Self-taught New London artist, author always tried to be ‘the most that I was capable of being’
His name defines his craft. Art.
Art Norby poses in a park on the southwest side of Green Lake in Spicer with one of his sculptures. Photo by Scott Thoma
For the past 45 years, Art Norby has showcased his skills as a nationally recognized sculptor, artist and author. And even at age 81, the Minnesota native, who was born on Christmas Day in 1937, is not about to slow down.
“I love what I do,” he said. “It’s all self-taught. I didn’t go to school for any of it, and no one taught it to me.”
Norby has created over 600 sculptures that he estimates now sit in 3,000-5,000 homes in the United States and other countries.
One of his most recognizable pieces of work would likely be the Minnesota Korean War Veterans Memorial that stands proudly at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
“That’s probably the most important piece I’ve done,” said the articulate and personable widower (his wife Kathryn succumbed to cancer 2 1/2 years ago) who has residences in New London and Chandler, Ariz. “But to ask me what my favorite piece is that I’ve ever done is like asking me which is my favorite child.”
Because of the time and effort spent on each sculpture, painting, or book he’s written, the finished products are equally valued to Norby.
Norby has come a long way from a humble beginning.
“The first home I lived in was a tar paper shack with no utilities just outside of Montevideo,” he said. “And then we lived in an old boxcar when I was 3 or 4 years old.”
Even before he was in kindergarten, though, Norby had an affection for drawing and putting things together.
“No one encouraged me to get involved in art when I was young,” he insisted. “I did it just to keep busy.”
All through school, Norby was an average student, he said, mainly because he “spent more time drawing pictures than taking notes.”
As a teenager, Norby came across a popular ad in which wanna-be artists were asked “Can You Draw This?” This particular ad featured a “Gibson Girl,” a familiar female image created by Charles Gibson considered to typify the fashionable ideal of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
“My goal as a late teenager was to be an architectural draftsman,” said Norby, who graduated from Litchfield High School. “But I joined the Navy instead.”
After 10 years in the U.S. Navy, Norby left when the position he had been trained for was dissolved.
After selling insurance for a short time and dabbling in some other occupations, Norby decided to fall back on his passion and give his love of the arts a chance to become his livelihood.
“After some failed business ventures, in 1976 I gave myself one year to make something out of my art,” he said. “I took full responsibility of my life.”
And Norby dominated his personal challenge.
“I’ve committed a big part of my life to my art,” he said. “A lot of times I haven’t been successful, but I would rather have failed by reaching beyond my ability, than not reached at all. It’s not how often you get knocked down that counts, but it’s about how many times you get back up. And I’ve been knocked down a lot.”
In his studio, Norby works on his sculpture of Arizona farmer and businessman Larkin Fitch, who was instrumental in developing the irrigation systems that still exist in that state. Fitch’s grandchildren commissioned Norby to sculpt their grandfather’s likeness and the statue was dedicated on 2002. Contributed photo
Besides Montevideo, Norby has also lived in several other Minnesota locations, including Granite Falls, Litchfield, Willmar, Spicer, New London, West St. Paul, Bloomington and Richfield. And he has lived at one time or another in Arizona, Washington, Montana and Colorado.
Norby got his big artistic break 23 years ago in his home state.
While Norby currently has 24 public statues across the country, it is the Minnesota Korean War Memorial that stands out above all others.
In 1996, the state of Minnesota decided to put up a memorial to Korean War veterans. Norby was one of seven teams chosen to create a design.
“I didn’t want anything melancholy or morbid,” Norby explained. “It had to be a very positive thing.”
Norby’s impressive design was selected to be created for the people of Minnesota.
An 18-foot column features a cutout of a soldier with tapered end panels that are sculpted depictions of the elements of war. An 8-foot tall bronze soldier in full battle gear is shown walking toward the column on a path that leads directly to the gold dome of the state Capitol.
“That statue represents those who served in Korea, and the soldier and the cutout represent the soldier’s missing companion that he is looking for,” Norby explained. “It took 27 months to finish.”
Norby also has four of his statues in a park on the southwest side of Green Lake in Spicer. The statues feature children in various playful activities. Two girls under an umbrella are actually the daughters of Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, who commissioned Norby to sculpt his daughters in 1999.
Johnson finished his stellar career with the Arizona Diamondbacks and still lives in Arizona, where Norby lives part of the time.
“I met the family and got a photo of the children,” Norby said. “He has the original at his home, and Spicer now has an exact casting.”
Another of Norby’s statues that has been well viewed in Minnesota is nestled in a park in Windom that is located in the city’s business district. That statue is of Larry Buhler, a Windom native who went on to become an All-American with the Minnesota Gophers and a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1939. Buhler’s career was cut short following an automobile accident and he returned to Windom. Because of Norby’s positive reputation, the town hired him to sculpt the statue. It was dedicated in 1993 and sits on the grounds of the Cottonwood County Courthouse.
Although widely known as a sculptor with over 600 sculptures in public and private collections across the United States, as well as Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Mexico, Canada and Caracao, Norby has also been an accomplished oil painter over the last 25 years.
“I’ve been fascinated with clouds since I was 10 years old,” said Norby as he pages through his autobiography The Artist You Never Knew that he recently had published. “I do clouds with balance, color and composition better than anyone I know.”
Norby working on a portion of his Korean War sculpture that stands outside the State Capitol in St. Paul. Contributed photo
Even the cover of his book is splashed with colorful clouds that immediately capture attention. Norby’s first published work was a 120-page hard cover format book in 2002 called Journey: The Art of Art Norby. That book features over 80 of Norby’s sculptures. Included is the Minnesota Korean War Veterans Memorial, a heroic-scale bronze of Arizona Sen. Ernest McFarland, and even a bust of Earl B. Olson, the founder of Jennie-O Foods in Willmar.
A few years ago, Norby published a mystery novel set in Minnesota in 1938 entitled The Deadly Winter, and this year, published his second mystery novel called The Legend of Maximillian Bauer.
He is currently on a book tour with his two recent published works.
“My time making sculptures and paintings gave me the mindset to do creative writing,” he explained.
Norby admits his career is based on his sculptures, but he got to a point where he needed a breather from sculpting and that led to his other talents as a painter and author.
Norby is not always satisfied with the work he has done.
“Have I had a fascinating life? Yes. Have I had a successful life? Yes. But I think any creative person is hard on themselves,” said Norby, who has mentored over 150 artists. “You think every piece you are working on is your best work, but then sometimes you look back when you’re done and are never satisfied.”
And how would Norby like to be remembered?
“The last thing I’d say about myself is that I’ve always tried to be the most that I was capable of being,” he responded.