John Sherrill Houser, creator of divisive Oñate statue, dies

FILE - In this April 5, 2006 file photo, artist John Sherrill Houser examines the underside of his statue "The Equestrian", at the Eagle Bronze foundry in Lander, Wyo. Houser, a sculptor who created a statue depicting conquistador Don Juan de Onate in El Paso, Texas, that divided residents along ethnic and social class lines, has died. He was 82. (Dan Cepeda/Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

ALBUQUERQUE — John Sherrill Houser, a sculptor whose work includes a statue depicting conquistador Don Juan de Oñate in El Paso that divided residents along ethnic and social class lines, has died. He was 82.

Houser died of heart failure Jan. 10 in Tucson, Ariz., after a routine heart procedure, according to Kenna Ramirez, chair of the Twelve Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, a group that promoted his art.

In 2003, Houser gained national attention after being commissioned to create a monument depicting Oñate, a Spanish explorer who established what would become the cities of Santa Fe and El Paso.

But the project drew criticism from Native Americans who remembered Oñate as a man who nearly wiped out Acoma Pueblo, enslaved their children and cut off one foot of any man considered to be of fighting age.

The El Paso City Council eventually voted to change the statue’s name to The Equestrian, but that didn’t ease tensions. When the statue was unveiled in 2007 at the El Paso International Airport, supporters and opponents crowded around the event with foes calling Houser a racist.

“It really hurt him,” Perry Houser, his nephew, told The Associated Press. “He had lived among Native Americans.”

Born in Rapid City, S.D., in 1935, Houser was the son of Ivan Houser, an assistant sculptor who worked on Mount Rushmore. The younger Houser later graduated from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and earned a fellowship for graduate art studies at UCLA before traveling through Europe, Morocco, Mexico, Ecuador and the Appalachian region of the U.S.

Houser created a number of other sculptures, including one of El Paso pioneer Susan Shelby Magoffin.

He brought to life the Twelve Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, a sculptural walk through history of 12 monuments of famous, or infamous, people who contributed in making El Paso.

“He was our soul,” Ramirez said. “He was the one who got us going.”

His first statue for this series was Fray Garcia de San Francisco followed by The Equestrian.

A 2008 PBS series P.O.V. film depicted the controversy around The Last Conquistador and showed the tensions around the 36-foot tall Oñate statue. In one of the final scenes, Houser reveals that he was going blind.

At the time of his death, Houser and his son, Ethan Houser, were working on a statue of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first Native American president. Ethan Houser said the project will continue.

Perry Houser said his uncle was always thinking about art, even while behind the wheel.

“I hated going driving with him. He’d almost always crash into something,” Perry Houser said. “I’d yell, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I just couldn’t take my eye off that line pattern over there.’ ”

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