Back in July I introduced you norton, a local sculptor that revealed his son had been kidnapped shortly into our first conversation. That loss and the frantic desire to get him back seeped through every action in his personal and artistic life, so that any question I asked inevitebly led him back to Kit. After publishing part one I left everyone at a cliffhanger and took a break from the piece, holding back the ending because I didn't feel like I had anything worth saying yet.
I let it sit, feeling guilty and half hoping half trusting that something would materialize to tie it all together. But with no more questions to ask or work to photograph I seriously questioned whether I was self sabotaging or not. Then like life often happens, I realized it was in front of me the whole time.
norton's Instagram feed is fascinating. I have been watching him work maniacly absurd hours on his largest piece yet, posting daily updates, and promising the ether that he will work harder, longer, whatever it takes to finish on a deadline that exists only in his heart. His process is intense, carving tiny details into massive sheets of plexiglass inch by inch. He works full time on this after a full day of work, and seems to express his exhaustion through the antics of his studio dog HeiHei.
They left for a country getaway last weekend citing "burnout" (no kidding), and I had my little flash of insight realizing that I needed to hilight his work in progress. So norton, thank you for your tireless persuit, hopefully this little nudge of appreciation will keep you going strong.
I hope you all are enjoying these long form posts, it sure is nice for me to dig deep into a story. But for those of you who like to know where things are going I'm going to:
- Showcase norton's Instagram feed
- Present the last of our Q&A
- Give you the ending to the search for his son
Here is one of his many videos showing off the fine process of carving with a rotary tool.
When norton's in the studio you can bet he'll be updating everyone on his progress, like with this panel that's nearing completion after many hours of carving.
I really love these small carvings he's been experimenting with too. It's nice to see lots of different ideas being worked on related to the same idea.
B: Since you’re one of the original residents of the neighborhood, will you tell me a bit about what Bushwick was like when you first set up studio? How do you feel about the massive art scene that's grown from humble beginnings?
n: Which happened to Bushwick is just what happened to every neighborhood I've lived in since I first moved to Tribeca and there were only a couple hundred people living there. Same for Soho, Chelsea, Williamsburg. It's the natural growth of how the city expands out to where the artists thrive and live. Artists always pioneer the fringe, then the developers come in. It's safe for the nerds now. I love the fact that the community is being recognized, galleries are building and thriving while still exhibiting local talent.
When I first moved into Bushwick 10 years ago it was still on the edge of dangerous. You had to be cautious where you walked in the evening. There were much more muggings, robberies and harassments daily and nightly. It was not safe for pretty women to walk the two blocks from the subway to my home. But that is the way it's been for every neighborhood that I have lived in New York.
I like the fact that the neighborhood has grown to actually accept and accommodate the artists who live here. The galleries which are doing well often show local artists. We have Bushwick open studios. There's a local art scene that is influencing the rest of the art world. Brooklyn is a brand, Bushwick is a hipper brand.
B: HeiHei is obviously a treasure to you. How did you find him?
n: The pets I've owned have been adopted and both dogs I received the same way. My first dog down in Texas was named George, named after George of the Jungle. I had been working for the ASPCA for well over a year and could not find a dog that I wanted until my coworker called me on my day off and said he was the one. They were right, George was the dog for me. The same thing happened with the HeiHei dog. I have lived here for 30 years. I did not want a dog, they require too much from their owner living here in the city. But a dear friend called and said that my dog was waiting for me in Union Square at an ASPCA dog giveaway. Again they were right. I got very very lucky with this guy. Every day HeiHei teaches me about love, compassion and hope.
B: I find a really interesting parallel between your colleagues that led you to your dogs and the woman who led you to your son. Obviously you were putting a ton of longing and emotional energy out into the world and it was reflected back to you. How did you manage to resonate so intensely with others that they could be your eyes in places where you couldn't be?
n: Regarding my son that was due to years of fruitless labor, yet constant discussion by me. I had already checked with detectives, police, the Center for Missing Children and had been educated in the fact that they were going to be impossible to find. There was no trail, and anybody that could help refused to do so. He was in a closed "religious" Community with an underground railroad. So they were just gone. The most I could do was talk about it to everybody I saw. Which I did, it was an open wound that would not heal. Like I said I was off the rails for about three years. I lived on about three hours of sleep a night, and 2 to 3 hours of beating up the punching bag every day. I was an intense mess, people had to listen. I was annoying, boring, no fun to be around. But people understood.
n: Regarding my luck with for the 4 legged companions. That's more about how people get to know me, recognize who I am, and try to find somebody basically comedic, calm, sweet. A self-portrait on four legs. Except for the calm part.
B: The teddy bear looking over your studio kept reminding me of the many times you picked yourself and your art practice up after life set you back. What has holding on to that object represented for you?
n: When looking at my son's teddy bear it always brings me back to the 10 years I lived in constant fear for his life. Because I never knew whether he was alive or dead, in a shallow grave somewhere, or just living with a really crazy woman who would be distorting his life beyond recognition. Unfortunately he did have his life distorted so much. It also makes me realize that the most unbelievable coincidences can happen in life. And that the most amazingly good things can turn out to have harmful repercussions. My heart and soul were healed in finding him. But my life was destroyed.
B: Over time your pieces have evolved from three dimensional organic sculptures to flat painted acrylic, eventually becoming concave as you now carve away material to get the image you want. What prompted this removal of so many layers and materials in your process?
n: Clarity. I also left behind pure abstraction as I found it becoming emotionally unavailable for me. I am always looking for a straightforward and honest way to connect with my audience. Drawing is a very straightforward, non-hyperbolic means of expression.
B: As an art handler at the Whitney Museum and long time maker in the art community I imagine you've been influenced by exhibitions and performances of all kinds. What show stands out the most for you?
n: Everything that I've been influenced by actually happened many many many years ago. I'm not too intrigued by what's going on around me currently. I'm still more influenced by my time spent in Japan, and my time crawling through ruins in Turkey.
B: Which artists inspire you lately?
n: None actually. This is not ego, I just know what I want to do. I recognize that there are so many artists already better than me, more talented than me, on paths that are so different from mine. But I just want to make my own work.
When norton and I arrived at his home studio one of the first things he did was pull out a battered copy of Reader's Digest citing that his story was once "beside every toilet in America". He kept it together in a Ziploc bag because the spine had split where he'd opened it so many times. Here's the rest of his story:
It took until December 17, 2000 for the FBI to finally pick my son up, partly due to Cynthia and Kit having recently moved to another Mennonite community in Goshen, Indiana. It took until the new year for me to get my son transferred back to Pennsylvania where this nightmare originated. I finally got to see Kit (now going by the name of Carl, which I have agreed to continue using, especially as it is my father's and what i had originally wanted to name him) in the offices of the court appointed shrinks. He was scared as he had been raised to believe I was going to murder him if I ever found him. We then went into re-integration at the Rachel Foundation for a month to get to know each other again in a safe and controlled environment. Within 10 days, mostly due to his amazing courage and incredible memory of our times together when he was younger, he called me his dad for the first time in a decade.
We then moved back to Brooklyn, into my loft and have renewed our life together happily. Unfortunately neither his mother or her community have ever attempted to deal with the reality and truth of the situation. She even got her church to thereaten her family with lawsuits if they tried to see Carl. Ridiculous, as the courts awarded me full custody after a very brutal year of legal battles. Her church has been paying for incredibly high-priced lawyers, sending me $130,000 in debt, yet they don't care to talk with me or even listen to Carl.
However Carl and I live happily together here in the city and my soul is finally able to experience a full range of emotions for the first time in a decade. His mother has some visitation rights and he sees her on alternate weekends, something he wants and therefore something I will no longer fight. he loves his mom, even though he knows she is wrong in all of this and has caused him incredible anguish by accusing him of being a traitor.
All due to the teddy bear and my big mouth at least he is home again and is finally getting to know his grandparents and cousins. People he did not even know existed.
I'm so happy that I got to share this story with all of you because it really puts norton's work in context. There is a deep need to labor on in his art, and now you know why. Follow him on Instagram and you'll see what I'm talking about.
This week Angel and I are in Montreal, our city of love and cafe breakfasts. Can't wait to show you what I photograph there. Subscribe and you'll get it straight to your inbox.
Thanks for all your love and support,