Sculptor John Suazo: Listening to the Stone
Taos Pueblo sculptor John Suazo (Hunter Watching) is a spiritual man who looks at the world from an Indian point of view. “I believe all things possess life and spirits that communicate, even stone that has witnessed so many things in its lifetime from its beginning to transformations brought about by wind and rain. The stone has witnessed a thousand stories in its formation, but only one can be told and when the stone and I work together harmoniously, that story emerges.”
For Suazo, bringing out the-story-that-was-meant-to-be is a journey, a historical path that takes him back to the simple life of his tribe. “I have ideas of what I’d like to carve, but it’s the stone that tells me what to do. It tells me ‘I want to be this’ and it guides my hand in the creation process.”
A lot of stone spirits have guided him since 1974 when he began sculpting a wide variety of subjects that embody ancient ideas about beauty and strength along with family and tribal ideals of his people. “I was 10 years old and would constantly watch my Uncle Ralph, a wood carver. I thank my uncle and the spirits of the trees and sky and earth for giving me the energy and passion to end up in this career.
“Each piece is a reflection of my inner self,” he says. “A lot of my work involves stories I’ve heard from older people in my tribe. I never plan a sculpture, but when I finish it, to my amazement, it somehow perfectly fits a story I’ve heard from my grandfather.”
Speaking recently at the dedication of his Waiting for Grandfather limestone sculpture now gracing the lawn in front of Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus, Suazo said that piece was just another example of ancient stories, this one involving a buffalo hunter returning home after a lengthy absence. This particular piece, created in 1986, came to Arizona State Museum as an estate gift.
“Every detail of the 6-foot-tall sculpture has meaning to me because every piece begins deep inside me,” he says. “The young woman is waiting anxiously to see grandfather, to show him her baby because he has not yet seen the child. From my past, the belt around her skirt is like the one my grandmother used to wear, and the stairstep design represents the steps we all take in life.
“I believe there is a spiritual nature to Native art that makes people want to get close to it and become a part of it because there’s some type of missing knowledge inside there.”
A former student of renowned Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser, Suazo developed a distinctive style of large-scale stone work. “He used to tell students, 'Follow your own path. Don’t follow my path, develop a style of your own that defines who you are, a style you can keep with you forever.'”
Working in various mediums -- alabaster, travertine, limestone, pipestone, soapstone -- Suazo collections have been displayed at museums and galleries in several states as well as foreign countries. “I hope that by looking at and touching my works, one can find that certain feeling about art we call self-expression.”
In fact, each piece he carves is distinctly his. “I work one stone at a time, not five or six at a time like some others who do so with the help of an apprentice. I can’t have anyone touch my stone or the feeling is gone. It’s got to be my whole energy from concept through effort to finished product.”
At age 62, and "before my bones start aching too badly," the sculptor says he still has "a long journey to go in order to fulfill something that has always been in my mind -- a monumental work carved out of a massive piece of stone. I found a mountain in the center of the Navajo reservation with a beautiful 30,000-pound red rock that would work well. I envision a detailed piece maybe 15-feet-tall and perhaps involving children holding each other's hands, or maybe buffalo and deer dancers from the Taos Pueblo. The stone will tell me what it’s supposed to be.”
Suazo’s Grandfather sculpture is near another outdoor Native piece, Watercarrier, by Apache artist Craig Dan Goseyun. “We want people to follow both those statues right into our front door to the oldest anthropology museum in the Southwest,” says Museum Curator Diane Dittemore.