William Norton on Battling Depression Through Art

Written by Deianira Tolema

William Norton‘s fascination into the spiritual cult of the artist spans decades. Having spent his formative years in Japan, the artist has grown particularly intuned to both Eastern and Western influences. Using drawing and carving to draw out the Shamanistic potential of art, Norton has for years been using his art to cope with personal trauma and depression. In an exclusive interview with D/Railed’s founder and editor-in-chief Deianira Tolema, the artist comes out to talk about how these and other experiences have shaped his practice.

Norton, Ghosts in the Machine 2 (Spring), 2015-16, Courtesy the Artist

Deianira Tolema: You obtained a Bachelor’s Degree of Fine Arts from the Austin’s University of Texas and a Master’s Degree of Fine Art at the Columbia University, and you worked as art handler for the Whitney Museum of American Art and Director of Installations at the PS1/MoMA Contemporary Art Center. How did your mostly American-centered education inform your intellectual and spiritual path versus how much this path was influenced by your frequent trips to Japan and the Asian culture?

William Norton: I also was a Professor of Steel Sculpture at Columbia for 10 years, from which I was granted my MFA. Because I taught graduate students for so many years they gave me my degree, I never schooled for my MFA.

Having grown-up the child of military parents I traveled the world in my youth. Having lived in Japan for three years between the ages of 8 and 11 my artistic path was set and formed by what I saw and absorbed at that early age. I already recognized that American culture was incredibly lacking in beauty, grace, soul. The Japanese approach to everything visual was imbued with the spirit of the artist’s hand in ways I never found in my own culture.
My family, though not artistically inclined, still took us to major cultural sites around the world. By high school I had visited the Hermitage in Russia, been to museums and sites in London, Pompeii, Ephesus, Rome, Thailand, Germany.

Works by Norton, Courtesy the Artist

Norton, Writing the Weather, 2010-14, Courtesy the Artist

The American education was hard for me to absorb as my last 2 years of High School had been in Izmir, Turkey. I’d seen the Grand Mosque in Istanbul, gone to Israel and seen the religious centers there. The American art that I understood best was Rothko, Rauschenberg and Pollock. Not Warhol or Johns. I never found being ironic or coolly intellectually evasive satisfying. It took me years to integrate my visual knowledge with the learned knowledge from my education. I’m still more drawn to artists like Michael David than most art currently on view in many galleries today.

DT: In one of your emails to me, you mentioned that, to create your works, you also took inspiration from popularized books on physics and fractals such as, “A Brief History of Time” by Steven Hawkins, comparative world religion and history, and even science fiction. Do you think the above-mentioned references are obvious, or hidden to the viewers’ eyes? Have you also been influenced by other artists that you may have idealized and/or perceived as mentors?

WN: Probably not directly accessible to the viewers. The scientific reading was mostly to inform my own palette. The layering of images I’ve done has been an absorption of the reading on fractals.
The comparative religious readings I delved into after my son’s kidnapping (his mother having attacked me through religious impersonations) became more direct in the carvings for “Myth of Natural Selection” and “Creation Theorie”. In “Myth of Natural Selection” I painted warriors and priests on battle boats clashing with their gods in their hands. The victors and survivors create the successful fictional God. I used the overlaying of large Plexiglass sheets to fractally represent the repetition of history and by painting on the doors it allows the viewer to consider opening and passing into the work.

Norton, The Boy Who Drew Cats, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

In my recent shadow pieces I’m still wrestling with religion. “Writing the Weather ” has people on an exterior staircase. For me the staircase is the passage between heaven and hell with the landings our current status. It’s the journey into and through Dantes Inferno, the Roman crossing the River Styx. The people on the landing are viewing birds in flight (Icarus) as the others are passing up and down.

The “Ghosts in the Machine” series is also confronting the same issues. The Subway is both hell and purgatory. You descend into the passages that take you to your destination on this plane, but your passage is dirty, noisy, crowded and crumbling. We become just ghosts of our desires and dreams while experiencing the unpleasant reality of this passage. I shot the hundreds of photos I used to composite the images. Each figure represented is lost in their own ghost reality, not interacting with the others around them. We’re each locked in our own private hells as opposed to reaching out and letting community salve our wounds.

I believe strongly in community and extended family. The last three years of finding exhibitions for all of my dear friends has built a stronger network of community. We are stronger together than we are separately. And this generosity of spirit is something that is much more necessary in the art world, in the world in general. I’ve given up a lot of my time and energy locating, sourcing, hustling venues and proposing exhibitions so that I can extend the visual reach of those who are important to me. And they are giving back in kind. My next curatorial excursion again includes many of my dearest, most talented and generous friends. I have also been able to includes 4  local powerful and talented artist/gallerists into this exhibition. My friends’ profiles get raised with every exhibition I find.

Norton, The Boy Who Drew Cats, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

My influences were Rauschenberg for his constant inventiveness and willingness to live in the unpredictable moment of a fiery creation.
Monet for his beautiful eyes.

Van Gogh for his wealth of life in each brushstroke.

DT: In your statement about your work as well as in your cv, you pointed out how the disappearance of your son in 1990 strongly influenced the direction of your work from that moment on, yet according to your resume your first relevant exhibition dates to 1976: is that when you finally switched from “CEO to shaman”?

NW: I stated showing early. My first NY exhibitions were in the early 80’s. My first solo shows were with Harm Bouckaert Gallery in Tribeca in 1982 when I was still making 3D paintings.
I then started teaching Steel Sculpture at Columbia.

Things got derailed in 1990 when my son disappeared. I’d spent a year battling for him, disproving allegations of Satanic sex abuse etc from his mother. When that Insane person disappeared with my son my concern and fear for my son overtook my life. I’d spent a fortune fighting for him so I came back to New York completely broke. I had to start over from zero. And I  eventually lost my job at Columbia because I was no longer a working professional artist. I could not really make art for 3 or 4 years, I was in too much pain and the existential crisis as to the value of my artistic life was extreme.

A new work by Norton, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

I have always been more Shaman than CEO. I don’t believe in delegating the artistic process to minions. You can’t delegate soul or spirit. My work was always imbued with the vital need to inject my spirit in my work, and the work into my spirit.

I never work with a concrete plan. More of a process. I understand where I want to go in my work. But I have to be living it in the moment at all times in order to follow the direction it takes me. Something I learned growing up in Japan.

DT: The surface of your work is tortured, caught in a long-lasting, self-repeating agony – even the rhetorical figures imbued with references to the medieval dolce stil novo such as, “Geisha Gamin’”, 1999 end up expressing a kind of tormented imperfection dictated by the obsessive-compulsive mental introjections of one of the circular pavement in motion of Garaham Vick’s version of Alban Berg’s Lulu; it’s like rather than your carving tools, you were holding the interiors of an animal and staring at it covered in dirt: do you identify yourself in this latent darkness – barely whispered, yet only given a rest in works such as, “Complex Life, 1999”, Leda and the Swan, or Swing Theory?

NW: Unfortunately yes. Too much so. The pain of losing my son twice still infects my daily life. I can live with it, I can accept it, but I can’t stop hurting. My son is lost to darkness in ways that I should’ve been able to protect him from.  But I wasn’t able to.

 I still live with the emotional pain. My spirit animal is the wolf caught with his paw in the steel hunters trap. He is forced to gnaw off his foot to escape.

Norton, The Boy Who Drew Cats, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

I’ve had to rebuild my life seven times now from zero. It’s hard to remain an optimist under the circumstances. When my son first disappeared I came back to New York with nothing. Built a loft which burned down. So I was on the street again. Spent three years building a new life by building a series of rental lofts to stabilize my income and be able to afford to make my work. Which I was only able to do for the next two years after that because I found my son. I had just started showing again. Had two small galleries, five good shows, good press, all lost in the next ensuing 18-month long battle. Which again put me six figures in debt.  Again only to then lose the other battle against me by my (literally) mobster landlord and lose all of my home, studio and income again. From there I rebuilt some money and then proceeded to get stolen from by a friend of 17 years, who also then left me deeply in debt. I am a bad judge of character. But I still believe in going forward and helping my friends.

Right now, I have enough discipline to get up every morning and fight depression, go earn a living, and come home and work in the studio every night and all day all weekend. Hustle and curate new shows. Make the work. But not enough discipline to properly battle the darkness. Not enough discipline to also choose happiness. But I am an artist. I make the work because I have to. I will not let the battles destroy me, only delay me. And I won’t do it alone. I’m bringing my friends with me.

Norton, Kameyama Triennial, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

DT: Your early works were more gestural, emotional, whereas in your latest works – for instance, Ghosts in the Machines, 2014 –, the line is aseptic, over-controlled, thus emotionally detached from yourself, the viewers, and even the surface itself: has your scream for help and justice turned into a public display of how you re-gained your inner strength, and what are the unspoken taboos that artists are required to either emphasize or silent when translating feelings into art?

NW: Part of this is due to present circumstances. When my friend I was in business with decided to steal my money and put me in debt to the government I had to downsize one more time. Right now my studio is small. My finances are small. My storage facilities are small. So I had to focus on what was possible. I could not spread myself in all the directions I normally go. I don’t have room, or finances, to add paint and other materials. I decided to be singularly disciplined in my work. Work only on the line. Force myself into one image for one year. The loneliness and isolation of that effort is visible in the work. But yes I removed the gesturally emotive content. I worked only in the shadows that are cast upon the wall. The shadows which are representative of my life.I believe there are no taboos in how an artist should express themselves. The success or failure of that expression is a different story.And  these works do display my resilience and belief in the sacred in art. I committed myself to an entire year on a piece that is too large for me to sell. Almost impossible to exhibit. And yet I have managed to find venues to exhibit both of these large works. And the strength I gained from building those works sustains me now.

DT: Art is oftentimes an extension of creative individuals’ personal lives, and as such it can certainly be used to reach catharsis and ultimately enlightenment, however, what did you come up to antagonistically step in front of your colleagues and stand out in today’s crowd of literally thousands of contemporary artists who are trying to achieve your same goals in the same manner?

NW: I don’t stand antagonistically against anyone. I believe in my own work and in the work of those around me who are also talented. What I have done to separate myself from the crowd is to believe in community. I Believe in generosity. I Believe in finding a way to help those around me. I have a bigger mouth, and a greater need to succeed as I have lost everything so many times. As Alanna Heiss of MoMA/PS1 said to me when she came to my current exhibit “Life on Other Planets”, I do what I do because “I have nothing left to lose”. She admires what I have done getting everybody these exhibitions. She knows my drive (and life story) from when I used to work for her as her Director of Exhibitions. And she’s completely right, I don’t have anything left to lose. I have no money, no savings, almost no life time left. Therefore I have to get it done now. I will not stop. And I will not be alone in the process. I don’t believe in the selfish artistic vision of the artists who are in it just for themselves. My Art is in my community. My community is in my art.

The Boy Who Drew Cats, Illustration, Courtesy the Artist

DT: How have art critics been reacting, over time, to your art-world appearances? Anyone of notice who may have nailed the key conceptual/aesthetic elements of your research more than others?

NW: The response has been very positive and Ann Landi of Vasari21 has been very generous and clear about my work.

DT: You just had two exhibitions going on: “Life on Other Planets” at the Re Institute of Millerton, NY – a two person show with Chris Ketchie, which took about three YEARS to come together –, and the Kameyama Triennial in Mie Prefecture, Japan, where everything revolved around the tale, “The Boy who Drew Cats”. Can you please tell me about both shows, and how they relate to one another, if they do?

NW: This exhibition actually took 3 years to come to fruition with Chris Ketchie. I started this round of curating October three years ago so that I could find a show where it would just be the two of us. His work is also on a grand scale (too large to just casually find an exhibition for, or even sell. These are labors of love and intent), and he too has strong Asian influences. Both individually and in the construction process. He injects his soul into every piece he does. This latest large scale piece of his is 10 feet tall by 24 feet long and was created out of 1000 individually hand painted wooden blocks.

 As it happens I was only able to start curating if I showed everybody that I knew working at the museum. That was a story people wanted to hear. And since that time I have continued on that route, expanding the people I exhibit beyond the museum personnel to include talented artists from around the world. And even when I’ve been offered solo shows to curate for myself I have turned those down so that I can still propel the vision of all those around me in group shows. The Re Institute exhibition is the fruits of their reciprocal generosity panning out. I did not curate this show. I wanted this exhibit but Joshua Rosenblatt (another talented artist, who I work for at the Whitney, and whom I have shown several times now),  suggested, then insisted to the director of the Re Institute that I get the show with Chris Ketchie. Chris Ketchie and Joshua both generously carried the ball on this one. I was too tired from all the shows I had just completed to do it. Chris Ketchie also used his finely honed eye to place the entire exhibition. We don’t compete Against each other, only With each other to help ourselves improve.

As I said I am constantly expanding the field in my exhibitions to include others that I know outside of the museum world. I received an offer for this exhibition in Kameyama partly because I had included Cake Hara, a very talented artist who lives in Kyoto and is an artist I had known when I worked at PS1, in the exhibition at the Williamsburg Art&Historical Center in March of this year, “Building Bridges Not Walls”. He asked if I wanted to participate in this exhibition he spent the last year and a half developing and curating in Japan. So of course I said yes. (I am once again reciprocating by including a larger piece of his excellent work in my next curatorial excursion in November “Making Their Mark”.) (This is Not a case of reciprocity, it’s not about you help me I’ll help you. We each give not expecting or asking for anything in return. We all just give when we can as we can) At which point it became important to me personally to create works based on where I became an artist and why I became an artist. Japan.

The Japanese folk fable “The Boy Who Drew Cats” resonated with me completely as a young boy when I read it in Japan. I was small, delicate, and introverted. Constantly moving around in the military every two or three years made it difficult to build long-term friendships. I withdrew a lot into my art. (I will send photos of the pages) This boy’s Art saved his life and I was that boy.

The Boy Who Drew Cats, Illustration, Courtesy the Artist

So I became very excited to bring my life full circle twice. With Chris Ketchie I brought my recent forays into curating and exhibiting full circle and we finally had our two person exhibition.
By going to Japan I could bring my entire life full circle, going back to where I became an artist.
I was still limited by my budget. So I had to concentrate on making works small enough that I could transport in my suitcase. Thereby avoiding the cost of shipping. Working small was difficult for me. Working large scale feels right. But I focused on this. And in a six week period I was able to create over 50 new works of art based upon this story. Most of which I showed upstate in the other exhibition. These also became a catharsis for me in dealing with my son. Because the way I remembered the story the child had been running through a dangerous forest late at night during a very harsh storm. And this was my son running through his life. After learning and understanding the smaller scale I was now allowed to be more free in creating the three-dimensional landscape for these images. I was able to bend and fold the plexiglass in ways I cannot do on a large scale due to lack of facilities. I was able to fold, bend and form the plexiglass so that it would look like torn windblown sheets of paper. Which become reminiscent of memories blowing in the wind. They are also indicative of the shoji screens the cats came off of to fight the demons and save the boy’s life.

I also brought raw cut outs of the images of demons and cats with me. Once I understood the environment of the historic Samurai dwelling the exhibition takes place in, I formed them on site.

DT: If you could conclude this interview with an imaginary question asked to you by either your followers or your detractors, what would that be, and how would you answer?

NW: “How can you believe in the Value of Art in these turbulent times? Global Warming, the Rise of Fascism, the constant imminent threat of war, the Refugees Crisis, etc? Isn’t art just an elitist escape into fantasy?”

Art can be the world’s soul, one that connects across borders, cultures, ethnicities, religions and cultures. As I have been managing to do on a very small local scale it brings people together. It can build community. It can bring hope. Most of these people that I’ve been exhibiting do their work in isolation. Too often without recognition, or discussion even with their peers. Our world moves at much too frantic a pace, especially in New York. All of these artists have been creating new and more vital works since they started exhibiting in these last 3 years. They have opened communications and friendships with other artists of like minds they had not met previously.

They now support, love and respect each other on a personal basis.

We can do this around the world.
But we have to start small, within our own communities.
We have to start realistically, while recognizing that every little glimmer of hope and communication is important.

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