by Myrna Zanetell
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Artist John Houser left
a monumental legacy
On Jan. 10, 2018, El Paso lost one of its most visionary artists when nationally acclaimed sculptor John Sherrill Houser passed away in Tucson, Ariz. at age 82. Son of sculptor Ivan Houser, who worked on Mount Rushmore, John became best known in El Paso for his monumental sculptures that celebrated historic figures who contributed to the settlement of this region of the Southwest. Titled the “XII Travelers Memorial of the Southwest,” the concept was inspired by Tom Lea’s “Calendar of Twelve Travelers through the Pass of the North.”
Houser’s original proposal focused on placing 12 bronze figures along a sculpture walk woven throughout downtown El Paso. The concept was accepted by the city and Houser received a commission to begin in 1988. Due to funding difficulties and other issues, only the missionary Fray Garcia, Conquistador Don Juan Oñate and pioneer settler Susan Shelby Magoffin were actually cast into bronze.
Sited in the heart of Pioneer Plaza and standing 12 feet in height, the figure of the Fray Garcia de San Francisco honors the Franciscan monk who in 1659 founded Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission at Paso del Norte, the area known today as the sister cities of Juárez and El Paso. Dedicated on September 26, 1996, Fray Garcia was the only one of the 12 sculptures to actually find a home in downtown El Paso.
Second in the series, the magnificent 36-foot-high figure of explorer Don Juan Oñate atop a rearing horse would follow a decade later. Controversies as to the appropriate placement for the 16-ton bronze delayed completion and installation. The figure was finally located at the entrance to the El Paso International Airport and dedicated in 2007.
Honored on one hand for introducing the horse and Spanish culture to the region and as a colonizer who founded the Camino Real (King’s Highway), which became the major trade route between Mexico and Santa Fe, Oñate was later accused of atrocities against the indigenous people that led to the Acoma Massacre of 1599. In response to the controversy, the El Paso City Council changed the statue’s name to the more generic title “The Equestrian”.
Most recently completed is the image of Susan Shelby Magoffin that adorns the grounds of the Keystone Heritage Park on Doniphan Drive in the Upper Valley, which was dedicated in June 2012. Accompanied by her faithful greyhound, Ring, Magoffin is shown making entries in her famous diary, “Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico,” which detailed her arduous 1840 journey from St. Joseph, Mo. to El Paso. Its placement was chosen because her diary indicated that the party most likely camped along the Rio Grande near what is now Keystone. Magoffin was married to Samuel Magoffin, the younger brother of famed trader and city father James Wiley Magoffin.
Houser and his son Ethan faithfully continued work on the fourth image in the series that depicts Benito Juarez, the beloved Mexican president who is often compared to Abraham Lincoln. A maquette of the proposed sculpture was unveiled in the summer of 2013.
Ethan Houser explained that the sculpture of two figures opposite one another seated on a benc, is a bit allegorical. “The first figure is that of a 12-year-old shepherd boy with a book in one hand, indicating that the youth is determined to have the education which he feels is his right. Seated on the opposite corner, the second figure is that of the adult ‘President Juarez,’ as he may have appeared at his residence in El Paso del Norte.”
The National Park Service has already approved installation of the monument for Chamizal National Park.
Despite the his father’s death, Ethan said, the Twelve Travelers Board is committed to completing the Benito Juarez sculpture as soon as funding becomes available. In the meantime, Ethan is working on a bas-relief medallion depicting the heads of Juarez and Lincoln.
Ethan shared one aspect of John’s life of which many admirers may not be aware. In 1988, he was the recipient of a kidney transplant. Because this saved his life, and gave him another 30 productive years, he encouraged others to consider being an organ donor. John’s body has been donated to science to further anatomical training.
Two memorials will be held in Houser’s honor. The first will be on March 17 at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, beginning at 4 p.m. The second is in El Paso at the El Paso Museum of Art from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 21, which is also the birthday of Benito Juarez.
For further information, call Kenna Ramirez, 282-5102 or Ray Mancera at 532-2444
Hal Marcus Gallery
Between now and April 13, borderland residents who visit the Hal Marcus Gallery, 1209 Oregon, can view an outstanding collection of about 50 works by four of the region’s most celebrated artists: Tom Lea, Jose Cisneros, Manuel Acosta and Bill Rakocy. Most of the works have not previously been offered for sale.
Marcus related that the exhibition came together very quickly when the Tom Lea Institute agreed to consign a selection of pieces that belong to Lea’s son, James. “In addition to the 15 Tom Lea original oils, we also have a selection of drawings from the ’30s and even some of large, pastel abstract work he produced closer to the end of his life.”
The estate of Manuel Acosta also released six large paintings that have been sequestered in a vault for years. “These are large, 48” x 40”, and are really incredible classic portraits,” Hal said. Some recently purchased works by Jose Cisneros will also join a selection of art from estate of Bill Rakocy to round out the exhibition.
“These men are the patriarchs of El Paso art, really the undisputed masters,” Marcus added. “Their work has been tested and proven and it’s exciting to be able to see this work all in one location.”
Art for Veterans
Darrell MaGahhey is heading up a new “Art for Veterans” program to brighten the lives of veterans in local institutions using patriotic and colorful artwork.
“We are working with regional care facilities and other veterans’ organizations that will benefit from having art hung in that location,” he explained. “Our belief is that with each picture, we are saying ‘thank you’ to our veterans for their service.
“We began the project by working with Susan Culp, administrator of the Ambrosio Gullen Texas State Veterans Home on Kenworthy, and now we are also working with Ben Miranda at the Cohen Military Clinic, a 6-month-old facility on George Dieter. We plan to place approximately 12 pieces in each location.
“The state home requested artwork with patriotic or other military-type scenes produced by members of the military. For instance, Krystyna Robbins has created a large image of ‘Old Glory’ as her donation to the project. Cohen is looking for art produced by members of families who have a member with a dedicated service record.
“Local artists have already committed to creating all the art we need. Fundraising is the second tier of our effort. We need to collect sufficient monies to frame and hang the donated works.”
Anyone wishing to assist with a donation may do so by going to the El Paso Art Association web site: www.elpasoartassociation.com or call Darrell MaGahhey at 857-7300.
Myrna Zanetell is a freelance writer
specializing in the visual arts.
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