John Sherrill Houser B.A. '58
A Larger-Than-Life Sculptor
Growing up in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, John Sherrill Houser wasn't overly impressed with watching history in the making. His father, Ivan Houser, was first assistant to sculptor Gutzon Borglum in the early years of carving the iconic presidential faces in granite.
"As a kid, I took it for granted," he says. "It was just a part of the environment. But I learned to draw in South Dakota, and I can still remember the smell of wet clay in my dad's studio."
From his father, who taught ceramics and industrial design at Lewis & Clark from 1950 to 1966, Houser learned that "scale is the unifying factor of all the arts." Over the years, Houser has put this lesson to good use--in a monumental way.
His latest work, The Equestrian, stands more than four stories tall and weighs in at 34,000 pounds. Located at the entrance of the El Paso (Texas) International Airport, it is the world's largest equestrian bronze. The statue depicts Don Juan Oņate, whom Houser calls the founder of the Hispanic Southwest, mounted on a rearing Andalusian stallion at the Pass of the North in 1598.
Houser conceived The Equestrian as the centerpiece of the XII Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, a dramatic sculpture walk through history commemorating the men, women, and cultural diversity of El Paso and its surrounding region from 1535 through 1910. The series was initiated in 1992 as part of a project to revitalize downtown.
Contracted to be at least one-and-a-half times life size, the original model of Oņate was enlarged by a factor of 13 (more than 2,000 times by volume) over the course of the project to its final height of 36 feet--four and a half times life size.
"I wanted to be sure that El Paso held the record," says Houser, noting that a clause in his contract allowed him to make the figure as large as he saw necessary, if he obtained the additional funding.
The search for an adequate enlarging studio led Houser to Mexico, where an unscrupulous foundry man pocketed $40,000 of the project's money and left him with "a foundation and some walls." Seven months later, he won the right to occupy and finish the studio at his own expense. While in Mexico, Houser endured other calamities--including a movie-thriller-style encounter with a jealous sculptor--but he persevered.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Native American activists protested, saying Oņate was a brutal conqueror. In response to the controversy, the El Paso city council renamed the statue The Equestrian.
Eventually, the full-scale model was completed and more than 500 molds were shipped to the United States for casting.
Houser was always interested in history and cultures. During the 1950s, he hung out at Portland's Park Blocks, drawing local characters and becoming acquainted with the Gypsy community. After graduating from Lewis & Clark, he attended various art schools but became disenchanted and decided to embark on a course of independent study.
John Sherrill Houser B.A. '58 with son Ethan Taliesin Houser.
Like the historical icons in his series, Houser has the heart of an intrepid traveler. He worked at a dairy to save money for a trip to Europe, then headed to New York and hopped a Yugoslavian freighter to Tangier and a ferry to southern Spain, where he rented a studio on the Costa del Sol. Eventually he moved on to Italy, where he experienced the dynamic culture of the street circus people, some of whom he recognized from Federico Fellini's 1954 film La Strada.
Houser painted hippies in San Francisco, then became interested in indigenous people in Mexico and the American Southwest, where he lived with various natives over the years--gaining great respect for their cultures.
Over time, the nature of his work shifted from drawing to painting to sculpting, though he never totally abandoned one for another. His work can be viewed at the Andreeva Galleries in Santa Fe and the Adair Margo Gallery in El Paso.
In creating The Equestrian, he was joined by his son, Ethan Taliesin Houser, the project's associate sculptor, and a five-member crew, who helped bring the massive undertaking to fruition.
This summer, PBS will air The Last Conquistador, an hour-long documentary about the 10-year construction odyssey of The Equestrian.
"All monumental art is controversial," says Houser. "My purpose was never to glorify heroes but to dramatize history through twelve monuments as chapter headings for their respective historical periods."
Houser's vision for his next project is characteristically grand and historical. Somewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, he plans to erect a 250-foot-tall statue of a Puchteca. The Puchtecas were pre-Columbian traders who traversed the Americas before national borders existed. Houser wants to create what he calls a "universal zone," with the Puchteca standing with one foot on either side of what he calls an artificial boundary between nations.
"This monument honors indigenous America and presages a future without borders, when the human race has consummated its final destiny," says Houser. "The Puchteca is an intimation of what mankind must and shall become if we are to endure: one people upon one planet."
--by Pattie Pace
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