His head brushing lightly against the massive horse's face, Michael Naranjo carefully ran his hands over its plaster muzzle.
Using touch to see what his eyes cannot, the New Mexico sculptor studied the towering steed's forelock, eyes and forehead, matching his tactile observations to a vague boyhood memory.
"It's exciting: the tingling feeling in my fingers and just adrenaline and the thrill of something that you never expected to do," Naranjo said. "It's hard to process because it's so big, but I have an idea of what it looks like so that helps."
Naranjo, who is blind, spent 90 minutes on a recent weekday atop a scissor lift in the lobby of the National Cowboy & Western Museum. Accompanied by his wife, Laurie, he used his hands to study one of the Oklahoma City institution's most treasured works: James Earle Fraser's more than 18-foot-tall masterwork "The End of the Trail."
"We know this is a piece that is special to a lot of people. We hear it a lot. ... But to know it was at the top of his list to be able to experience, and then seeing him see it through touch, it gives you an appreciation for being able to see it through sight," said Seth Spillman, the museum’s chief marketing officer. "To see that dream realized, that's pretty special, too."
Blinded by war
A member of the Tewa Tribe, Naranjo recalls seeing a photo or drawing of "The End of the Trail" when he was a teenager. A few years later, while serving during the Vietnam War, he was wounded by a grenade blast that left him blind and without the use of his right hand.
"It's a life-changer, and war is a horrible thing. I'm glad I survived. Unfortunately, man doesn't learn," he said. "I learned as a child to play a little bit with clay, and later on as a teenager, I knew that's what I wanted to do. Then, I went in the Army and became blind and found out I could still do it with my one hand. Once I found I could still sculpt, I had no questions as to what I was going to do with the rest of my life"
Working with one hand and by touch, Naranjo built a celebrated career as a sculptor, primarily creating a variety of bronzes, from Native American dancers to Santa Claus. His works are now in museums across the country as well as the White House and Vatican.
"Even as a child, it's been obvious that my father's story serves as an inspiration to people. ... Whether he was speaking to a group of disabled veterans or to a group of schoolchildren, there was always this amazing emotional response. So, I watched that happen over and over for as long as I can remember. In fact, the reason I became a journalist was because ... reporters would come to our home to learn about his story," said Jenna Winters, his daughter.
"But as I began to acquire my skills as a journalist and television producer, I also began to have this understanding that it was my social responsibility to share my parents' story."
Making a movie
For the past few years, Winters, who is based in Los Angeles, has been working on a feature documentary about her father titled "Dream Touch Believe," and she was challenged to depict the time that her father received special dispensation from the Italian government to touch Michelangelo's "David" in Florence.
"That's pretty unique, and I was there for that. But I was 10 at the time. Now, I'm 40. I want to go back in time 30 years and say, 'What really did happen that day?'" Winters said. "When we were talking about it, I said, 'What else would you want to touch?' ... And without hesitation, this was the first thing."
Fraser’s "The End of the Trail" has become an iconic image of the West: A Native American warrior on horseback who is bowed low over his horse's neck but has yet to be broken. The family sent the request for a touch visit to the National Cowboy Museum.
"It's a chance for a museum to be a part of something that is in the same breath as Michelangelo's 'David.' So, that's pretty special. And then on just a purely human level, it's just the right thing to do," Spillman said.
"No one expected it to be that emotional when he did it. And our curators were tearing it up, others on staff. It was just a very emotional experience."
Along with the general public, the museum invited vision impaired, veterans and Native American groups to watch Naranjo touch the sculpture and listen to him speak after.
"Whenever I touch other artists' works, it's inspirational," said Naranjo. "For years, we've gone into museums and they would let me touch pieces, so we decided to start having touchable exhibits. ... For 25 years, we've traveled around the country with touchable exhibits in museums, and it's always amazing. People will come up to you ... and say, 'I've always wanted to do this. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to touch.'"
"Art can give so much pleasure and add to one's life, and if we can give that, great."
To learn more about blind Native American sculptor Michael Naranjo and the documentary "Dream Touch Believe, go to www.dreamtouchbelieve.com.