Taos Pueblo sculptor John Suazo has received multiple awards and distinctions. His sculpture “Waiting for Grandfather” was installed at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2013. His work is in numerous museums and galleries throughout the country and has also been exhibited in Russia and France.
Art runs in the family
Suazo’s grandfather, Jim Suazo, inspired the novel “The Man Who Killed the Deer” by Frank Waters. But this isn’t the only book about the Suazo family. “Pueblo Boy,” a children’s book by Sylvia Starr and Joseph B. Wertz published in 1938, contains pictures of Suazo’s mother and grandparents and details of their everyday lives in the Pueblo.
“All this is part of my history,” Suazo says. “And what motivates me to do my art.”
Suazo went to college expecting to become a teacher. He had excelled in sports and considered being a coach.
“But I kept changing majors,” he said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until one day, during my fourth year of college, when I came home on a Christmas break and started carving. Right then, I knew I had found my true calling. My uncle Ralph encouraged me to follow that path. ”
His uncle Ralph Suazo was also a sculptor who had promoted the Native American art movement in Taos in the ’50s and ’60s.
“Our whole family is artistic,” said Suazo. “Around the same time I began carving, first in wood and then in stone, my mother, Juanita DuBray, started to do clay figures too.”
In 1985, DuBray was invited to do a show at the Smithsonian Museum. She has also exhibited at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Museum of New Mexico, the Wheelwright Museum, and the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Suazo’s niece, Dawning Pollen Shorty, is also known for her micaceous clay creations.
“My son Warshaw is a great carver too,” said Suazo. “Now he is going to engineering school in Gallup and has made the honor roll three times.”
Though he didn’t pursue a career in education, Suazo is still interested in teaching and preserving his ancestral culture.
“I welcome those who want to come to my studio and watch me work,” he said. “I have gone to many schools and talked to the students about the art business and the importance of creativity.”
The Rockefeller connection
Suazo’s great-grandfather, Rafael Gomez, was Taos Pueblo war chief in 1924 when John D. Rockefeller and his three sons came to visit the Pueblo during the summer. Gomez and other Pueblo men took them to the mountains and they all had a picnic.
“They also sang some Indian songs for them,” said Suazo. “When Rockefeller went back to New York, he wrote a thank-you letter to my great-grandfather and sent him a turquoise ring and a silk handkerchief in appreciation for the wonderful time they had had. About five years ago, his grandson David Rockefeller came to visit Taos and I showed him the letter. He ended up buying a mountain lion that I had just carved.”
Sources of inspiration
Suazo’s inspiration comes from his ancestors’ history, his personal experiences and surroundings, and his three grandchildren.
“I see the smiles on their faces and they never fail to inspire me,” he said. “I love to reveal through my sculptures this feeling of security, peace and happiness that my grandkids radiate.” Though Suazo has done many traditional pieces, today he tends to use a more abstract and experimental approach in his art.
“I am giving it a more modern feeling,” he said. “I even carve aliens now. There is something attractive and mysterious about aliens; most people love them.”
One of Suazo’s collectors just ordered 18 sculptures of aliens, four to five feet high. They will be partially buried into the ground to make them look as if they were coming out of the hills.
“It will be quite a sight,” Suazo said.
He also carves ancient villages that have been abandoned for centuries.
“I use my intuition and add ghost dancers and other figures from the past,” he said.
Giving voice to stones
For his outdoor pieces, Suazo uses limestone from Colorado, Texas and Kansas. For the indoor ones he prefers gray, pink and white alabaster from Colorado and orange alabaster from Utah.
He likes to make knives and swords. The blades are carved out of Moroccan selenite, a translucent stone that is supposed to have healing properties.
“As a kid, I collected the knives that my father and uncles would give me,” he said. “That went along with being a man. Now they are used mostly for decoration. I have fun experimenting with them, but I prefer to focus on larger pieces.”
One of his larger sculptures is called “Eagle Shield” and weighs close to 300 pounds. Another, “She Walks Elegantly,” represents a Navajo woman with her hair done up in a classic Navajo bun.
“It took me about four days and 40 years to make it,” Suazo said. “Forty years to learn how to complete it in four days.”
He never draws or plans his work in advance.
“The stone talks to me,” he said. “And then we work together creating a story that fits it.”
“She Walks Elegantly” is a sheepherder who lived in the 1800s and is proud of her life and herself.
“The beauty of life makes her walk gracefully,” Suazo said. “I reflected that on the sculpture. When you see my pieces, I want you to think of a particular time and place, and how life was back then.”
To see Suazo’s pieces in person, call him at (575) 758-1275 or visit the Taos Pueblo Shops and the Jane Hamilton Fine Art Galleries in Tucson and Santa Fe.