Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Independent Spirit—Emile Norman

Above: Artist Emile Norman, and his partner, Brooks Clement, circa late 1950's.

In the 1980’s while in college, Mr. Peacock stayed with a friend in Berkeley, California for a month during the holiday break. Almost every day when my friend was in school, I would ride the subway into San Francisco and wander around the city for hours.

During one jaunt I ended up at the top of Nob Hill, standing on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I stared at a huge modern looking building across the street—the San Francisco Masonic Temple (see above). I had no idea what it was, but I was immediately drawn to the carved figures on the facade (see details shown below).

I walked around the perimeter of the building and entered the temple. A security guard began speaking to me, but I didn’t hear a word he said, I was transfixed on this huge glorious mural. The light was shining through and it was breathtaking. Then I began asking the guard questions, “What is this…” He told me the Masons commissioned the artist, Emile Norman, to create the luminous 38-by-48-foot mural that celebrates the Masons' role in the development of California. I thought to myself, “Who is Emile Norman!?”

After my holiday break, I tried to research Emile Norman, but didn’t have much luck. Finally in 2007, all my questions about Emile Norman were answered as I watched the documentary, Emile Norman: By His Own Design. I was in awe at the extraordinary life and talent of this gentleman peacock whose work I had admired for so many years.

For over 7 decades, this 93-year-old gifted Big Sur based artist, Emile Norman, has dedicated himself to creating art and living his life on his own terms. The documentary was produced by his neighbors, Jill Eikenberry and her husband Michael Tucker (TV’s L.A. Law). In 1991, they had purchased some land from him and became friends, and knew they had to get his life story on film.

This peacock icon grew up on a farm in California. As a youngster, Emile created a sculpture of Prometheus using concrete and broken pieces of his father’s beer bottles. He eventually went to art school, but only for a short visit. “They weren’t teaching me what I needed to know. Art is an individual thing... you can’t learn it from a book.”*

His talent and eye for detail landed him interim jobs as a window dresser in Los Angeles. He was also making innovative creations made of plastics, such as window shades, jewelry (right), dishes and screens. By 1944 he was in New York doing window displays for Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman department store and his jewelry was featured in Vogue magazine.

Above: Emile Norman, circa 1950's—note the Converse sneakers!

Back in California, he got a gig designing elaborate hats for a Fred Astaire dance number in the 1946 production of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. He met his life-partner through serendipity when his new radio stopped working one afternoon. Emile called the store where he purchased it, and requested a repairman. The repairman that showed up was a young fellow named Brooks Clement. He stayed for dinner, and spent the night. Within a few weeks, Clement had quit his job and gone to work as Emile’s manager: “You do the art... I’ll do the rest.”* Clement took care of the business matters and allowed Emile to focus on creating art. They bought land in Big Sur, and built their own house facing the ocean.

Above: Brooks and Emile, circa 1960's, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker.

Their relationship lasted 30 years, until Brooks died of cancer in 1973. Emile and Clement were outgoing, actively involved with their community and always open about their relationship—the two men made a great couple, a rarity for the times. They were so close that before Clement's death, the neighbors nicknamed them "Clemile." Just before Brooks passed away, he told Emile he didn't know where he was going, but assured him that wherever it was, "I'll get you a job in the art department.''

Above: Some examples of Emile's intricate inlaid wood pieces.

Emile’s most challenging commission, the mural at the Masonic Temple of San Francisco, took about two years to complete. This gentleman loves to experiment and try new ways of making things. Using an innovative technique he invented and called "endomosaic''—he sandwiched images made with glass, fabric, metal, shells and dirt between two sheets of translucent plastic to create the panels for the 40” x 45” clear mural at the Masonic Temple entrance.

He used Masonic symbols like the trowel, the compass and square, the beehive and a giant, and the all-seeing eye to dramatically tell the Masonic stories. The success of this incredible mural, led to a second commission to produce the Italian marble sculpture that decorates the building’s facade.

Everyone hopes to live a long and eventful life filled with love and friends, doing work that you’re passion about it. Mr. Norman did just that, and always facing his challenges and projects with such an unflappable spirit—and he still makes art!

Above: A couple of pieces from Emile's current projects—Nature Poems.

If you haven’t seen the documentary, Emile Norman: By His Own Design, request your local PBS station to add it to their schedule, or purchase a copy here. Mr. Norman claims that he has never worked a day in his life, yet has spent most of his time in the studio. Stop by Emile’s website to find out more about this extraordinary gentleman and to see more of his work.

Above: Emile Norman at the San Francisco Masonic Temple in 2005. Mr. Peacock loves his dapper lavender themed outfit—including his Converse sneakers! Photo by Liz Hafalia.

If I’m in the Nob Hill neighborhood, I still make a pilgrimage to the Masonic Temple and admire Emile Norman’s masterpiece work and think about his life. Mr. Peacock salutes Emile Norman for his talent, and also for living his life on his own terms with grace and style. Thank you Emile Norman! * Quotes from the documentary, Emile Norman: By His Own Design.


jason said...

Wow...just wonderful! Thank you for this.

Mr. Bluehaunt said...

LOVE HIM.....I must see the movie.

david john said...

wonderful post. you have such a beautiful way of compiling and writing!


Anonymous said...

I am watching a documentary now about Emile and Brooks. Great story! Thank you! Linda out of Oakland, CA

Salsaram said...

I live in SF and had never heard of Mr. Norton. They happened to play the documentary last night on PBS (after the documentary of Sam Cooke) and I loved it! What a wonderful man and I will go visit the Masonic Temple to see this incredible piece of art. Thank you for this great tribute that you have done on your website!

Anonymous said...

Just saw the PBS documentary last night. My partner and I are celebrating 20 years together summer. Looking forward to 30! Richard and Lynn.

rbrush said...

i just saw the documenrary, for the second time, last night. what amazing men they both were. it's sad that clement had to die so young, but they had 30 wonderful years together and, as emile said, some people don't have 30 minutes together. i'd like to visit theur home in big sur and the gallery in carmel if i ever get back to that area. great documentary. i'll watch it again if it is on again. programs like this are why we should continue, and increase, funding to pbs and npr. without them, programs like this wouldn't be seen.