by Dennis Herrick
The artist who provided and gave permission for the image on the cover of Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America was the world famous sculptor and painter John Sherrill Houser. I greatly regret that he never got to see his artwork on the book's cover. He died on January 10, 2018.
In my 2015 interview with Houser at the studio he had then in Madrid, New Mexico, Houser expressed interest in my upcoming biography about Esteban because he'd been wanting to create a sculpture of Esteban. The African had walked within a hundred miles or so south of El Paso, Texas, and Houser was working on a series of sculptures of historical figures who passed through or near El Paso.
Houser told how he'd gone to Morocco a few years before to look for the best ethnic model for a sculpture of Esteban.
After several days, he finally realized he'd found the model he'd been seeking when one of the blue men of the Sahara, as they’re known, rode by on a camel. The rider wore the loose, blue-dyed clothing and turban that was traditional garb of some Berber people of Morocco.
The camel rider was a young man named Lachel Eldassi. He’d never modeled before, but he agreed to pose for Houser to create a clay bust that could be cast in bronze. Eldassi was a Berber, as many believe Esteban probably was, and he was about the same age that Esteban had been on a cross-continent trek with three Spaniards south of today’s El Paso in 1534. Eldassi even had an ancient Portuguese trade bead strung around his neck. Enhancing Houser’s discovery was that Eldassi modeled for him in Azemmour, Esteban’s presumed birthplace or at least childhood home.
For the next several months until his death at 82, Houser kept in touch with me about the biography's progress. Houser took the photograph of the bronze bust that resulted from his sessions with Eldassi, sending the photo with permission to use it in this book. Back then we didn't know if the bust's picture would be used, but University of New Mexico Press would eventually decide tio place it on the biography's cover and include an appendix in the book honoring the artist.
John Sherrill Houser was a soft-spoken and friendly man with a lifetime of creating sculptures and paintings that were exhibited in museums and public spaces throughout the United States and Europe. My wife Beatrice took this article's accompanying photo of him during more than an hour, maybe two, that he generously spent with us.
A mark of his generosity is that he donated the Esteban bust to a community center in an African American neighborhood of El Paso, where it has beem valued and displayed ever since.