Art Norby paints a skyscape, which will eventually become split into several puzzle pieces. He
The original idea was to do a painted chicken, but some people didn’t like that so they formed a committee and came up with the idea of doing painted guitars. “We found 19 artists and 19 underused and unloved guitars that we put in their hands. That’s why we called in the guitar challenge,” said Art Norby of New London, who is well known in the art field. “If you want to see a real challenge take a guitar that has the strings missing or the back falling off and find a way to turn it into a piece of art, and that’s exactly what these guys and gals have done. It’s absolutely wonderful art.”
The artists came from all over the region and the charge to them was “here is a guitar, you do anything you want with it. You can cut it apart, you can make it into toothpicks, and you can use it as the bottom of a chair…just think of it as a fine art project and not just as a little craft project.”
They ended up with everything from just simply painted on guitars to totally restructured pieces of art that are very unique. “I did one and strangely enough mine turned into a piece of sculpture. I don’t know how that happened.”
There are two subjects Norby really like to work with, one is horses and the other is pretty girls. “So I decided I was not going to turn my guitar into a horse, but I did turn it into a pretty girl.”
Norby said his art career has been an interesting journey. “When I think about it I’ve covered a lot of miles. I took a different approach to my career than a typical middle aged man. I was 38 when I started this (painting and sculpting) and as we were discussing earlier, I was at a point in my life where I really needed to be an artist. I had done a number of different things, but I really needed to be an artist and I knew from some of my background that I could only sell so much art to my relatives, friends and neighbors, and that meant that I had to travel so I started traveling with my work.”
His first art was actually at the St. Cloud Boat and Travel Show in 1976. He did the Fiesta Days street show in Montevideo and from there started traveling more and more.
In 1978 he drove 77,000 miles and exhibited 40 weeks out of 52. “That’s not good for anybody’s life or marriage and mine followed that path. So consequently once I decided I was going to travel and go where I needed in order to earn a living as an artist, it became very easy to maintain my mobility.” One month he’d be in Texas and another in Wisconsin.
In 1987 he went back to Seattle where he had lived for several years and where he was in the Navy. He came back in 1990 and ultimately ended up in Arizona where he lived for the next 12 years.
On the professional side, the career path for an artist is maybe a little different than most other careers, Norby said, going on to explain you have to keep going to something new, you have to keep challenging yourself in order to not stagnate. “If you stagnate, then it becomes like back in the 70s when people were collecting wildlife art. We remember saying ‘ya, well his work always looks just like his work always looks, you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’ and people get bored with that.”
Not only do the collectors get bored but the artist gets bored, he said. “So I put myself in the position that if I had an idea I thought was worth pursuing I did it no matter how different it was from anything I had done previously, and perhaps that is why I went from scrimshaw to sculpture because those are two opposite ends of the spectrum, the sculpture being large and the scrimshaw being very minute.”
In the period of 1978-79, when he was developing his roots as an artist, he took a couple of watercolor workshops, decided he really liked the painting but he didn’t like watercolor. “My brain waves just didn’t work well with watercolor.”
He said he’s always drawn, and painting is just a color extension of the drawing and even today a lot of his paintings are monochromatic. “I work with a limited pallet in a pretty rudimentary way, but painting has always been part of it. I’m very color oriented – I like the release and the freedom of doing a painting as compared to a sculpture, which is very structured.”
He has published a book of his paintings, another book of his sculptures, plus a Gateway magazine. “When I left Minnesota, the people that know me know I’m like the character that Bette Midler played in the movie ‘Beaches’ when she turned to her gal friend and said ‘enough about me, let’s talk about what you think about me’, and I’ve been accused of that from time to time.” As an artist, he said, you find that if you don’t talk to others about yourself, your career and your work, the others won’t try to draw you out very much so you learn that whatever you’re marketing you have to talk about it. “I do have this deep down gut need to make art but I also have a need to earn a living and I combine those two.” Norby said he has enjoyed and had the pleasure of making a piece of art, and then it becomes a product. “Another artist doesn’t like to hear another artist say that, but we create products just like farm implement dealers and home builders do, we create a product, we just have a very unique product we put together, so I talk about myself a lot.” He did the two books to kind of document his career because it has been unusual. The one book is called ‘Journey, the Art of Arthur Norby, and it was done kind of to celebrate the successes he has had.
He did a Korean War Memorial, having been chosen out of national competition in 1996. This was a 27 month project for the state of Minnesota. “It kind of helped me to turn the corner or to go up to the next step or next level as an artist because it’s a monumental piece and at that time it was the largest and most expensive art project the state of Minnesota had undertaken.”
The book Norby published shows a collection of his work, but not all of it. It shows the diversity from the humorous pieces, to the western and the traditional works and monumental work, and includes a portrait he did of Earl B. Olson for the Willmar YMCA. “It was a logical thing to do and after an artist has spent 20 some years at the craft and put together a collection of work, it’s not uncommon. It’s unusual in rural America but it’s not uncommon in the overall art world. So this was done to give some validity to my career.”
The other book is called ‘Escaping Flatlands’ and is about his paintings. “I was asked to do an exhibit at the West Valley Art Museum in the Arizona in the early 2000s and we put together this book, which has about a dozen large scale interpretations of my paintings. It has been something people have enjoyed and I guess it shows a diversity of my character.”
Norby was once asked if he keeps a notebook for whenever he has an idea. He does not. “The important thing is recognizing if you have the idea at the right time so you’re mentally prepared to take on a new challenge so the work doesn’t become boring.” If there’s too much repetition it becomes boring, he said.
His sculpture book includes a photo of a young Indian woman wearing a leather deerskin dress. “I have done similar things many times and when I did this figure it was originally a nude, about 18 inches tall. She was very pretty and I looked at it and said ‘this is the most boring nude I have ever done’ and when I dressed her she became a very unique piece of art in my collection and so it helped me to move to another level.”
He also sculpts a lot of horses. His very first horses were in bronze. “My daughter, Kelly Pickle, has three of my very earliest horse pieces,” he said, going on to say he was raised a generation off the farm in Montevideo. My grandfather had horses up into the 1950s so he was around the large draft horses all his life. “There is something just wonderful about horses, so when you look at my horses, no matter what breed I’m interpreting, they tend to be a little more drafty.” They’re just large scale, he said. At one time he was commissioned by the Mayor of Willmar to do a little horse which he brought to Willmar’s sister city in Belgium. “I think we did eight castings of that.” He did those castings on a farm near Clara City. “The farmer turned out his two Belgium mares, it was all muddy and wet and a beautiful summer day and I stood in the middle of the small pasture with those two horses for an afternoon and I created the sculpture right there with those two horses running around me.” He said the horses were about 2000 pounds apiece and feeling the spring for the first time. “There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get run over or what but they treated me well.”
Norby said he does the majority of sculpting work with his hands. He doesn’t use any mechanical tools or any hard edged tools. “The fingers and the thumbs tend to shape the work, and I’m not one that in most cases deals with a lot of fine detail. I like the interpretations. I like the generalities of the horse figure for example where you get the flowing lines. I’m dealing with personality more than anatomy so it was easy for me to stand there with these two horses moving around and just turning.”
He uses the same technique when he’s doing a portrait of a child or somebody’s dog. “You don’t get a dog or a child to sit still very long so whichever part is facing you is the part you work on. It is a good technique that artists should use more often.”
Norby said when he teaches a workshop he warns the students to not fall in love with any one part. “If you have an absolutely beautiful nose and it happens to be too close to the ear, you’re going to end up with a really ugly sculpture, so work on the whole thing and make sure all the pieces fit. Don’t fall in love with one part until you’ve got it all done. That’s the way I approach my work.”
And when Norby sells his sculptures, he doesn’t feel like he’s losing a piece of himself. Many part time artists will do a piece and decide they love it too much to sell it, so they’ll give it to their children or grandchildren. Norby said he needed to earn a living and knew he had to sell his work in order to keep doing what he wanted to do. “I’ve developed an intellectual mechanism that allows me to love the work until it was done and when it was done it was supposed to go to somebody else who loved it just as much as me.” In the first 25 years he never kept a single piece of art. “But I have recently gotten to the point where there are pieces of art that are too important to me emotionally now, and once in a while I’ve sold out an addition.”
In a bronze sculpture, he explained, because of the cost of the production of the sculpture, going from the clay to the bronze, the cost is pretty high and in order to balance out your income you can do additional castings. “I’ve gotten now where I come to the end of an addition, where it’s the eighth casting and that’s the last one, I say that one can’t be bought.” He has given sculptures to his children and grandchildren recently, as well as some of the paintings. “Once in a while there is something where you say ‘I would like to keep that in the family’ and I no longer am scrambling for the money quite like I was 30 years ago.”
Norby is still represented in a gallery in Arizona called Wild Holly Gallery. “When I lived in Arizona I had an art gallery in three different locations the 12 years I was there. When she found out I was retiring from the gallery business she asked to represent me. She’s my only Arizona contact.