R.C. Gorman (born 1931) was perhaps the leading Native American artist in the United States. Gorman's themes were universal and transcended the boundaries of the Navajo culture in which he was raised. Gorman's portraits of Navajo women were executed in a free-flowing style with vivid colors. He was sometimes called the "Picasso of American Indian artists."
Rudolph Carl Gorman was born on July 26, 1931, in Chinle, Arizona, though some sources give his birth year as 1932. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, not far from Canyon de Chelly in the northeastern part of the state. The ancient home of the Anasazi and a place steeped in legend, power, and magic, the Chinle area served for centuries as a refuge for the Navajo from their Indian, Spanish, and Anglo enemies. The Navajo traditionally lived in earth-covered dwellings called hogans, while ekeing out a subsistence living from the land.
Gorman's family, like its ancestors, grazed sheep on the plains. Gorman's father, Carl Gorman, attended mission schools as a boy and eventually became a wealthy cowboy. During World War II, Carl Gorman was a member of the Navajo Code Talkers, an elite group of U.S. Marines who developed a Navajo-based communications code that the Japanese were unable to break. When Gorman was about twelve, his parents separated. Carl Gorman left to attend art school and later became a recognized painter and teacher at the University of California at Davis.
Gorman described himself in his autobiography R.C. Gorman: The Radiance of My People as a descendant of sand painters, silversmiths, chanters, and weavers on both sides of his family. In 1864, Gorman's paternal great-grandfather was forced to march four hundred miles during the Navajo Long March from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner. At the army fort he learned the art of silversmithing, which he taught to the rest of his tribe. Later, while attending the first government school at Fort Defiance, he was given the name Nelson Carl Gorman.
Gorman's mother, though a devout Catholic, was raised in a family that still held to traditional Navajo religious practices. According to her son, she was in labor for twenty hours before he was born prematurely. The infant grew strong on a diet of coffee and goat milk prescribed by his great-grandmother.
Gorman was raised with two brothers, a sister, and several half-sisters and half-brothers. His family lived in an old stone house without running water. The local Catholic church allowed the family to use its outdoor faucet, and Gorman later recalled hauling water to the family home.
Early Interest in Art
As a boy, Gorman modeled animals and toys out of clay from the local swimming hole. Later he drew with charcoal on rocks. When he started school and discovered pencils, papers, and books, he began drawing with abandon. His first school, Chinle Public School, was a one-room structure heated with a wood stove. He recalled that his first work of art in school was a drawing of a naked woman; it brought spankings from his teacher and his mother.
In R.C. Gorman: A Portrait, Carl Gorman recalled the origins of his son's career: "R.C. always carried a tablet and drew, wherever we were. We were dipping sheep once, and he got a little girl to model for him. A white man working with us saw the drawing, got me, and said, 'Look. Someday he's going to be a great artist.' And it's true. He was less than ten years old at that time. I never held his hand, or led him like a teacher. His eyes were his teachers."
In 1943, Gorman enrolled in a Catholic boarding school on the Navajo reservation. In the fall of 1944, he switched to the Ganado Presbyterian Mission School. In the seventh grade, Gorman began selling his artwork to nurses and doctors at the mission school. He graduated from Ganado Mission High School in 1950.
As a child, Gorman never received instruction in the Navajo religion. "The Catholics and Protestants got to me first," he wrote in his autobiography. Although he rejected Catholicism after his experience at the Catholic boarding school, he later considered himself a good Catholic.
In the Navy
After briefly enrolling at Arizona State College (now Northern Arizona University), Gorman joined the Navy in 1951. It was at that time that he began calling himself R.C., because, he said, Rudolph Carl didn't seem to fit him. Following boot camp, Gorman was assigned to duty in Guam. He attended Guam Territorial College, intending to become a writer. During this time, he picked up pocket money by sketching girlfriends of officers and enlisted men from photographs they provided.
In 1955, after leaving the Navy, Gorman enrolled again at Arizona State College, with a major in literature and a minor in art. In the summer of 1956, he worked at Disneyland, where he dressed as a Native American and paddled a canoe.
San Francisco and Mexico
After his art began to sell, he moved to San Francisco. On a trip to Mexico, Gorman first saw the murals of Guadalajara depicting the history of the Mexican people. He later wrote in his autobiography, "Instead of trying to paint like a European, I started painting like a Mexican, I guess, except that I was using the Navajos for my subject matter." In Mexico City, Gorman saw the works of Diego Rivera and other artists. According to Gorman, "Rivera went to Europe to discover himself. I went to Mexico and discovered Rivera and myself."
Upon returning from Mexico, Gorman applied for a grant from the Navajo Tribal Council. He was awarded a scholarship to attend Mexico City College in 1958. After three months, Gorman returned to San Francisco, where he held a job in the post office at night and painted by day. Later he worked as a nude model for colleges and private art studios in the San Francisco Bay area.
In the early 1960s, Gorman relocated briefly to Houston, Texas. In 1964, he discovered Taos, New Mexico, which he loved at first sight. After he showed some slides to gallery owner Dorothy Brett of the Manchester Gallery in Taos, she agreed to handle his work. Following an extremely successful show in Taos, Gorman returned to San Francisco, where he began experimenting with landscapes, pottery, and sand paintings. In 1966, on another trip to Mexico City, Gorman did his first work in lithography. During this trip, Gorman was introduced to the noted print-maker Jose Sanchez.
When the Manchester Gallery in Taos came up for sale in the late 1960s, Gorman borrowed money from his parents and bought it. He reopened the gallery as the Navajo Gallery in 1968, starting with 55 artists. But after the others' works failed to sell, Gorman began selling only his own material. His drawings sold for $100 apiece.
Gorman said he liked to capture the beauty of his people, especially the women. As he explained in his autobiography, "Navajos always had respect for strong, powerful women who would go out and chop wood, herd sheep, have babies in the field. My Indian woman isn't glamorous but she is beautiful. She is earthy, nurturing, and it is a constant challenge to capture her infinite variety.
"I deal with the common woman who smells of the fields and maize. She lives and breathes… . My women work and walk on the land. They need to be strong to survive. They have big hands, strong feet. They are soft and strong like my grandmother who gave me life.
"My women are remote, withdrawn in their silence. They don't look out, but glance inward in the Indian way. You know their faces, but not a thing about their thoughts. They do not reveal whether they are looking at us or not.
"I like to think that my women represent a universal woman. They don't have to be from the reservation. They could be from Scottsdale or Africa. They're composites of many women I've known."
Gorman used live models when he drew Navajo women, but not all of his models were Navajo. He said that by throwing a blanket over a Japanese woman, he could end up with a Navajo model. In fact, one of his favorite models was a young Japanese woman.
Gorman wrote in his autobiography, "It's strange I should come to Taos. The Navajos are encircled by the four sacred mountains, and within those four mountains the Navajo feels, I think, protected, but on the other hand inhibited. I'm outside of the sacred Navajo mountains and feel like a very independent creature who is protected by another mountain that is quite magic, the Taos mountain."
Gorman was visited in Taos by many celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Onassis, Arnold Schwartzeneggar, Tab Hunter, Alan Ginsberg, Caesar Romero, Danny DeVito, and baseball pitcher Jim Palmer.
Gorman was not offended at being called an "Indian artist." He wrote in his autobiography, "I am what I am, and its obvious I'm not white, black, or Oriental. I am an Indian. I am an artist. I'm an Indian painting Indians, and if it worked out for me, then it's all well and good."
But Gorman added: "I've always felt successful. Even when I wasn't making any money, I just knew it was all there. I always believed in myself. I knew I had talent and there was just no doubt about it. I just didn't give up."
Gorman gave thought to his legacy in his autobiography: "If I'm remembered at all, I'd be very surprised and amused. I don't really think about it or worry about it. But I suppose I would like to be remembered that I was an earnest worker. That I cared. That I know anyone can get what they want if they work hard enough. After all, I'm just a little boy from the reservation who used to herd sheep at Black Mountain."
Gorman, R.C., R.C. Gorman: The Radiance of My People, SantaFe Fine Arts, 1992.
Parks, Stephen, R.C. Gorman: A Portrait, Little, Brown, 1983.
"R.C. Gorman," New Mexico Internet Access, Inc.,http://www.highfiber.com/~lhb/bio.htm (February 2003).
"R.C. Gorman (1932-)," RoGallery.com,http://www.rogallery.w1.com/R/gorman_rc/gorman-biography.htm (February 2003). □