jan. 18 to July 26 in the museum’s Gerald and Dorit Paul Gallery. Visitors can meet Michael Naranjo in person at events a few weeks after the opening. At noon Friday, Feb. 7, Naranjo will talk about his work in the Please Touch! exhibition as part of the monthly Curator’s Choice program.  At 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, Naranjo will hold another informal public talk about his sculptures at the museum, followed by an opening party that afternoon at Hotel Tango Distillery, 702 Virginia Avenue, in downtown Indianapolis. For details about and reservations for the events, contact mwhistler@eiteljorg.com.

While serving as artist in residence at the Eiteljorg from Feb. 10 to 14, Naranjo will work with students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISVBI), teaching sculpture and aiding students in the creation of ceramic busts. Naranjo’s artist residency is made possible through a partnership between the Eiteljorg and the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation (IBCF) on an initiative called No Limits, which aims to strengthen inclusiveness in the arts for individuals with disabilities.

“We are honored to have this opportunity to share Michael Naranjo’s beautiful sculptures and personal story with a new generation, and provide increased accessibility for blind and visually impaired visitors,” said Elisa Phelps, Eiteljorg vice president and chief curatorial officer. “The exhibit has been a catalyst in shifting our thinking about accessibility and visitor experiences, and will inform our approach to future exhibits,” she said.

Pieces in the exhibition are on loan from the TIA Collection in Santa Fe, N.M., and from the personal collection of Michael and Laurie Naranjo. The exhibition Please Touch! The Sculptures of Michael Naranjo is curated by Jennifer Complo McNutt, Eiteljorg curator of contemporary art, and Dorene Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), assistant curator of Native American art.

Please Touch! The Sculptures of Michael Naranjo is sponsored by Bosma Enterprises, the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation (IBCF), the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI), the No Limits arts series, Lilly Endowment Inc., Care Institute Group Inc., the Indiana Arts Commission, the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the City of Indianapolis.