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R. C. Gorman: A Self-Portrait
In his own words, this well-loved contemporary artist gives us a sketch of his work and his life
By Susan Lawrence Rich

From Radiance Summer 1990

I called R. C. Gorman in late December to set up a phone interview for this article. We settled on January 4 at 10 a.m. California time; 11 a.m. his time, New Mexico time. I put down the receiver as his parting comment filtered through my good-bye to him: "We'll go out to lunch," he said. Or had he? No. Had I heard him right? Did he think I was going to show up in New Mexico? Should I call him back to clarify? He must have known it was to be a phone interview; we'd discussed the time difference. It would be too embarrassing to call back. No, I just had misheard him.

January 4 arrived. Downstairs, my husband was in charge of a tape recorder rigged up to the phone in the kitchen. While feeding the baby, to keep her occupied, he was to start recording when Gorman got on the line, turn the tape over when a half hour had passed and turn it off when I'd finished the interview.

I was upstairs on the bed surrounded by pens, pencils, notes on Gorman and pads of paper. At precisely 10 a.m., I punched the numbers of Gorman's private line. "It's ringing," I yelled down to my husband. Someone in New Mexico answered. This someone informed me that Gorman was not quite home yet, but he was expected at any minute; he had an 11 a.m. luncheon date. I responded that I was that date, but I wouldn't be coming for lunch.

A half hour later, with baby still in the high chair and husband still standing by the tape recorder, I phoned again. We had a laugh about our scheduling mix-up. And for the next 45 minutes, with muted cooing and gurgling from downstairs, I conversed with R. C. Gorman. When I'd finished, I regretted missing lunch with the man.

Like his celebrated Navaho women, Gorman is clear, simple and colorful. I wanted him to appear that way in the article. I decided to create a portrait of the artist painted only with his words. What follows is a selection of observations by R. C. Gorman about his work and his life.

"The R is for Rudolph, the C is for Carl, but I'm not a Rudolph Carl type.

I was born in Chinle, Arizona, on a Navaho reservation in 1931, July 26. I started kindergarten in Chinle. My first art effort in school was a drawing of a naked woman. I got a whipping from my teacher and from my mother.

After I'd grown to be a little older, my parents sent me away to school. It was World War II, my family was working and it was convenient for them to send me off. I went to a Catholic boarding school. I was about nine, and I often ate prune sandwiches. While 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. I graduated from a Presbyterian boarding school in Ganado, Arizona. My teachers encouraged my art in Ganado, but one named Jenny Louis Linda, she was the most helpful. She let me do anything I wanted.

I've been doing artwork since I was three. I used to use whatever was at hand. I drew in sand and mud and on rocks. I used to herd sheep with my aunts, and they showed me how to work in clay. Those were my first lessons in sculpture. My first subjects were Mickey Mouse, Shirley Temple and automobiles. That's what I liked.

For inspiration, I read a lot. I get involved with the people I'm reading about, the character, not a particular author. Graphically, I'm inspired by a lot of people and some galleries and museums. There's a museum in southern France, in Antibes, a Picasso museum. It's my favorite museum in the world. Picasso inspires me to try to work more in ceramics. I like to look at his work there.

In contemporary work, I like the Mexican artists. I'm greatly influenced by the galleries and museums in Mexico City. The artists deal with the same subject I do: their own people. I like Rivera, Drozco, Tamayo, Siqueiros. The color is too intense for words.

You know what else helps my creativity? Eating. People give me parties. Someone gave me a party in Rome. They had the best pasta, with finely ground salmon in with the pasta. The hosts prepare meals especially from my cookbooks, Nudes and Foods (Volumes I and II). The recipes were sent to me by people from all over, and Virginia Dooley, who runs my gallery in Taos, put the book together.

I myself am rather large. People think I make too much of it. For my age, I guess I'm okay. I wish I were lighter, but I love to eat. I am a lunch man. I eat my big meal at lunch. When I'm traveling, lots of restaurants don't open up until dinner. And that's really too bad.

I'm not married. My only companion is a fat cat named Lola. She's been with me for eight years. She has her ways. She likes one kind of cat food, and she won't even eat scraps. And there's Rose, Miss Rose Roybal. She's my cook, and she's a great cook too. Rose has a big heart if you eat her food. She loves Danny De Vito; he cleans his plate, and that means a lot.

For the women I paint, I have models come to my studio. I work only with models. We have reservations right here in Taos, the Taos Pueblo. But I've done Japanese and Spanish women, too. A model comes in with her costume, and she sets the stage. I paint what I see; I don't think. I don't have any message. I think it's so phony for artists to have this huge meaning. I don't.

I am not obsessed with large women or even skinny women, but I do prefer to paint women. I'm attracted to them. And larger women, they fill up the paper more. There is more space to work with. My own aunts were large women. Maybe I am reflecting them.

My father told me that in the old days, Native American men were proud to have a large woman. That meant she was well fed and her husband was rich. In those days, too, a man could have many wives. A whole bunch of little fat women meant he was really rich. Besides, I like to reach out and grab something.

My advice to big ladies would be, Maintain your beautiful, graceful image. Look at what I paint: large beautiful women all dolled up with native costumes.

Sometimes I have dry spells. I'm in one right now. I'm not doing anything. But I don't worry about it. I can afford it. When you're young, you're charged up. It's different; you're always working.

Success? I don't think about that sort of thing. Actually, I never thought all this would happen. I started off just doing group shows. Then, at one show during the Fifties, in Scottsdale, Arizona, two gallery owners really bought my stuff: Elaine Horowitz and Suzanne Brown. They gave me my biggest boost.

Now that I'm well known, I'm doing more but at a slower pace. I work with more printers. I go to three different cities to work on my lithographs. I transport models. I go to Santa Fe to bronze. I go to Mexico for my tapestries.

I like to help other artists. I buy their work. I send kids through school. I think what goes around comes around.

I get hundreds of letters. I answer lots of them. Three weeks after Christmas, I'm still going through my Christmas mail. Friends, I just phone them.

Famous people want to meet me. Liz Taylor, she's in the large-woman category now, I've had lunch with her. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, he sent me something for Christmas: a deer sitting in a red park. Now, he loves food.

With my work, I've gone through different phases. It's changed since I first started to sell it in the seventh grade. When I was in the Navy, I painted ships and islands. Well, I painted pin-ups then, too. My shipmates would show me photographs of their girlfriends, and I drew them with luscious bodies: $5 for officers, $3 for the enlisted men. There's my rig motif, the pottery series, the surrealistic series, but I've settled on the women. I'm perfectly comfortable with them. They've treated me right. Why should I leave them?"

The cookbook Nudes and Foods: Gorman Goes Gourmet, written by Gorman's cooking friends and compiled by Virginia Dooley, provides many funny Gorman tales, accompanied by recipes and Gorman sketches. Its sequel, R. C. Gorman: Nudes and Foods, Vol. II, can be purchased for $20 plus $2 shipping from The Navaho Gallery, P.O. Box l756, Taos, NM 87571.

Gorman's Famous Fans:
R. C. Gorman met once with former Vice President and Mrs. Mondale. Once while out dining, Rosalind Carter approached Gorman and said, "I've been a fan of yours for years, and I'd like to introduce someone to you." She brought over her husband, President Jimmy Carter. Gorman lunched with Elizabeth Taylor. Jackie Onassis asked to come by and visit; she said she'd like to meet him. Vincent Price has visited Gorman's studio, Alan Ginsberg delighted him with an afternoon stop and Gorman hobnobs with soap opera stars Ruth Warwich from "All My Children" and Jean Cooper from "The Young and the Restless" (or "The Young and the Rest of Us," as Gorman rephrases it). Flautist Paul Horn, orchestra leader Ray Conniff and singer Anita O'Day are fans. Gorman notes that Peter Fonda is really rather shy, and Cloris Leachman expends energy galore.

Collectors of his art include, in addition to many of those mentioned above, Barry Goldwater, Gregory Peck, Erma Bombeck, Lee Marvin and Andy Warhol.

Education and Honors:
R. C. Gorman boarded at St. Michael's Junior High School for a time before the administration expelled him. Gorman graduated from Ganado Presbyterian Mission School.

The Navy provided the next installment in Gorman's education. He attended Guam Territorial College. Gorman majored in American literature when he was enrolled at Arizona State College. After the Navaho Tribal Council awarded him its first scholarship to study at a foreign university, he became a student at Mexico City College. He remembers, "I went to Mexico, and discovered Diego Rivera and myself." Next, Gorman attended San Francisco State University and took art classes there. To put himself through school, he worked nights at the post office and modeled nude for art classes, where he listened to the lectures and took mental notes.

Several institutions, including the College of Ganado in Arizona and Eastern New Mexico University, have awarded Gorman honorary degrees. Harvard, in 1986, awarded R. C. Gorman a certificate recognizing his "notable contributions to American Art and Native American Culture." In 1979, the Governor of New Mexico decreed that January 8 was to be R. C. Gorman Day. On March 19, 1986, Mayor Dianne Feinstein declared a Gorman Day for San Francisco. Gorman has the key to the cities of San Francisco, Palm Springs, Scottsdale, Houston and San Antonio.

Gorman Quips:
When asked about his gold Mercedes, his Olympic-sized swimming pool, his odd pets (iguanas, skunks, pigs, etc.), his jet-set travels, Gorman laughs and responds, "I've never gone for the string quartet.  I prefer the whole orchestra."  He attributes his success to "America's new awareness of itself.  Before, everything was imported-like cheese."  Gorman often wears outlandish Hawaiian shirts and headbands.  He describes the shirts as "custom made, loud and comfortable.  The headbands are gifts from fans. I don't care that they don't match the shirts."
-S.L. Rich

SUSAN LAWRENCE RICH is a freelance writer, a continuation high school teacher and a mom living in Oakdale, California.


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