Vera Falenko, Contributing Editor
Featured Artist Interview:
Norton is best known for her layered mixed media oil paintings. Inspired by expressionism including the “combines” of Rauschenberg and the raw figurative paintings of Schiele, Norton experiments with translucent paint layers, color and mixed media to expose life and its always changing expression. Deborah Norton is O:JA&L’s “Featured Artist” for March 2019.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Let’s begin at the beginning. What can you tell us about yourself?
Norton: I grew up in the forgotten island of New York City, Staten Island, as the middle child in a middle class family. Dad was a police officer with police officer communication and Mom stayed at home with us kids. At the time a city job with benefits and a 401K plan was a pretty popular idea, so my envisioned life as an artist was slightly confusing to all of us and I would comfortably say that my parents were hesitant supporters, always applauding an artistic victory while keeping their fingers tightly crossed.
I was introduced to figure drawing through my high school art class. Our models were the kids in class that wanted to draw the least. Not the best models, but we had a live body wardrobed in Jordache and Sergio Valente 1980’s fashion.
After high school, I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and studied Fashion Illustration for two years, where figure and life drawing were the focal points of the Fashion Illustration major. There were many different teaching styles, some of which my youthful self couldn’t quite appreciate at the time.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Now that you have seen more and done more, both personally and professionally, which among these early experiences can you better appreciate now?
Norton: “What are you doing?” was the reaction of my instructor to my figure drawing the first day of class at my new college, the Fashion Institute of Technology, circa 1985. Slightly more than startled, I continued art instruction for years, including courses with the “what are you doing” instructor, who was clearly offended by my high school art genius.
Falenko for O:JA&L: The reaction from the figure drawing instructor, whatever his motives, would have been pretty disorienting and unpleasant for any callow college freshman. Surely your other instructors were at least a little less pugnacious than this one, a little more memorable for better reasons.
Norton: One instructor I recall had all the students bring a roll of craft paper to class and spread it out on the floor so that we could draw the continuous movement of the dancing model. I was really never the student early to class, you could usually find me in the hall eating the popular oversized lemon poppy seed muffins until the last second. Being late to a class that you had to spread a roll of craft paper out alongside your fellow students could be compared today to going to a yoga class, late, after everyone has already established their personal space, lying on their yoga mats. Not Namaste. Many years later I would understand the concept of expressing the energy and experience on canvas that this instructor was trying to relay to us in her “craft paper class.”
My instructor, Mr. Pimsler, was an elegant well dressed man with his white hair neatly parted to the side. As contained as he appeared and presented himself, the influence of his teachings were the opposite. He inspired me to use bold, strong, dark and free strokes combined with color, and is probably the most visibly recognizable style carried over into my work to date.
Dessa, the instructor strong and powerful enough to have never revealed a last name, didn’t hold back an opinion or thought. As an instructor, she gave me a glimpse of life as a successful female artist, by bringing us students to the Manhattan gallery that was preparing her upcoming art exhibit. Her oversized colorful pastel paintings not only dwarfed us in size but would be the first personal image of a successful artist that I catalogued in my mind.
After two years of study in Fashion Illustration, I made the choice to change my major to Advertising Design. At the time photography was replacing Illustration and I thought it would be a safer career choice. Following college I started a career in Graphic Design and continued for many years before circling back to fine art and oil painting.
Falenko for O:JA&L:
Let’s talk more about that pause and temporary departure from a career in the fine arts. The fact that you managed to find a way back will be encouraging to many artists whose temperaments and creative urges are frustrated by the ordinary burdens of day-to-day existence. What are you willing to share about that journey away from and then back to the pursuit of beauty, both for its own sake and for the benefits it bestows on both the producer and the beholder?
Norton: In my late twenties, my career as a graphic designer was booming. I was creating direct mail pieces for a company which I’m pretty sure was on the verge of being shut down by the government for some type of fraudulent activity. Although oil painting was not a big part of my studies at FIT, I had an overwhelming desire to start oil painting. At my work desk I literally had my head in my hands willing a lay-off for myself so that I could paint full time. Dreams do come true, I was soon laid-off and there began my art career.
Falenko for O:JA&L: For many people, such a radical break from predictable routines, from the comforting orthodoxy of work (and its regular pay periods) would be daunting. How did you approach it? What were the first steps?
Norton: I used my European travels as inspiration for my first series of impressionist palette knife paintings and after a few sales, I had my first art exhibit. The last painting to hang would still have wet paint and this time I would be the one with fingers crossed tightly, hoping that no one would smear the painting.
At thirty, I moved to San Diego and set up studio in my secondary bedroom. I was having some smaller shows and sales of my palette knife paintings when a friend suggested I move my studio into the living room and paint “Big.” There started my large scale painting. I cleared the living room and spread large rolls of canvas on the walls and began to paint my recently photographed horse race series. As I started painting these large canvases with the palette knife, it broke, so I continued spreading paint with my hands. That palette knife breaking dramatically changed the way I painted, forever, leading me to a more expressionist style.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Was success long in coming?
Norton: With my enhanced painting style I was being recognized and represented in beautiful commercial galleries in solo and group exhibits. I had work internationally published by Winn Devon, a popular publisher at the time. I recall, during an interview, being asked if I thought being published was going to change the course of my art career. My response was a humble “yes” but in my mind I had the image of me soon to be sitting at an outdoor café in Paris, wearing a beret and elegantly smoking a cigarette while talking art with my absurdly creative artist peers…
Falenko for O:JA&L: Being laid off, the move to San Diego, the transition to larger canvases, the broken palette knife– what other influences shaped your style and focus, your technique, your choice of subjects?
Norton: Along the way there have been events and experiences that have shaped my ever-changing thoughts and painting style. My youth was a balance of police authoritarianism and Protestant ideology, the combination of Mom’s yin and Dad’s yang. As an adult free to form my own thoughts and ideas, there are a few moments that step forward in my mind. I was part of the design and installation team at the San Diego Museum of Art, where I was attracted to the eastern art, loaded with religious context, an interesting subject of debate for me. The imagery of lambs is referenced a lot in religion and I wanted to incorporate that into my paintings somehow. Eventually, I traveled to New Zealand and my series “The Individual” began. Three things surprised me in the small town on the south island of New Zealand.
First, male chauvinism exists, by way of what a man’s job is and what a woman’s job is.
Second, sheep scatter at the slightest movement which makes it very difficult to photograph them.
Third, Caryl Douglas. The image I recall was of a blonde woman on a tractor wearing bright red lipstick and a matching bikini. That could be totally inaccurate, but that’s the image imprinted in my mind. Caryl had a flock of sheep that could be called like you would call a dog, and that’s where I photographed the sheep for my series. After visiting a New Zealand museum exhibition for Pre-Renaissance Romanticism, I decided to create sheep portraits referencing the seemingly forlorn portraits of women from the exhibit. At the time that I began painting this series, the years post-9/11, the US conversation circled strongly on ethnicity, which for me identified with the individuality of these sheep, opposing that conversation.
Another experience that I was fortunate to have, was to be selected to assist visiting Buddhist monks in constructing a 3-D mandala. After it was completed, the monks continued creating a sand mandala on their hands and knees, intricately placing sand for a week. The interesting part of the experience was at the end of the backbreaking week there was a ceremony in which the creators gently swept their sand mandala creation away, with no angst. Again, this would also be an image catalogued in my mind. Using a palette knife to paint, for me, was systematic and planned. By placing the selected colors next to each other I could achieve my desired result. Currently as I paint with layers of thin paint, I start with a plan knowing that some things are going to be visually gone and get covered up by a new layer of paint, reminding me of the sand mandala and their ease of letting go.
I also loosely remember a conversation with the curator of Modern Art, during an installation, while we were viewing a monotone pink painting. He asked me what I thought about the piece and although I would have loved to have some great commentary, my response was “I don’t get it”. He said to me, “what you are looking at is one painting resulting from a lifetime of work and to fully understand how the artist arrived to create this piece, you need to be familiar with all their work.” As I shift from my own series of paintings and am freely inspired to grow artistically, I often think back to this conversation.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Such life experience helps shape us all. I’m sure everyone reading this will attest to that. Beyond that, to whom do you look, to what other artists, for inspiration? for models? for theoretical or technical authority?
Norton: At some point the work of Rauschenberg came on my radar. His layered combines inspired me to start layering material and images into my paintings, which can first be seen in my Bullfight series. An opportunity to see the Tijuana bullfights came about with the odd trifecta of a Mexican tennis pro, a Japanese photographer and me, the painter.
The tennis pro viewed the bullfights with shouts of encouragement and tequila, similar to how we view football with shouts of encouragement and beer. In this series I experimented with primed and unprimed canvas, letting some of the paints and inks soak in and some sit on top of the canvas.
There is also newsprint along with cave paintings layered in, representing the similar consistent movements between man and animal starting from the earliest times.
The figurative work of Egon Schiele , Ralph Steadman, and Manuel Neri have also influenced me as an artist by way of their bold and minimal lines along with their unapologetic subjects.
Currently I am drawn to the Color field paintings of Diebenkorns’ Ocean Park series and Rothko. The series of paintings I am working on now leans toward the idea of the viewer using less visual thinking. In this series I am interested in expressing the most with the least content, focusing mostly on color and unrecognizable shape.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Are you a disciplined creator? Do you find comfort in regular studio hours and routines?
Norton: I made a shift into Interior Design during our most recent economy hiccup. Interior Design was not the safest occupation to move into from painting, but it was doing better than the art world, where I watched the galleries housing my art close one by one. I am still currently working in Interior Design and as before, have the calling to return to painting and to breathe again. My studio schedule varies, mostly with early morning starts and weekends. I find inspiration everywhere, in the feel of the weather, smell, nature, music, fashion, color, people, sound, shape, art, artists and actors. I am inspired by authenticity when I am with it or witness it. Shifting from palette knife painting to large scale hand painting was not only a visual shift in my art, it was an energetic shift. It’s an attractive concept to me that you not only view my work but you feel it internally. So, it inspires me when I experience that through someone or something else. I paint with oil paints and sometimes add in inks, pencil, pastel, newsprint and gold leaf.
Usually I start with a conte drawing to layout the idea and then start layering in color. I also like to experiment with different paint surfaces. Smooth board is a great hard surface I really enjoy working on. I like using primed and unprimed canvas along with vellum which gives a slick foggy transparency to paint on. I usually create series of paintings versus just one. For me, one painting doesn’t tell enough of the story. My stories start with an idea, sometimes taking years to pull together. The subjects I paint aren’t necessarily the focal point of my paintings, and I understand that’s an odd thing to say because if you’re looking at a painting of a sheep then that’s what you’re looking at. Even though the sheep were purposeful, they were also just the subject I used to express what was happening in my life in relation to the world.
Currently I am working on a few series. The first is titled “CREATING SPACE,” inspired by color field paintings and based on a collection of my photo’s containing skyward blossoms. The paintings have thinly layered paint creating a worn, weathered ethereal look. The second series is titled “TWEETERS,” also taking inspiration from color field paintings and giving a nod to our current political environment, referencing pigeon imagery.
Falenko for O:JA&L: We look forward to seeing more of these new pieces. Where can our audience for this interview find and follow your work?
Norton: My full collection can be seen and purchased through my website. I am excited this year to seek new representation in a gallery setting.
About the interviewer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). She is a senior teacher of foreign languages at Alibra School, a private institution in Moscow. Falenko is an O:JA&L Contributing Editor for Arts & Letters of Moscow. She also provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.
Images: All images courtesy of the artist.