April 3rd, 2022
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… and so, too, is art interpretation. When we view a work of art, we bring with us our own set of beliefs and our own experiences. This phenomenon is perhaps all the more apparent when viewing the sculptural work of Colorado artist Joe Norman.
Joe Norman‘s steel sculptures are renowned for their juxtaposition of different themes within each piece. His works play with combinations of words and silhouetted forms, encouraging us to more profoundly contemplate the relationship between seemingly opposed ideas. On one side of one of his sculptures, viewers may clearly read the word “LOVE” sculpted vertically in bright red serif font. However, a short walk around the 8 foot sculpture will present viewers with an entirely different perception of the work: the word “FEAR” spelled out in curved steel letters. The clever illusions of these dual message sculptures allow the artist to bewilder our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.
Joe Norman first ideated this sculptural motif when he was considering for himself how seemingly opposite concepts were not as contradictory as they at first appeared to be. Joe Norman explains, “I think it started with this idea that there are things in my mind that I thought were mutually exclusive, like love and fear, for example. I thought that you either have one or the other, but the more I talked to folks about it, the more I was around art, and the more I evolved as a human, the more I began to realize that that was not necessarily true.” In fact, Norman began to discover how these seemingly opposed ideas were more like flip sides of the same coin. He began exploring how other messages and ideas of seeming conflict actually informed one another. What is the relationship between faith and doubt, truth and story, peace and chaos? These are the questions that Joe Norman’s word sculptures ask us to consider.
For instance, in his work, “Truth/Story,” Norman examines the relationship between fact and fiction as well as the role that storytelling plays in finding and exposing truths. “To convey the truth, we tell stories,” Norman elaborates, “There is a reason that we go to the movies. It’s because there’s some kind of truth behind the stories we tell.”
Viewers are always free to interpret and derive their own meaning from works of art. However, over the years, Joe Norman has learned to be incredibly careful and deliberate about which concepts he chooses to marry together in steel to ensure that the ideas he sends out into the world more closely align with his own intentions.
The importance of this became glaringly, almost comically apparent for him in 2009 when he displayed a new piece at two different shows back to back. The work he created was based off of a religious icon, redesigned to be made out of bullet casings. When he showed this work at a religious art show in Springville, Utah, someone came up to him after the show and said, “you’re right, religion is our weapon against evil.” He remembers being a little startled and taken aback by this interpretation of the work, responding “whoa, that’s not really where I was going, but thank you for the input.” A few months later, he showed the work again at a different show in Salt Lake City. Once again, someone came up to him after the show and, this time, said to him, “you’re right, religion is the cause of all wars.” Norman was shocked to discover how the context of the work created two entirely different and contradictory interpretations of the work, neither of which he himself fully intended or even agreed with. He recollects, “that experience really highlighted for me that I have a responsibility to be a little more judicious about the things that I combine.”
Now, Joe Norman takes his dual message works to new levels, stepping beyond his word art to include meaningful silhouetted forms. On one side of one of his sculptures, viewers can see the silhouette of a young girl, running freely through a field. On the other side, the silhouette of a hawk takes flight. These silhouette sculptures often show how the human experience and the natural world intersect.
“I’m inspired to build work that can sit in people’s brains and make them consider how to balance our lives with the wildlife around us.”
– Joe Norman
While many of the ideas behind Norman’s sculptures are composed in the studio by the artist himself, many are also informed by their location. For example, Norman recently finished a series of works at a school in Steamboat, Colorado near where Sandhill Cranes happen to nest. “I try to find an environment where people are intersecting with nature,” he explains. For this site specific work, he spent much of his time listening to the community where the work would reside, trying to better discover what natural element was important to the people who lived there. He wanted to know what the people most identified with when it came to the natural world around them. For this particular community, it was the nearby nesting site that most influenced their relationship with nature, so in his sculptures, he shows children playing on one side while Sandhill Cranes emerge from their nests on the other. Learning from communities, he is inspired to build works that would “sit in people’s brains and make them consider how to balance our lives with wildlife around us.” “I want to work on projects that help people be better humans, however that gets interpreted,” Norman says.
In another series of works, Norman combines the forms of coyotes howling with jazz players performing. For this installation, Norman’s collectors did not have a specific sculpture in mind but knew only that they loved Joe Norman‘s work. This flexibility allowed him to run with whatever idea inspired him most for that particular site. Norman decided on combining coyotes and jazz musicians after considering how these human and natural worlds continue to collide. “It’s another metaphorical level,” Norman explains, “the coyotes are this migratory species that live almost anywhere, but especially in that area of Arizona where the installation will be. I liked the idea of these animals that are migrating through this landscape alongside people moving in and out of the landscape. Some people love coyotes and some people hate them, just like people’s attitude towards jazz music varied widely back in the day. Some people thought it was horrible nonsense and some people loved it. Plus the coyotes had to be very adaptable to the environment, and jazz is all about improvisation, so I liked thinking about the ties between these two things. It’s a great example of a piece that just evolved from a conversation with a collector. I don’t think I could’ve come up with the concept on my own in the studio without that inspiration and collaboration.”
At Gallery MAR, we’re thrilled to have found homes for many of Joe Norman’s sculptures both indoors and outdoors. While his works make for stunning, show-stopping statement pieces in our collector’s homes, they also have the versatility of being able to be installed on and around our collector’s properties, further demonstrating our connection with the landscape.
Occasionally, Joe Norman will work with bronze as his medium, especially on a smaller scale, but for his large-scale outdoor installations, he gravitates towards using stainless steel to help him better communicate his large scale, impressive visions. This media allows for true weather resiliency. “Stainless steel works well in ocean environments, in the heat of Arizona, in the cold of Minnesota, and anywhere else it’s placed. It has such resiliency outdoors and it’s pretty versatile,” the artist explains, “plus it’s going to be around in a thousand years, so it’s a great material to work with.” Using stainless steel for his sculptures allows Norman’s work to last the test of time and inspire and promote deep contemplation for generations to come.
Regardless of his chosen sculptural media, Joe Norman has always gravitated towards sculptural work. “I’ve always loved making things with my hands,” Norman says. From an early age, he appreciated the physicality of sculpture creation and found that “working in three dimensions was really fulfilling.” Even as a boy, Norman knew that he wanted to be an artist. Growing up in Texas, however, he was met early on with some familial and cultural pressures that encouraged him to reconsider what was widely believed to be an unrealistic career choice. He laughs now to remember how childhood innocence guided him towards a compromise: he would become a detective by day and an artist by night.
As he grew up, his Hardy Boys-inspired solution gave way to a new dream: he would become an engineer who created art in his spare time. At Stanford University, Norman earned a degree in Product Design within the School of Engineering. This allowed him to work with his hands, while still using an artists’ sense for creative problem solving. After years of working in this field, Norman found other career paths that allowed him to use his degree while still making art. He did everything from designing and rehabilitating vintage motorcycles to teaching middle school science, math, and art classes. Eventually. Norman was in a position to make art his full-time occupation – the full-circle realization of his childhood dream.
One aspect of sculptural art that Norman always admired was its comparative rarity to other, more two-dimensional forms of art creation. “There just weren’t as many people making sculpture,” Norman says. Part of that he attributes to the greater investment in space and tools that sculptural art requires. A painter can work on their craft in the spare room of their home if necessary, but that kind of convenience is not as feasible for a sculpture artist. Instead, in order to create the large-scale sculptures that Norman wanted to make, he needed to find a large enough studio space as well as many different, less-available sculptural resources.
“I want to work on projects that help people be better humans.”
– Joe Norman
At the time that he transitioned to full-time art making, Norman was living in Salt Lake City. Fortunately for him, the Southwest Temple area of the city had not yet undergone its housing boom, and was instead, considered more of a somewhat vacant industrial area. He was able to find a great, affordable warehouse space to transform into his studio. In this large, avant-garde warehouse space, Joe Norman could finally turn his large-scale sculptural dreams into a reality in an affordable, convenient way. “That wasn’t planned,” he remembers, “that was just fortuitous. I was in the right place at the right time.”
This space was made all the more inspirational by his studio neighbors. In the warehouse next to Norman, artists were making vehicles for Burning Man, transforming dump trucks into flaming, moving machines of artistry and power, like “a gigantic praying mantis that would shoot flames out of its head.” In another warehouse, there were muralists working on building-sized paintings. “It was this weird punk underground scene,” Norman says. Within this creative environment, Norman found wild inspiration. “I learned a lot of things that I might not have otherwise,” Norman says, “there was definitely some cross pollination happening.” These early inspirations still influence Joe Norman‘s work, even after his move to Loveland, Colorado where he now resides.
Fortunately for us here at Gallery MAR, we were lucky enough to discover the work of Joe Norman long ago and are proud to have represented the artist for over 12 years now. In fact, Joe Norman is one of our longest-represented artists, having joined our Gallery MAR team only a few years after Maren Mullin first opened the gallery. “The professionalism at Gallery MAR is over the top,” Norman says, “it’s really nice to see how the gallery is able to have one foot in each world: understanding how the creative process works with their artists and the value of that as well as understanding the value of professionalism on the gallery end.”
Now, Joe Norman boasts an impressive body of work, which we’re excited to display throughout the gallery. With sculptural work however, sometimes it can be challenging to showcase the wide range of possibilities when so many of the works are either site specific or else reside permanently in their new homes across the country. So, in our latest lookbook, we feature the dynamic installations of Joe Norman’s sculptures. We’ve included a few pages from the latest book throughout our blog. Stop by the gallery to see the complete Joe Norman book, and we’ll show you how we can transform your space into one of beautiful, thought-provoking inspiration.
We would like to extend a special thank you to Joe Norman for his time and insights.
Written by Veronica Vale