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Touching beauty Naranjo’s work to be shown in New Mexico state capital

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SANTA FE, N.M. – Michael Naranjo is on a mission.

Celebrated the world over for his bronze and stone forms suspended in fluid, graceful movement, the blind artist’s dream is to someday open a museum full of touchable art.

Naranjo will be one step closer to this dream when an exhibition of his sculptures opens in the Atrium Gallery of the Bataan Memorial Building, 407 Galisteo St. in Santa Fe. “Michael Naranjo: Visionary Sculptor,” a long-term exhibition, opens with a free, public reception from 4 – 6 p.m. on June 30.

The New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs has recently relocated its administrative offices to the Bataan Building. This inaugural exhibit in the building’s newly created Atrium Gallery reflects a partnership between Cultural Affairs and the Veterans’ Services Department, also located in the Bataan Building.

“We welcome numerous veterans, their family and friends, into our business offices in the Bataan Building,” said John Garcia, cabinet secretary of Veterans’ Services. “Thanks to Cultural Affairs and this exciting new exhibit space featuring the work of Michael Naranjo, our guests will have an even greater appreciation of our veterans and their sacrifices.”

Growing up in the Santa Clara Pueblo, Michael Naranjo passed his childhood days hunting with his brother and preparing clay for his mother, Rose Naranjo, a revered traditional potter. It could be said that Naranjo had no choice but to be talented – he comes from a renowned artistic family.

In 1968, however, he came back from serving in Vietnam a changed man. After losing his sight in a combat injury, he feared he would never create art again.

Today, small bronze sculptures line the wall of Naranjo’s humble studio while life-sized pieces dot the desert landscape outside, serving as a testament to the artist’s unstoppable passion for art, beauty and his roots.

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Though without sight, Naranjo is nevertheless a truly visionary sculptor. His inherent abilities as an artist to create deeply meaningful works of art transcend the ordinary processes of producing sculpture. His workspace is full of the usual accoutrements of a working artist, but since his creative process is in part defined by his spatial awareness, he’s comfortable working in what might seem a confining space to an artist with sight.

Naranjo’s inspiration comes to him in many forms – dreams, books, his wife’s descriptions of the outside world and childhood memories. Inspiration for one of his pieces, for instance, occurred as he lay in bed drifting in and out of sleep. Describing what he calls his “golden vision,” he saw a gold form appear before him that gradually grew bigger until he could make out the shape of an eagle. Then, as quickly as it came, it disappeared, leaving him with an image that he later transformed into bronze.

The artistic process, however, is not always an easy one for Naranjo. Working with wax that is later cast in bronze, he will sometimes spend days on a piece, only to destroy it in one fell swoop when his hands fail to “see” perfection. At other times, his sensitive fingertips and intuition tell him that once again he has created a perfectly balanced work of art. Others around the world recognize this perfection as well. His work is in the collections of the Vatican, the White House and The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.

With help from his wife, Laurie, Naranjo has gained permission to touch famous sculptures around the world, including Michelangelo’s “David” and many original stone and bronze pieces at the Louvre. Having only his hands to experience works of art, he is passionate about letting others, sighted and not sighted, share this experience as well.

“Touching is necessary for adults and kids – it’s good for everybody’s soul and it’s one of our senses that’s so often denied,” said Naranjo. “When you see someone you love, don’t you want to hug them? When you see a puppy, don’t you want to touch it?”

Encouraging people to touch his sculptures is one way Naranjo is calling on people to gain a different, and more intimate, art experience. “Michael Naranjo: Visionary Sculptor” will include a sample of Naranjo’s large- and small-scale touchable work.

“Michael Naranjo is an exceptional artist and human being,” said Stuart Ashman, secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “In the process of fulfilling his duty as an American and a soldier, he endured the loss of his sight. Although he ceased seeing through his eyes, Michael developed a way of seeing with his hands and with his other senses. The result is a unique expression that depicts aspects of the artist’s life and Native American culture with a deep sense of humanity.

“Michael encourages touching his beautiful bronze sculptures so that the viewer can experience his compelling works in the same way that he sees them,” he said.