Imagine that you are the professor of Welded Steel Sculpture at Columbia University, and your art career is just starting to take off. You have stability, a family, and a bright future ahead. Suddenly, your wife accuses you of molestation and requires you to undergo a litany of tests and legal battles. The police clear you of charges, but when she can't convince her own doctor of your guilt she kidnaps your 4 year old son and retreats into an underground cult. How long would you look for him? How long could you keep it together?
This is the incredible true story that local artist norton told me over two hours as I photographed his work and studio. When we connected through my post on Bushwick Open Studios I had no idea what I was in for. But slowly as I asked about his art, he revealed the story of losing his son and the struggle to find him again.
B: Your finished pieces are impressively sized and obsessively detailed. One thing that is inevitable with that kind of work are mistakes in the pattern. After grooving out so many tiny details, some lines will go off course and you have to learn to live with them. Can you talk about that process and whether or not it came naturally to you?
n: Ever since I was a child in Japan learning to live with mistakes has been an intentional part of my artwork. Japanese Masters tend to purposefully strive for some imperfection, as it is the height of ego and hubris to believe they can create perfection.
When I first moved to New York in '76 I used to do a lot of drawing while on the subway. I enjoyed it because all of the jostling made my lines go in directions I could not plan for, therefore I had to learn to make a drawing I did not initially conceive. This always kept everything fresh and alive. It also meant I had to continually challenge myself to adapt and evolve, never resting on my laurels.
B: I can see that clearly illustrated in your work The Collective Behavior of Fermions Disemboguing. How did that piece become a series of stacked layers?
n: I had been envisioning layered pieces for a while. This was a beautiful part of a tree that looked like a river and an over sized aerial map of Manhattan. As much as I liked it as individual drawings in three panels it kept talking to me about layering itself. When I tried it out several people came in the studio and liked it that way. That convinced me to listen to the nature of the piece and stack it.
n: As I was putting it together one panel fell over and broke. Which according to my philosophy should work out better for me if I remain flexible enough. Putting it on as the top layer, accentuating the split sections, both fit the composition better and spoke more to the tunnel aspect of the piece.
n: I don't have many pieces left from my prior years. Each period of loss in my life lead to a major cull and I never had a place to store, or income to rent storage. When I lost my son of all the works I made up to that point I was only able to save a handful, the rest hit the dumpsters (I was broke from the legal battle). When I lost my loft to a fire in Williamsburg, when my business partner stole everything from me, my work got tossed also. So I'm down to just a few pieces after 40 years of manufacturing them.
B: What is the most important thing you've learned about mindset?
n: My mindset is to be flexible, evolutionary, and nonrigid. Too many people become calcified with age. I don't intend to do that. Being an artist for me has always been about expanding my mind, values, and life.
B: Do you follow a routine when you create work or in life to make time for it?
n: Yes. I have to or the work would never get done. 40 hours a week at my job, 35 hours a week in my studio. Which was obviously altered when I spent so much time putting together my recent exhibitions. I would ideally work for 20 hours on weekends and 3 hours or more every night after work, but I still have to walk my dog. Also now that I am so old I need to get six hours of sleep, I can no longer get by on just four or five.
B: What is the simplist thing you do that has the greatest impact on your life?
n: Work hard, long hours. I know that there are so many artists who are more talented, better skilled, more social and better connected than I am. The only thing I have going for me is the ability to focus and work harder than others around me.
B: Your large works on display for Bushwick Open Studios are all about underground subways and tunneling ants, alluding to the hive like activity that city dwellers are often stuck in. What influenced you to make this a primary subject for your work?
n: This is actually just very straightforward and direct. I want my artwork to connect with people. These are lives that we all experience in our daily routine here in the city. These are our common emotions and realities that bind us together. I also do these images with people in attempt to better understand and relate to them. Obviously from my history it's apparent I let the wrong ones get too close.
B: You use a Dremel rotary tool to carve out lines in big sheets of plexiglass. What inspired you to start doing this? What do you call this kind of technique?
n: It started because I have always been a builder and a sculptor using tools in everything I do. Originally, I had been making a series of paintings on hollow core doors, into which I had been carving shapes and lines with a router, taking advantage of the three dimensional aspect of the surface. One of those paintings required me to have a panel that was transparent and so I just bought a piece of plexiglass and utilized it the same way I had been using the doors.
This eventually led me to remove everything except the plexiglass and the lines. I chose a Dremel because it is capable of making very fine lines. I just call it carving, drawing into plexiglass. It is about the line in the plexiglass stopping the light so that the negative is what is cast upon the wall. It is more about the memory of the line.
And now, the story I know you've been waiting for:
n: Needless to say the kidnapping totally destroyed my life. I lost my job at Columbia as I could not show my work anymore as I could not make it. Art, which had always been my life, meant nothing compared to the enormity of my concerns for my son. The police had no leads and I had no cash for the private investigators who could make no promises. I had Kit's picture tattooed on my right shoulder as it was the only way to keep him close. I chased away lovers and friends by my obsessive talking about Kit. Sleep, peace of mind, and the ability to focus on my life were lost to me.
Five years ago I went to work for Judy Pfaff, an old friend and colleague from Columbia, who was building a sculpture for the Philadelphia Convention Center. When Kit had been born she bought him a stuffed bear as a present, wrapping it in paper she made. After I seperated from my wife I took the bear and she kept the paper. On the job I did what I always did and regaled the strangers on the crew with my story, showed them his tattoo, etc.
Then Sept. 11, 2000 I received a call from Heather Moore who had been on the sculpture crew with me. She told me she thought she had found my son.
Heather had retold my story at a family gathering in Chicago and surprisingly her aunt said that a few years earlier she had hired a woman who claimed to be on the run from an abusive husband, had 2 fake names, a fake social security number, and a young son who when born had received a teddy bear from Judy Pfaff. That same woman had also told her aunt she was living in a Mennonite commune in Evanston.
Heather said her aunt knew my story, just from the other side.
Oh yes. That very special teddy from Judy Pfaff was norton’s best clue, and it led a relative stranger to connect both sides of his story ten years after the kidnapping. I’m going to leave you at this amazing cliffhanger to think about the sheer improbability of that.
Part 2 coming next week, where you'll get a look inside norton's studio and see his massive new work in progress. You'll also find out how his search ends.
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