From the Heart to the Hand: A Blind Artist Advancing Touch for Over Forty Years

MARK RICCOBONO: There you go. Mine too. Thank you, Diane, appreciate it. We're going to move on. We have two more great presentations this evening. This one is one that is special. This is from the heart to the hand -- so we're moving from law to art, which I'm sure, if Scott got back on here, he'd say law is an art. A blind artist advancing touch for over 40 years. Our guest this evening is a Native American blind sculptor. He was born in 1944. He is the son of the ceramic artist Rose Naranjo. He served in the Army during the Vietnam War. And an injury in the war caused his blindness, and also maimed his right hand. During his convalescence period, he started sculpting in clay, and it gradually became a lifelong passion for him. He has won many awards, which I don't have time to go through this evening. His art is part of the collections at the Vatican, at the White House, at many other distinguished institutions. His words are inscribed on one of the 18 glass panels of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. And I am proud to display a piece of his art on my desk, actually. Well, it's not on my desk right now... (reaching), because it's right here. This was given to me by some Federationists a number of years ago. This piece is called Ryoma. It's a dragon-horse made out of bronze. Pretty cool. I like it. It sits here on my desk, and I often tell people who I'm meeting with, especially corporations or others that aren't doing the right work, the story that we can either work with them as partners or we can slay the dragon. So my friends gave me one of Michael's pieces to remind me of that story, and I'm proud to have it, and I'm proud to invite to talk to us about blind people and art for a few minutes, Michael Naranjo.

(Touch the Sky from the movie Brave playing).

MICHAEL NARANJO: Thank you, President Riccobono, for those nice words. And thank you for inviting me to be a presenter here this evening. And I'd also like to thank my wife Lori for all that she does with the business. She does all the hard work and I get to have all the fun, creating sculptures. Yes, I am a sculptor. I am a Native American. I am 100% blind. And I have minimal feeling and dexterity in my right hand. I was able to see for the first 23 years of my life, but I only have about 15 minutes to pack 75 years in here, so I better get started. I was born in Santa Fe and raised on a Pueblo reservation in north central New Mexico. On my way home from school, I would stop in front of galleries while walking through town and look in the windows, and I would see these bronze sculptures, and I would think, someday, I would like to be able to do that.

So a seed was planted early on. Fortunately, my mother was a potter, so there was clay around that I could work with frequently. And as I grew older as a teenager, my pieces became more sculptural. And with time, they did get better. And I did take art classes in college. But in June of 1967, I was drafted. I received a letter from the Army that said "greetings from the department of the U.S. Army". And I ended up in Vietnam in November of that year. On January 8, 1968, our platoon got caught in an ambush, and a hand grenade was thrown at me. I started to turn toward it as it gently hit my hand and it rolled away before I ever got to see it. That was the last time I would ever be able to see the light of day. And that wasn't far from the South China Sea. Over the years, I've been able to go many places with my work, and it's taken us many places. And it's given me a very interesting and exciting life for my wife and my children. In October of 1967, I ended up back home after being at hospitals for the last eight months, the last two being at the blindness rehabilitation center in Palo Alto California. When I came home, my mother and brothers and sisters were so kind, there was so much TLC that I couldn't live, couldn't survive, couldn't breathe. I needed freedom and independence. So I talked to sister, and on the first of January in 1969, she helped me find an apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there I found some artists who helped me find the materials I needed to create sculptures. So I went to the state library and got a bunch of talking books and bought the materials I needed for sculpting. And I remember in the old days, those vinyl records, and with my waxy hands I would cup that arm gently when the record stuck, and there'd go another little scratch on the record. I would work doing the night frequently, day and night sometimes. But as the weeks went by, my pieces got better. So I would throw them back into the wax pots. And I knew that with time, I would come up with pieces that I would eventually cast into bronze.

Eventually, I got three pieces in bronze, and I went to look for a gallery to represent me. The first gallery said "I'm sorry, but we have enough bronze sculptures". The second gallery said the same thing. And it's difficult to be rejected, because so much of your soul goes into your work. In the third gallery, they accepted my work. And in a week or two, they sold a piece. Over the next several years, they sold a large number of pieces.

Pieces started appearing in newspapers, magazines, and now and then something on television. And then we started having shows in museums and in galleries. And we would go to a museum and they would say "sorry, but we have a no touch policy", and they'd say, "but over here we have a small collection of items the visually impaired can look at", and they'd show me a doorknob, a carved door, an urn, but that wasn't really what I wanted to see. And on occasions they would say they had pieces for the visually impaired, but you have to wear gloves. I would say, no, I can't do that. But imagine this. If you went into a museum and you were sighted and they handed you a pair of dark glasses and you put them on, and then they turned the lights down and they said "now enjoy these great pieces of art", what would that individual do? He would probably say no! And that's just what I would always do when they offered me gloves.

I was working in my studio, and my wife came into the studio when I was making a crucifix, and she said, Michael, you should give one of those to the Pope. And I thought to myself, she's crazy! And when she left a few minutes later, I picked up the phone and I called the social worker at the VA, and he said he would work on it. On and off over the next few years he would call and say we're still working on it. Then he called me and said, you have a papal audience, and he gave me three dates. I picked the first date, April 13, 1983, and we had a meeting with Pope John Paul II. After our papal audience, we had photographs, photos of my work and a letter of introduction that I was a sculptor. And the people in Italy love their sculptors, and they would give me a guard when we walked into the museum, after they looked over our material, and I was able to touch whatever I wanted. And Lori knew what I wanted to touch, so she would kind of direct the guard to that area. Other people would see me touching and they'd stick their hand out to touch something, and the guard would start shouting at them, and they would wonder, why can he touch and why can't I? But I had the best time. And we ended up on that trip at the Academia Gallery in Florence, the theater of Michelangelo's David. They asked me if I wanted a chair to touch his foot. I thought perhaps with the chair I could touch his ankle. But I said, no thank you. But three years later, when the museum closed, it built a scaffolding for me. And for three hours I looked at Michelangelo's David from head to toe. I'll always remember those three hours. So with all these experiences with museums, accessibility became an extremely important factor in our thoughts of shows. So we set about trying to find out where we could have a touchable exhibit, totally accessible. So we went and contacted the Ideljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana. When the show started, people would come into the gallery and see a sign that said "please touch", and they would do a double take. They'd be tempted to look first, then they would start slowly touching the pieces, and before long you could really see them looking at them. The little kids, oh, they were great, their hands moved around fast enough to touch the pieces. And sometimes adults would come up with tears in their eyes saying "I always wanted to do this". Interestingly, at this moment, there are 30 pieces in the same museum in Indiana, the Idlejorg. The show opened in early February, and we were there. There were 30 pieces, many of them from the Tia collection, and it is fully accessible. A week or so after the show opened, COVID came and the show was closed, the museum was closed. But fortunately they extended the show to the end of the year, so hopefully people will be able to come in and see them at some point. Interestingly enough, we also have another show in north central New Mexico at the Millicent Rogers Museum. Once again, there are about 30 pieces there, and they're totally accessible. But that show never opened, so the pieces are standing there waiting to be touched. And hopefully that show will also happen.

I've been so fortunate in being able to follow my dreams over these last 75 years, and doing what I really wanted to do: Create sculptures. And we have two daughters, and the oldest used to be a television producer, and she's making a video of my work, my sculptures. And if you look up her website,, it has closed captioning and audio description. And hopefully you'll look it up and see what you get there.

But I am so grateful for all the places and all the people that we've seen. Places and people we never expected to meet over these years. And so art has been wonderful. And it's an extremely good way of communicating with people.

Thank you.

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Michael. Can you give us that website again? Dream touch believe, is that what it is?


MARK RICCOBONO: Michael, I know there was a lot more we wanted to have you talk about, but we don't have until midnight. So maybe we can get a Zoom meeting together with some of our art fans out there, or aspiring blind people who would like to be involved in art, and they can talk to you more about your experiences. Thank you for joining us so much


MARK RICCOBONO: It's been a pleasure.