"The Picasso of American Indian Art"
Who is R.C. Gorman ?
"Self-Portrait", 1973, Lithograph
Childhood in Chinle (and surrounding areas)
R.C. was born Rudolf Carl Gorman on July 26, 1931. He was born to Carl Nelson Gorman and Adele Brown in Chinle, Arizona (Chin-lee) - a small town near the mouth of Canyon de Chelly (Kan-yone dī shay). He went by "Rudy" back then, and some of his early works from those years is signed "Rudy Gorman". By the time I knew him, he was "R.C." but my grandfather still often called him Rudy.
Canyon de Chelly was once home to the Anasazi, and ancient pueblo people who flourished as far back at the 12th century b.c.e.. The created complex dwellings, baskets, weavings, and rock art. The people are gone now, but evidence of their presence there still remains. Many of his works reflect the scenes of Chinle and Canyon de Chelly. From the tall rain stained walls of the canyon, to the flowers and fauna of the lush valley, you see the beauty of Dineh Tah (more modernly spelled "Diné Tah" or Navajo Land).
His grandmother on his mother's side used to come visit them by donkey. She would bring prickly pear, wild bananas and fresh mutton. She would sit with Rudy and show him the stars. She only spoke Navajo and would point out each star and tell him the name for each of them. She would teach him about the plants and herbs growing all around.
In 1964 the Tsaile (Ts-Ay-lee) dam was built, cutting off much of the run off from the Chuska (Choo'sskah) Mountains flowing through the Canyon and reaching Chinle, but during R.C.'s childhood Chinle was lush and green. A small population of several hundred Navajo was supported by farming. Ruby Throated Hummingbirds would zoom about, feeding on the small wild flowers.
Rudy had a creative spirit from an early age. He would play in the muddy waters near the opening to Canyon de Chelly. He would form figures from the clay and mud and draw with charcoal on the sandstone walls of the canyon.
"One place there, he drew a naked woman. And his aunt scold him: 'you shouldn't do that. That's not right'.
And the teacher spank him, because he was drawing women like that, in school. And the teacher told the mother too, and
he got a spanking from her. ...For drawing women! He still draws the women, but no body spanks him now."
- R.C.'s Father, Carl Gorman, in a 1987 interview for Navajo Artist: R.C. Gorman
"Chuska Storm", 1997, Lithograph
Part of the Anniversary Suite
For a while, he attended Saint Michael's Catholic School near Window Rock, Arizona. I also attended school there from 1995 - 1998, though my experiences were much better than those of my uncle's.
He recalls this time briefly in his book The Radiance Of My People:
"that was the only time in my life I remember being
constantly hungry...when the nuns were looking the other way,
I'd mash up some prunes with a fork, spread the mixture
between two pieces of bread, and stick it in my shirt
to eat later during chapel."
In the fall of 1944 his father, Carl, was still fighting in the Pacific with the Second Marine Division as a Navajo Code Talker. One of Rudy's aunts helped him to enroll into the Ganado Presbyterian Mission School.
Unlike the policies at Saint Michael's, the teachers at the Presbyterian school encouraged the children to speak Navajo. Rudy's Navajo had become rusty over the years at Catholic school, but the masses at his new school were bi-lingual. In fact, many of the hymns they sang had originally been translated into Navajo by his paternal grandmother, Alice P. Gorman. To this day, many churches across the reservation use those translations.
Rudy delighted in his new school. He worked his summers in a multitude of jobs to pay his tuition. He was encouraged by his teachers to explore his creative side. Several even purchased his early work, and he never forgot their early support.
'Rudy' becomes 'R.C.'
Rudy graduated Ganado Mission High School in 1950. He had early thoughts of becoming a pilot or a merchant sailor. I think he wanted to travel.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1951 at the age of 19. As you may know, in the military, you go by your last name. If there is an occasion to identify you further, you might get your initials back. Gone was "Rudy" and so was born "Gorman, R.C.".
R.C.'s time in the Navy had him stationed at the San Diego Naval Air Station then stationed in Guam as an airman and finally aboard the U.S.S. Oriskany (CV-34) for readiness training along the California coast. It was R.C.'s first time traveling to another country. He became enamored with the people, food and this new experience.
During this time, R.C. couldn't help but continue exploring his creative side. The pin-ups of Alberto Vargas and George Petty were extremely popular. R.C. capitalized on this and would draw up your girl back home as a pin-up. He charge the officers $7 and the enlisted $2. I haven't had one of these cross my path yet, but if you ever find one, let me know.
R.C.'s Father, Carl, recalls R.C. drawing from an early age.
R.C. was my uncle. By the time I had come around, he had been dubbed: "the Picasso of American Indian Art" by the New York Times, he had two successful galleries, one in Taos and the other in Old Town Albuquerque, his work adorned the walls of dozens - if not hundreds - of galleries from San Fransisco, Philadelphia, and New York to Paris, Berlin, and London as well as countless homes around the world. I knew him as "Uncle R.C.". He was 52 when I was born and 74 when he passed. I knew him for 21 years.
I have many fond memories of my uncle and the times I would come visit him with my family. He had already put on a bit of a belly by the time I knew him, his knee gave him some trouble sometimes, but he was always quick to rise to come give his father and step-mother a hug.
Visiting R.C. meant we would be eating out, a real treat as the town I grew up in, Fort Defiance, didn't have much in the way of places where we could eat-out, moreover, our family budget wouldn't allow for it.
Lithographs & Serigraphs
Lithography is not my medium, so my knowledge of the complete process is limited. I have made every attempt to be as accurate as possible in my statements, and have omitted anything I was not able to verify.
Lithography is the process of printing from stone. "Lithos" - Greek "stone" and "Graphein" - Greek "to write". The process was invented in 1796.
By the same token, I have not known Taos without R.C. When he died in 2005, I did not return to Taos until 2013. Now, living here under the Taos Mountain and I am reminded everyday of his presence. His friends, his fans, and his fellow artists come up to me and share their memories of him.
R.C.'s voice is in my head too. Not as a father figure, and neither as a teacher. No, instead I remember his laugh: a loud, high, and lyrical "Haaaa! Oh dear..."
In my more recent years, I have started to become a student of his work. Not so much to look at the art and say "This is this one of his works from 1991" or "He did this while in Houston", or "So-and-so modeled for this piece", although much of that has come with studying his work, but rather I'm searching for those things which might connect us, those thoughts that we might share, agree on or disagree on. R.C. was a very intelligent man - thoughtful and insightful. He was also an elder. He grew up in a different time than I. He watched as the outside world moved more and more into the day-to-day life of the reservation. He explored the world as a Navajo, visiting those places that sent ships and people to America. He consumed the food of the world and loved them.
He also watched as Taos changed. As national stores, restaurants and amenities have come to town, bringing progress. R.C. was very direct, but you had to be listening. He would tell you things, but it wasn't always easy to hear. A conversation with R.C. might take some time to digest. Maybe that's why he always liked to talk over dinner.
Paintings & Sketches
"Repose", 1986 - Gorman Edition with R.C. Gorman and Grysner Studio
Books by and about R.C.
The Radiance Of My People
Nudes and Foods series
R.C. Gorman: a portrait
R.C. Gorman The Graphic Works
R.C. Gorman The Lithopgraphs
Carl Gorman's Wolrd (1 ed)
Power Of a Navajo (re-release with forward by R.C. Gorman)